The United States is building a "secret" CIA air base in the Gulf region as it prepares for a worst-case scenario Yemen, the Associated Press reports.
As the political situation in war-torn Yemen deteriorates, Al Qaeda terrorists are taking advantage of the situation to carve out parts of the traditionally divisive nation for themselves. Meanwhile, US strategists are said to be preparing for the possiblity that anti-US factions would win the current power struggle and shut US forces out.
The White House has reportedly increased the numbers of CIA officers in Yemen in anticipation of that possibility, and has accelerated the schedule to construct the new air-base from two years to eight months.
US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because parts of the military and CIA missions in Yemen are classified, asked the AP withhold the location of the base.
But the officials did reveal the current campaign is being quarterbacked by a military counter-terrorism unit under the aegis of 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 US armed drones and even war planes against Al Qaeda targets who are taking advantage of civil unrest to grab power and territory in Yemen.
Last week CIA Director Leon Panetta told the press that clandestine service officers were working in Yemen together with JSOC, as well as other areas where Al qaeda 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.
Constructing the new base may suggest a long-term US commitment to fighting Al Qaeda in the region, along the lines of the model used in Pakistan, where CIA drones hunt militants with tacit 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 a clear preference for drones over allowing JSOC teams on Yemeni soil saying they are less apt to incense the Yemeni public. The new base, however, will enable continued US operations without Yemeni approval.
If the Yemenis halt cooperation with US forces it would likely necessitate the CIA taking charge of the Al Qaeda hunting mission in Yemen, senior US officials said.
But even as the policy debate plays out in Washington, JSOC 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.
“The US needs to keep the pressure on, to break Al Qaeda's momentum there,” the State Department's counter-terror coordinator, Daniel Benjamin, said Tuesday.
“There are growing concerns that AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula] will use the chaos to acquire more weapons, and also to fuel connections between Al Qaeda-linked militants there and Al Shabab insurgents in Somalia,” he added.