WASHINGTON // The United States 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, US officials said.
One of the installations is being established in Ethiopia, a US ally in the fight against Al Shabab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, 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 US military also has flown drones over Somalia and Yemen from bases in Djibouti. In addition, the CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones over Yemen.
The rapid expansion of the undeclared drone wars is a reflection of the growing alarm with which US 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 US counterterrorism operations.
The US 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 Seychelles illustrate the efforts the United States is making to broaden the range of its drone weapons.
The nation of 85,000 people has hosted a small fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones operated by the US navy and air force since September 2009. US 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 US diplomatic cables show that the unmanned aircraft have also conducted counterterrorism missions over Somalia.
The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks, reveal that US 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.
* Washington Post