CIA looking to expand drone program

By Paul Mutter

The Washington Post reports that the CIA is seeking greater control over drone assets around the world, especially those equipped to carry out targeted killings in the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan:

The proposal by CIA Director David H. Petraeus would bolster the agency’s ability to sustain its campaigns of lethal strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and enable it, if directed, to shift aircraft to emerging al-Qaeda threats in North Africa or other trouble spots, officials said.

If approved, the CIA could add as many as 10 drones, the officials said, to an inventory that has ranged between 30 and 35 over the past few years.

…. The CIA’s proposal would have to be evaluated by a group led by President Obama’s counter­terrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, officials said.

The group, which includes senior officials from the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies, is directly involved in deciding which alleged al-Qaeda operatives are added to “kill” lists. But current and former officials said the group also plays a lesser-known role as referee in deciding the allocation of assets, including whether the CIA or the Defense Department takes possession of newly delivered drones.

The US is also especially focusing on North Africa with the planned expansion. Whether this will end up being a short-term fixation due to the consulate storming in Benghazi, or a long-term expansion of US military operations in the Sahel and the Maghreb remains to be seen:

One U.S. official said the request reflects a concern that political turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa has created new openings for al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

“With what happened in Libya, we’re realizing that these places are going to heat up,” the official said, referring to the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. No decisions have been made about moving armed CIA drones into these regions, but officials have begun to map out contingencies. “I think we’re actually looking forward a little bit,” the official said.

White House officials are particularly concerned about the emergence of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, which has gained weapons and territory following the collapse of the governments in Libya and Mali. Seeking to bolster surveillance in the region, the United States has been forced to rely on small, unarmed turboprop aircraft disguised as private planes.

In Mali, the US-trained military staged a coup last March against the democratically-elected government in order to take charge of the war against separatists who were bolstered by an influx of mercenaries and equipment from Libya during the 2011 civil war. Unfortunately for Malians, the new junta has so far failed to arrest the separatists’ progress, leading to a stalemate, while at the same time Islamist groups and criminal gangs have come to dominate the revolt.

With the region facing a humanitarian crisis, other African states are mulling direct military intervention in Mali, likely to be supported by the EU.

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