WASHINGTON – Preparing for a worst-case scenario in Yemen, the United States is building a secret CIA air base in the Persian Gulf region to target al-Qaida terrorists there, in case anti-American factions win the current power struggle and shut U.S. forces out, The Associated Press has learned.
The White House has already increased the numbers of CIA officers in Yemen, in anticipation of that possibility. And it has stepped up the schedule to construct the base, from a two-year timetable to a rushed eight months.
The Associated Press has withheld the exact location of the base at the request of U.S. officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because portions of the military and CIA missions in Yemen are classified.
The current campaign is run by a military counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command, with the CIA providing intelligence support. JSOC forces have been allowed by the Yemeni government of Ali Abdullah Saleh to conduct limited strikes there since 2009. Saleh loyalists have recently allowed expanded strikes by U.S. armed drones and even war planes against al-Qaida targets who are taking advantage of civil unrest to grab power and territory in the country.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said last week that agency officers were working in Yemen together with JSOC, as well as other areas where al-Qaida is active.
But the CIA would not confirm the White House decision to build the CIA base or expand the agency's operations in Yemen.
The new base suggests a long-term U.S. commitment to fighting al-Qaida in the region, along the lines of the model used in Pakistan, where CIA drones hunt militants with tacit, though not public, Pakistani government approval. Drones like Reapers and Predators are unmanned aircraft that can be flown from remote locations and hover over a target before firing a missile.
Yemeni officials have indicated their preference toward drones, versus allowing U.S. counterterror strike teams on Yemeni soil, saying they are less apt to incense the local population. But the new base would enable continued operations without Yemeni approval.
If the Yemenis halt cooperation with U.S. counterterrorist forces that would also likely mean a shift to putting the CIA in charge of the al-Qaida hunting mission in Yemen, senior U.S. officials said.
While that policy debate plays out in Washington, U.S. special operations forces based just outside Yemen are taking aim almost daily at a greater array of targets that have been flushed into view by the unrest. U.S. forces have stepped up their targeting as well, because of the besieged Yemeni government's new willingness to allow U.S. forces to use all tools available — from armed drones to war planes — against al-Qaida as a way to stay in power, the U.S. officials said.
The U.S. needs to keep the pressure on, to break al-Qaida's momentum there, the State Department's counterterror coordinator, Daniel Benjamin, said Tuesday. There are growing concerns that AQAP will use the chaos to acquire more weapons, and also to fuel connections between al-Qaida-linked militants there and al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia, he added.
The Obama administration has been working for months in concert with the mediation efforts of Yemen's Gulf neighbors to persuade Saleh to transfer power. Saleh was evacuated for emergency medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after being injured more than a week ago. U.S. experts believe he was hit by explosive devices planted in the presidential mosque, while the Yemenis say he was struck in a rocket attack.
The U.S. has continued to press for a deal in the hope that a political solution could pre-empt any plan by the Yemeni leader of 33 years to return. That, officials fear, could lead to further instability.
Benjamin said he is hopeful that counterterrorism efforts will continue in Yemen, as the political transition moves along and a new government takes hold.
But another U.S. official said Yemeni opposition groups have voiced criticism of the U.S. counterterror program and vowed to stop it, should they take power.
Since 2009, Yemen has allowed JSOC to employ a mixture of armed and unarmed drones, ship-fired missiles, small special operations teams working with Yemenis, and occasional war plane bombing runs, Yemeni and U.S. officials say. But permission was on a case-by-case basis, and waxed and waned depending on the mood of the mercurial Yemeni president.
With al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula essentially in control of large swaths of Yemeni territory, the Yemeni government now hopes U.S. targeting will remove some of the enemies threatening the Saleh regime. That new target-at-will attitude was reinforced after the attempt on Saleh's life, both U.S. and Yemeni officials say.
The U.S. forces are also taking advantage of the fact that more al-Qaida operatives are exposing themselves as they move from their hideouts across the country to command troops challenging the government.
That has led to the arrests of al-Qaida operatives by Yemeni forces, guided by U.S. intelligence intercepts, and those operatives are talking under joint U.S.-Yemeni interrogation, providing key information on al-Qaida operations and locations, U.S. officials said.
That in turn led to the best opportunity in more than a year to hit U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in early May. A host of technical difficulties meant three separate attempts, by two types of unmanned armed drone-craft and war planes all failed, prompting some grousing among intelligence agencies that CIA-led strikes might net better results.
But the CIA has neither the drones nor the personnel to take the lead in the operation at present, two officials say.
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had long urged al-Qaida not to directly challenge Saleh but to keep Yemen as a haven from which to launch attacks against the United States, while AQAP leaders argued that they should overthrow with Yemeni government. A record of that debate between bin Laden and the Yemeni al-Qaida leadership was found among the records at the compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces May 2.
U.S. Bin Laden warned the Yemeni offshoot that its leaders would be targeted more aggressively and easily if they tried to take power, just as they are now, the officials said.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.
Intelligence writer Kimberly Dozier can be reached via Twitter on (at)kimberlydozier.