America’s Secret Empire of Drone Bases: Its Full Extent Revealed for the First Time
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At Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the Air Force runs an air operations command and control facility, critical to the drone wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan . The new secret CIA base on the Arabian peninsula, used to assassinate Anwar al-Aulaqi, may or may not be an airstrip in Saudi Arabia whose existence a senior U.S. military official recently confirmed to FOX News. In the past, the CIA has also operated UAVs out of Tuzel, Uzbekistan.
In neighboring Afghanistan, drones fly from many bases including Jalalabad Air Base, Kandahar Air Field, the air base at Bagram, Camp Leatherneck, Camp Dwyer, Combat Outpost Payne, Forward Operating Base (FOB) Edinburgh and FOB Delaram II, to name a few. Afghan bases are, however, more than just locations where drones take off and land.
It is a common misperception that U.S.-based operators are the only ones who “fly” America’s armed drones. In fact, in and around America’s war zones, UAVs begin and end their flights under the control of local “pilots.” Take Afghanistan’s massive Bagram Air Base. After performing preflight checks alongside a technician who focuses on the drone’s sensors , a local airman sits in front of a Dell computer tower and multiple monitors, two keyboards, a joystick, a throttle, a rollerball, a mouse, and various switches and oversees the plane’s takeoff before handing it over to a stateside counterpart with a similar electronics set-up. After the mission is complete, the controls are transferred back to the local operators for the landing. Additionally, crews in Afghanistan perform general maintenance and repairs on the drones.
In the wake of a devastating suicide attack by an al-Qaeda double agent that killed CIA officers and contractors at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Khost in 2009, it came to light that the facility was heavily involved in target selection for drone strikes across the border in Pakistan. The drones themselves, as the Washington Post noted at the time, were “flown from separate bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Both the Air Force and CIA have conducted operations in Pakistani air space, with some missions originating in Afghanistan and others from inside Pakistan. In 2006, images of what appear to be Predator drones stationed at Shamsi Air Base in Pakistan's Balochistan province were found on Google Earth and later published. In 2009, the New York Times reportedthat operatives from Xe Services, the company formerly known as Blackwater, had taken over the task of arming Predator drones at the CIA’s “hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Following the May Navy SEAL raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, that country’s leaders reportedly ordered the United States to leave Shamsi. The Obama administration evidently refused and word leaked out, accordingto the Washington Post , that the base was actually owned and sublet to the U.S. by the United Arab Emirates, which had built the airfield “as an arrival point for falconry and other hunting expeditions in Pakistan.”
The U.S. and Pakistani governments have since claimedthat Shamsi is no longer being used for drone strikes. True or not, the U.S. evidently also uses other drone bases in Pakistan, including possibly PAF Base Shahbaz, located near the city of Jacocobad, and another base located near Ghazi.
The New Scramble for Africa
Recently, the headline story, when it comes to the expansion of the empire of drone bases, has been Africa. For the last decade, the U.S. military has been operating out of Camp Lemonier , a former French Foreign Legion base in the tiny African nation of Djibouti. Not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001, it became a base for Predator drones and has since been used to conduct missions over neighboring Somalia.