The CIA is using a secret airbase in Saudi Arabia to carry out drone strikes against al-Qa'ida militants in Yemen, US media has revealed.
The first drone strike launched from the base is believed to have been the one that killed US-born militant Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011.
The New York Times said the CIA now uses the base to hunt “high value targets” in Yemen, such as the leaders of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula - a group the Obama administration believe poses a direct threat to the United States.
The BBC reported that US media has known about the airbase’s existence since the strike that killed al-Awlaki, but had chosen not to reveal it after senior government officials raised concerns that disclosure could undermine its mission and potentially damage counter-terrorism relations with Saudi Arabia.
The New York Times did not reveal the exact location of the airbase, but said its construction was ordered in December 2009 after a US-launched cruise missile strike in Yemen ended in disaster, with dozens of civilians killed.
The newspaper also reported that, under a special agreement with the Yemeni government, the US does not need to get permission each time it launches a drone strike.
Speaking with the BBC Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, an expert on Gulf politics at the London School of Economics, said the agreement with the Saudi’s would almost certainly have come about in reaction to their own insecurities about Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula.
He said: “The Saudis see AQAP as a very real threat to their domestic security...They are worried about attacks on their energy infrastructure and on the royal family, so it fits their strategy to allow drone attacks.”
Saudi Arabia has previously denied cooperating with the US to target militants in Yemen and any operation by US military or intelligence officials inside the country will be politically and religiously sensitive.
Al-Qa'ida and other Islamic militant groups have previously used Saudi Arabia’s close relationship with US to stir up anger against its royal family.
Saudi Arabia is home to many of Islam’s holiest sites and it is believed that presence of western forces in the country was Osama bin Laden’s main justification for violence against the US and its allies.