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America's 'Secret' Drone Base in Saudi Arabia Is Growing

It's dozens of miles from the closest road, and even farther from the nearest village. And it's getting bigger.
February 8, 2013, 6:20pm

If these satelite images indeed show the US's clandestine drone base in remote Saudi Arabia, they suggest not only that a handful of top-tier media outlets long kept mum on the existence of the place at the behest of the Obama administration, but that the desert airstrip--and thus in theory, the US's counterterror drone program writ large--is expanding.

You can see a trio of airstrips in the images, which were picked up by Bing. (Perhaps intriguingly, the place doesn't show up in Google's cache of satellite imagery.) Two of them appear large enough to handle drone and light-aircraft traffic; the third, which looks to run considerably longer and wider than the others, appears to be under construction. The place is very much growing, in other words, to eventually allow for bigger and bigger aircraft flying more and more spy- and kill missions throughout the Middle East and Horn of Africa.


It's been a rapid growth, according to Wired's Danger Room. Digital Globe, a commercial imaging service, cruised one its satellites over the tract in mid-November 2010, but saw nothing; just over a year later, when the same satellite flew over the same tract, the outpost appeared.

Not like we should rush to pin this as the place, as the controversial ground whose first mission reportedly took out the US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011. But whereas satellite images of this region normally reveal little more than seas of sand dunes, this cache makes a pretty compelling case that this is one of America's freshest drone hub overseas. It's dozens of miles from the closest road, and even farther from the nearest village. Welcome to the middle of nowhere.

”It’s way, way out in the Rub al Khali, otherwise known as Hell," an unnamed ex-officer tells Wired, "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. It’s a really major logistics feat. The way it fits inconspicuously into the terrain is also admirable.”

Clamshell hangars are signatures of drone activity.

Of course, images of hulking drones taxiing, taking off, or landing would seal the deal. But for that we don't even have to look abroad.

All images via Bing

Reach Brian at @thebanderson