Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Where the Drones Are

by Micah Zenko
May 30, 2012

A MQ-9 Reaper sits on a runway in Kandahar (Corporal Steven Follows, Courtesy U.S. Air Force). A MQ-9 Reaper sits on a runway in Kandahar (Corporal Steven Follows, Courtesy U.S. Air Force).


Every day, the media reports a new story about the Obama administration’s policy of targeted killings, the vast majority of which are carried out by armed drones. On Monday, for instance, Newsweek ran a piece by Daniel Klaidman that described President Obama’s “uneasy acceptance” of signature strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, and how he resisted administration officials who sought to expand the target set. And yesterday, the New York Times ran an excellent feature that described the discomfort of many within the administration regarding the seductive allure of seemingly cost-free drone strikes (which echoes what many current and former officials have told me for years). According to a former senior intelligence official, “It bothers me when [counterterrorism officials] say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants. They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

Today, Sudarsan Raghavan echoes such sentiments in a report in the Washington Post, “In Yemen, U.S. Airstrikes Breed Anger, Sympathy for Al-Qaeda.” Raghavan finds that many Yemenis do not sympathize with al-Qaeda, but are nonetheless enraged by U.S. drone strikes, which have resulted in an unconfirmed number of civilian casualties. It is not a small leap to predict that people in Yemen, Pakistan, and beyond, will eventually grow tired of living under the bombs of a distant superpower. Some of the most powerful quotes in the piece include:

“These attacks are making people say, ‘We believe now that al-Qaeda is on the right side,’ ” said businessman Salim al-Barakani, adding that his two brothers — one a teacher, the other a cellphone repairman — were killed in a U.S. strike in March [2012].

“Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people, especially in al-Qaeda-controlled areas,” said Mohammed al-Ahmadi, legal coordinator for Karama, a local human rights group. “The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes.”

“There is more hostility against America because the attacks have not stopped al-Qaeda, but rather they have expanded, and the tribes feel this is a violation of the country’s sovereignty,” said Anssaf Ali Mayo, Aden head of al-Islah, Yemen’s most influential Islamist party, which is now part of the coalition government. “There is a psychological acceptance of al-Qaeda because of the U.S. strikes.”

All of these drone strikes have to originate from an air base in relatively close proximity. The U.S. Navy boasts that each of its eleven carriers—which can be deployed anywhere on the high seas beyond twelve nautical miles of another country’s borders—provides “4.5 acres of mobile, sovereign U.S. territory.” However, Predator and Reaper drones cannot yet take off from and land on a carrier.

In an effort to map, expose, and better understand the largely unreported network of drone air bases, my colleague Emma Welch and I have a piece on Foreign Policy online that compiles the best publically-available information and commercial satellite imagery to pinpoint the twelve most prominent bases from which drones are likely flown. As we note, our list is assuredly incomplete, and we welcome any additional information and corrections to update our findings.

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