21 Sep 2011

US hunter-killer drones ‘flying from Seychelles’

America’s covert war on terror is expanding across the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, with the building of secret drone airbases from Ethiopia to the Seychelles.

American Reaper drones 'flying from Seychelles'. (Getty)

Unmanned bomber drones have been active in Pakistan and Afghanistan for several years in the US battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Now a second phase is being unleashed in the remote-controlled war on terror; with Somalia and Yemen the key hunting grounds for militants.

The US is developing a network of new launch sites in the Horn of Africa, described in the Washington Post as “a constellation of secret drone bases”.

One is being set up in Ethiopia and bases will be expanded in the Seychelles and Djibouti, according to leaked diplomatic documents.

Graphic: Secret drone plan sees US expansion in Horn of Africa.

Chris Woods from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has studied the use of drone warfare by the US, which is led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

He told Channel 4 News that in Yemen and Somalia drone strikes have “escalated rapidly” in 2011.

“The CIA will also soon be entering the fray in Yemen, using its own drones alongside US military ones to attack alleged militants from a secret base ‘somewhere in the Gulf’,” Woods said.

“Ethiopia has long been suspected as the launch-pad of many US special forces operations within Somalia.

“The two countries have co-operated extensively on counter-terrorism in recent years. Attacks have also been launched from the US fleet stationed offshore from Somalia.

“But militant al-Shabab forces are currently focused heavily in southern Somalia – making the nearby Seychelles a useful operational addition.”

It is believed drones have been flying from the Seychelles, a popular holiday destination, for around two years. Pirates in the Indian Ocean were the original, and officially stated, target.

[Drones] allow us to counter an urgent and deadly threat in otherwise inaccessible places. Senior US official

In 2009, Vince Crawley, spokesman for the US Africa Command, said that MQ-9 Reaper drones would be used to conduct “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions” over the sea.

He said: “It is widely recognised that western Indian Ocean piracy is extremely disruptive to international trade and this is simply a US contribution to the international effort against piracy.”

But the leaked documents highlighted by the Washington Post appear to reveal that more recently a small fleet of these “hunter-killer” drones have carried out counter-terror missions over Somalia, about 800 miles (1,287km) to the northwest of the Seychelles.

The airport runway in the Seychelles where drones may be flying from. (Google Maps)

(Above: Mahe airport in the Seychelles where US drones are reported to be based. Google Maps)

The United States and Seychellois officials have previously acknowledged the drones’ presence on the island but have said that their primary mission is to track pirates.

In August a senior US official, responding to reports on the use of drones in Pakistan, told Channel 4 News it is a weapon “fuelled by good intelligence that allows us to counter an urgent and deadly threat in otherwise inaccessible places”.

He added: “It is far more precise than conventional ground operations. What’s the alternative to this kind of rigour, assuming the United States and its allies are unwilling to allow al-Qaeda and its friends to plot and murder freely?”

The White House declined to comment on the latest report.

Update: Jean-Paul Adam, minister for foreign affairs in the Seychelles, has denied claims the US is flying armed drones from the islands. In a statement released to Channel 4 News, he said the reports are “purely speculations based on uncited and unidentified sources”. He said there were just two US drones targeting pirates and that the agreement between America and the Seychelles is based on the aircraft being unarmed.

Read more: US Reaper drones in Seychelles 'unarmed' says minister

Hunter-killer drone

The Reaper MQ-9 is a “remotely piloted vehicle” controlled by a crew on the ground. Operators hunt for targets using sensors, including a thermal camera. An operator’s command takes 1.2 seconds to reach the drone via a satellite link.

The MQ-9 can carry laser-guided bombs, Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and the Sidewinder heat-seeking missile. The aircraft can stay in the air for 14 hours, even when fully loaded with weapons.