The White House has already increased the numbers of CIA officers in Yemen, in anticipation of that possibility. It has stepped up the schedule to construct the base, from a two-year timetable to a rushed 8 months.
AP has withheld the exact location of the base at the request of US 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 (JSOC), 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 warplanes against Al-Qaeda targets who are taking advantage of civil unrest to grab power and territory in Yemen.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said last week that agency 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.
The new base suggests 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, 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 US counter-terror 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 US counter-terrorist forces that would also likely mean a shift to putting the CIA in charge of the Al-Qaeda hunting mission in Yemen, senior US officials said.
While that policy debate plays out in Washington, US special operations forces based outside Yemen are taking aim almost daily at a greater array of targets that have been flushed into view by the unrest. US forces have stepped up their targeting as well, because of the besieged Yemeni government's new willingness to allow US forces to use all tools available - from armed drones to warplanes - against Al-Qaeda as a way to stay in power, the US officials said.
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.
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 warplane bombing runs. But permission was on a case-by-case basis, and waxed and waned depending on the mood of the mercurial Yemeni President.
Source: Arab News