The site of a US drone strike that targeted suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen in August. Photo: Reuters
LONDON: The CIA is secretly using an airbase in Saudi Arabia to conduct its controversial drone assassination campaign in neighbouring Yemen, according to reports in the US media.
Neither the Saudi government nor the country's media have responded to the reports revealing that the drones that killed the US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his son in September 2011 and Saeed al-Shehri, a senior al-Qaeda commander who died from his injuries last month, were launched from the unnamed base.
Iranian state media highlighted the story, which is also likely to be seized upon by jihadi groups. Saudi Arabia has previously denied co-operating with the US to target al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Saeed al-Shehri ... the drone strike that killed him reportedly originated from a secret Saudi base. Photo: AFP
On Thursday the architect of the drone program, John Brennan, appears before the US Senate for a confirmation hearing to become the CIA director.
The drone issue is sensitive in Saudi Arabia because of the unpopularity of US military bases, which were thought to have been largely removed after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Saudi Arabia is home to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the continued presence of US troops after the 1991 Gulf war was one of the stated motivations behind al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks on Semptember 11, 2001, and the Khobar Towers bombing five years earlier.
The 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania took place eight years to the day after US troops were first sent to the kingdom. Osama bin Laden interpreted the prophet Muhammad as banning the "permanent presence of infidels in Arabia".
The last significant US military presence was at the King Sultan airbase in Khobar in the eastern province. The forces there were moved to Qatar.
The revelation is unlikely to make significant waves inside the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has no independent media but there is no sympathy for the jihadis of al-Qaeda targeted in Yemen. Saudi Arabia conducted its own successful campaign against al-Qaeda, in effect destroying it by 2004. Its remnants moved to Yemen and formed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps the most active of the group's "franchises".
"These planes are unmanned so there will not be the same impact as when American planes were flying from the Prince Sultan base," said Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. "No one will say that the Americans are occupying the country.
"I don't think people care about this any more. Generally it is accepted in the region that the planes operated by the Americans are not doing a bad job taking out al-Qaeda leaders. There is no sympathy with al-Qaeda except a very small minority. Even in Yemen – apart from the collateral damage where civilians lose their life – there is no objection to this type of operation.
"It has been rumoured for years that drones were taking off from the Arabian peninsula so this is not shocking news except for the Iranians and jihadis. Otherwise it is not going register in public opinion."
US government requests to American media to refrain from disclosing the location of the CIA base were made in part because it could damage counter-terrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.
Guardian News & Media