These satellite images show a remote airstrip deep in the desert of Saudi Arabia. It may or may not be the secret U.S. drone base revealed by reporters earlier this week. But the base’s hangars bear a remarkable resemblance to similar structures found on other American drone outposts. And its remote location — dozens of miles from the nearest highway, and farther still to the nearest town – suggests that this may be more than the average civilian airstrip.
According to accounts from the Washington Post and The New York Times, the U.S. built its secret Saudi base approximately two years ago. Its first lethal mission was in September of 2011: a strike on Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born propagandist for al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia. Since then, the U.S. has launched dozens of drone attacks on Yemeni targets. News organizations eventually found out about the base. But they agreed to keep it out of their pages — part of an informal arrangement with the Obama administration, which claimed that the disclosure of the base’s location, even in a general way, might jeopardize national security. On Tuesday, that loose embargo was broken.
The image of the airfield, available in Bing Maps, would be almost impossible to discover randomly. At moderate resolutions, satellite images of the area show nothing but sand dunes. Only on close inspection does the base reveal itself. In Google’s catalog of satellite pictures, the base doesn’t appear at all.
The images show a trio of “clamshell”-style hangars, surrounded by fencing. Each is more than 150 feet long and approximately 75 feet wide; that’s sufficient to hold U.S. Predator and Reaper drones. The hangars are slightly larger, though similar in shape, to ones housing unmanned planes at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. Shamsi Air Field in Pakistan, which once held U.S. drones, boasts a group of three hangars not unlike the ones of the Saudi base. No remotely piloted aircraft are visible in the images. But a pair of former American intelligence officers tell Danger Room that they are reasonably sure that this is the base revealed by the media earlier this week.
“I believe it’s the facility that the U.S. uses to fly drones into Yemen,” one officer says. “It’s out in eastern Saudi Arabia, near Yemen and where the bad guys are supposed to hang out. It has those clamshell hangars, which we’ve seen before associated with U.S. drones.”
The former officer was also impressed by the base’s remote location.”It’s way, way out in the Rub al Khali, otherwise known as Hell, and must have been built, at least initially, with stuff flown into Sharorah and then trucked more than 400 kilometers up the existing highway and newly-built road,” the ex-officer adds in an e-mail. “It’s a really major logistics feat. The way it fits inconspicuously into the terrain is also admirable.”
Three airstrips are visible in the pictures; two are big enough to land drones or conventional light aircraft. A third runway, under construction, is substantially longer and wider. In other words: The facility is growing, and it is expanding to fly much larger planes.
The growth has been rapid. When the commercial imaging company Digital Globe flew one of its satellites over the region on Nov. 17, 2010, there was no base present. By the time the satellite made a pass on March 22, 2012, the airfield was there. This construction roughly matches the timeline for the Saudi base mentioned in the Post and in the Times.
“It’s obviously a military base,” says a second intelligence analyst, who reviewed the images and asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject. “It’s clearly an operating air base in the middle of nowhere, but near the Yemeni border. You tell me what it is.”
If this picture does prove to be a secret U.S. drone base, it wouldn’t be the first clandestine American airfield revealed by public satellite imagery. In 2009, for instance, Sen. Diane Feinstein accidentally revealed that the U.S. was flying its robotic aircraft from Pakistani soil. The News of Pakistan quickly dug through Google Earth’s archives to find Predator drones sitting on a runway not far from the Jacobabad Air Base in Pakistan – one of five airfields in the country used for unmanned attacks. The pictures proved that the Pakistani officials were actively participating in the American drone campaign, despite their public condemnation of the strikes. Until then, such participation had only been suspected. While the drone attacks continued, the U.S. was forced to withdraw from some of the bases.
So far, reaction to the Saudi base has been relatively muted. American forces officially withdrew from Saudi Arabia years ago, in part because the presence of foreign troops in the Muslim holy land so inflamed militants. It’s unclear how the drone base changes this calculation, if at all.
The drone base’s exposure is part of a series of revelations about the American target killing campaign that have accompanied John Brennan’s nomination to be the director of the CIA. Brennan currently oversees targeted killing operations from his perch as White House counterterrorism adviser, and would be responsible for executing many of the remotely piloted missions as CIA chief.
In addition to the drone base disclosure, an unclassified Justice Department white paper summing up the Obama administration’s criteria for eliminating U.S. citizens was leaked this week to NBC News; the document argues that a judgment from an “informed, high-level” official can mark an American or robotic death – even without “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.” (.pdf) The White House has since promised to give select Congressmen the classified and detailed legal rationales behind the white paper. But Sen. Ron Wyden told Brennan at his Senate confirmation hearing that the Justice Department is not yet complying with President Obama’s promise to disclose those legal memoranda. Feinstein said she was seeking eight such memos in total.
In their hours of questioning Brennan, however, the Senators didn’t once ask the CIA nominee about the secret Saudi drone base. Perhaps that’s because they didn’t have a visual aid.