Drone Basing Revelation Underscores Strong Defense and Security Bonds

Published: February 7, 2013

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Patrick W. Ryan | SUSRIS

The strength of the defense and security relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia was highlighted this week with new reports about expanded cooperation in countering Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants through the use of armed, remotely piloted aircraft based in the Kingdom. The information, which had been protected by several media outlets, came out as long simmering criticism of the strategy, tactics and legality of using U.S. drones to attack terrorists, especially American citizens among them, came to a head with disclosure of a secret Justice Department memo and in anticipation of today’s confirmation hearing for White House counter terror advisor John Brennan to be Director of the CIA. Brennan, who previously served as CIA station chief in Riyadh, is the principal US official behind the secretive drone program that has become a main element of the American war against Al Qaeda.

“…[American officials] describe an arrangement that has evolved since the frantic, ad hoc early days of America’s war [in Yemen]. The first strike in Yemen ordered by the Obama administration, in December 2009, was by all accounts a disaster. American cruise missiles carrying cluster munitions killed dozens of civilians, including many women and children. Another strike, six months later, killed a popular deputy governor, inciting angry demonstrations and an attack that shut down a critical oil pipeline. Not long afterward, the C.I.A. began quietly building a drone base in Saudi Arabia to carry out strikes in Yemen. American officials said that the first time the C.I.A. used the Saudi base was to kill Mr. Awlaki in September 2011…” [Drone Strikes’ Risks to Get Rare Moment in the Public Eye – NYTimes.com]

Video Report on “America’s Secret Drone War”

The New York Times and Washington Post broke their self-imposed silence to discuss the drone basing arrangement. It was reported as early as 2011 by the Washington Post but the role of Saudi Arabia was subsequently protected. This week Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple assembled an insightful report on the “informal arrangement” among media – The New York Times, The Washington Post and AP – and the U.S. Government to protect the location of the Arabian Peninsula drone base.  Wemple blogged yesterday that Washington Post reporters Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung provided background on the disclosure:

The Washington Post had refrained from disclosing the location at the request of the administration, which cited concern that exposing the facility would undermine operations against an al-Qaeda affiliate regarded as the network’s most potent threat to the United States, as well as potentially damage counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.”

However, Miller reported, with Craig Whitlock, in the Washington Post in September 2011, that, “The CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones over Yemen.” Other media were providing similar reports in 2011 including the Times (UK):

“The CIA has set up a network of secret drone bases in Arab states in a major intensification of its campaign against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen. Sources in the Gulf say that the agency is now massed along Yemen’s borders, launching daily missions with unmanned Predator aircraft from bases in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates.”

The current controversy is centered on the Obama Administration’s targeting of Americans using armed drones, especially in light of the leaked Justice Department memo. The case in question is the 2011 drone attack in Yemen that killed Anwar Awlaki, a US citizen who became a key Al Qaeda leader. That attack was the first lethal use of a Saudi-based American drone according to US officials cited by The New York Times.

A Legacy of Engagement

Apart from the U.S. domestic controversy, the report of Saudi cooperation with US counter terrorism efforts is consistent with the long history of collaboration between the partners in the areas of defense and security. It stretches back to the earliest days of the relationship and forms a key element of Riyadh-Washington ties. Defense cooperation in the earlier days of the relationship were built on understandings such as the Truman pledge of 1950, that was carried forward by subsequent administrations, noted Ambassador Parker Hart, in his book “Saudi Arabia and the United States: Birth of a Security Partnership”:

“Faisal and Kennedy had but one encounter, on October 5, 1962. They never again met face-to-face. Nonetheless, the indelible impression each made upon the other was positive… …Kennedy reaffirmed the Truman pledge of 1950 that any threat to the independence and integrity of Saudi Arabia would be a matter of deep and immediate concern to the US government, which would take measures to counter such a threat.”

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Defense and security cooperation continued in many spheres including the U.S. commitment to military assistance – arms sales, logistics support, and training – across the board in ground, naval and air forces. These included creation of the US Military Training Mission to work with Saudi armed forces and the Office of the Program Manager to work with the Saudi Arabian National Guard. In more recent years the U.S. has supported creation of the OPM-FSF, the Facilities Security Force, a 35,000-man force to provide additional protection to internal infrastructure in the Kingdom.

There was, of course, no greater example of the cooperation, coordination and commitment between the United States and Saudi Arabia than the deployment of a half million American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to the Kingdom in 1990 as part of the Operation Desert Shield coalition, deterring Saddam Hussein from extending his invasion of Kuwait into the Eastern Province, and the subsequent fighting alongside one another in Operation Desert Storm to reverse Iraqi aggression. In the aftermath of the Gulf war Saudi Arabia hosted an American air wing in Dhahran and joint task force headquarters near Riyadh to enforce UN resolutions in the Iraqi “No-Fly Zone” and check further Iraqi moves. In 1996 the U.S. air elements were relocated to Prince Sultan Airbase at Al Kharj where they remained until the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 ended the mission requirement for operational U.S. air units in the Kingdom.

The military to military engagement and cooperation was summed up by Dr. Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an exclusive interview with SUSRIS in 2004 (“Why Reforge the U.S. and Saudi Relationship? An Interview with Anthony Cordesman”):

“We do need to recognize that the U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia, which was essentially dominated by air forces, with a limited presence of Patriot surface-to-air missiles, was a source of serious debate and to some extent instability within Saudi Arabia. It was one of the cardinal arguments made by extremists.

