Tuesday, September 20, 2011
By Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller
The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said.
One of the installations is being established in Ethiopia, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month after an experimental mission demonstrated that the unmanned aircraft could effectively patrol Somalia from there.
The rapid expansion of the undeclared drone wars is a reflection of the growing alarm with which U.S. officials view the activities of al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, even as al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan has been weakened by U.S. counterterrorism operations.
The U.S. government is known to have used drones to carry out lethal attacks in at least six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The negotiations that preceded the establishment of the base in the Republic of Seychelles illustrate the efforts the United States is making to broaden the range of its drone weapons.
The island nation of 85,000 people has hosted a small fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones operated by the U.S. Navy and Air Force since September 2009. U.S. and Seychellois officials have previously acknowledged the drones’ presence but have said that their primary mission was to track pirates in regional waters. But classified U.S. diplomatic cables show that the unmanned aircraft have also conducted counterterrorism missions over Somalia, about 800 miles to the northwest.
The cables, obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, reveal that U.S. officials asked leaders in the Seychelles to keep the counterterrorism missions secret. The Reapers are described by the military as “hunter-killer” drones because they can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs.
To allay concerns among islanders, U.S. officials said they had no plans to arm the Reapers when the mission was announced two years ago. The cables show, however, that U.S. officials were thinking about weaponizing the drones.
The U.S. military also has flown drones over Somalia and Yemen from bases in Djibouti, a tiny African nation at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition, the CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones over Yemen.
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Posted by Steve Douglass at 8:01 PM
The chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, has been killed in a bomb attack at his home in Kabul, officials told the BBC.
He was meeting two members of the Taliban at his home at the time of the blast, officials said. It is unclear if they were involved in the attack.
The High Peace Council leads Afghan efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.
Mr Rabbani is a former president of Afghanistan and also led the main political opposition in the country.
Unconfirmed reports say he may have been killed by a suicide attacker.
When the peace council was set up, Afghan President Hamid Karzai described it as the greatest hope for the Afghan people and called on the Taliban to seize the opportunity and help bring peace.
But many members of the council are former warlords who spent years fighting the Taliban and their inclusion led to doubts as to whether it could succeed in its mission.
Mr Rabbani recently spoke at a religious conference in Iran and called on Muslim scholars to speak out against suicide attacks.
Posted by Steve Douglass at 8:06 AM