“It is a fact that the United States did not ever reach an agreement to have bases in Saudi Arabia and went into Saudi Arabia basically to defend it and to liberate Kuwait. But, we have to bear in mind the fact that when the Iraq War occurred, Saudi Arabia did provide a great deal of cooperation with the United States. It allowed U.S. Special Forces units to operate out of Arar. While U.S. troops and their units were no longer operating actively in the country they still flew other kinds of support missions extensively during the Iraq War. The command and control for some of these that the U.S. created outside Riyadh were used to a great degree. There was airborne refueling and overflight rights. Basically, while Saudi Arabia did not allow the U.S. to use its bases formally, it cooperated virtually in every other way.

“Now, today, the United States has no combat forces in Saudi Arabia, but it still plays a vital advisory role. Saudi Arabia uses U.S. military equipment. A lot of that equipment is still in delivery or is still being absorbed by Saudi forces. Saudi Arabia would find much of that equipment impossible to use if it could not make use of U.S. military advice. It needs the kind of expertise that the U.S. can provide to improve its training standards, to improve its readiness and to move its forces forward to become the kind of forces that can actively defend the Kingdom. It also has good reason to see the U.S. presence in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman as a basic shield between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which seems to be acquiring nuclear weapons and as a way of protecting the Kingdom if Iraq does not move forward towards a more stable and more friendly state.

“These are realities where the Kingdom benefits from the U.S. role, and the U.S. obviously benefits from the stability of Saudi Arabia and the knowledge that in an emergency the cooperation we saw in the Iraq War would probably be repeated again.

“But, it doesn’t mean that the United States has to have an active military presence in Saudi Arabia in essentially peacetime or that we need to go back to the kind of relationships we had immediately after the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was one of the largest military powers in the developing world. Iraqi military forces, despite all that happened in the Gulf War, totalled hundreds of thousands of men, and they still had very large armored forces and a very large number of combat aircraft. The fact that threat is gone has helped, but for all the reasons I’ve outlined earlier, it’s scarcely eliminated every threat that calls for U.S. and Saudi cooperation.”

The secrecy surrounding the drone basing arrangement points to the obvious sensitivity of intelligence and counter terrorism work but also the penchant for Riyadh to avoid the limelight in taking credit for support. In the case of intelligence cooperation, “The Kingdom has been cooperating with the United States for decades,” according to Prince Turki Al Faisal, former Director of Saudi Intelligence in an exclusive SUSRIS interview in 2010. US-Saudi collaboration over activities in Yemen is not a new feature of the relationship as evidenced by the reference he made without getting too specific:

“Yemen, which is in the news lately, was a perfect example. Back at the time South Yemen was a Marxist regime under the guidance of the Soviets it was doing harm in North Yemen. In those days there was the exchange of information on both sides that helped in certain instances prevent or overcome or challenge some of the difficulties that were on both sides, whether it was Saudi interests that were being affected, or American interests.

Al Qaeda regional leader Anwar Awlaki was an American citizen killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

The need to bring counterterrorism cooperation to bear in the case of Yemen may be due in part to the successes both the United States and Saudi Arabia have had in their individual battles against Al Qaeda. The U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom, the post-9/11 war on terrorism, was successful in dislodging and disrupting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Southwest Asia. The Saudi counterterrorism program launched in response to Al Qaeda’s campaign in the Kingdom that began in 2003 has also been successful in quashing the threat inside the borders. The result was that Al Qaeda regrouped in an unstable Yemen and has since constituted a threat to Saudi Arabia and to the United States. In May 2012 U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told a Congressional committee, “…bringing political stability to Yemen is critical in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Last year’s political crisis allowed AQAP to seize territory in southern Yemen, attract new recruits, and expand its presence. We will continue to provide security and counterterrorism support to combat the common threat of violent extremism…”

In 2009 Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which remained the backbone of militant threats against the Kingdom, launched an assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, then a senior official in the Interior Ministry. He was named Interior Minister in November 2012. In 2011 the Saudi Embassy in Washington summarized counterterrorism cooperation between the U.S. and the Kingdom up to that point:

  • Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have established two Joint Task Forces—one to combat terrorists, another to combat terror financing. Experts from both governments work side-by-side, sharing real-time information about terror networks.
  • The Saudi government has increased the size, training and professionalism of its security forces, which are now seasoned by direct experience in Saudi Arabia. Saudi security forces have trained alongside American counterterrorism forces in the U.S.
  • This experience and training has led to the arrest and conviction of hundreds of wanted terrorists and the destruction of most of the known terrorist cells in the Kingdom.
  • The Saudi-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, a counterterrorism working group created following September 11, 2001, continues to help ensure the governments’ efforts and resources are aligned.
  • This year, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud met with U.S. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan while President Obama met with the Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs Prince Mohammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz. These visits are part of ongoing consultations and exchange of views between the two countries.
  • In October 2010, Saudi intelligence provided key information to American officials that foiled an attempted terrorist plot involving bombs heading to the United States that originated in Yemen. The bombs were found and defused before reaching their targets.

To that list is added the successful interdiction by Saudi intelligence assets of an attack against the U.S. launched from Al Qaeda in Yemen last year. In that case an improved version of the infamous “underwear bomb” was to be used against a U.S. bound aircraft, but the attack was thwarted by a Saudi-born double agent.  The earlier effort, the unsuccessful 2009 Christmas Day “underwear bomb” attack by Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is believed to have been aided by AQAP’s Anwar Awlaki, the first target of a Saudi-based American drone strike.

The recent news reports that American remotely operated aircraft are operating against Al Qaeda targets in Yemen should come as no surprise to those who have followed the close collaboration between the United States and Saudi Arabia over the course of the historic relationship. The revelations may be uncomfortable to those who seek to keep these sensitive operations under wraps but the disclosure underscores the importance of the defense and security cooperation measures between Washington and Riyadh.

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