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Chasing al-Qaida: Racing against the clock

Thursday - 6/16/2011, 5:21am  ET

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The U.S. intelligence community is building a new drone launch base in an undisclosed country. (AP)

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - The U.S. intelligence community is worried time may be running out to score a decisive victory over the terrorists who have come close to successfully attacking the U.S. twice in the last two years, officials say.

The CIA -- concerned about the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Yemen -- is building up its capacity to quickly strike at al-Qaida.

A quiet, stable U.S.-friendly country in the Persian Gulf is currently a focal point of stepped up U.S. efforts aimed at shutting down al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), operating nearby in Yemen. The group is led by American born Anwar al-Awlaki, a terror savvy cleric.

AQAP formulated the plot that Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab almost carried out aboard a Northwest Airlines jet over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. The bomb concealed in his underwear fizzled, and he was arrested.

In October 2010, bombs concealed in printer cartridges were discovered aboard U.S.-bound cargo planes in Dubai and the United Kingdom bearing the signature of AQAP as well.

Those close-calls, and fretting over the possible collapse of the Yemeni government under the dual weight of political uprisings and a withering war against al-Qaida, are driving the U.S. efforts.

As a result, the U.S. intelligence community is building a new drone launch base in a country WTOP has been asked not to reveal for security reasons.

The Associated Press first reported that a secret air base is being built in case anti-American groups emerge victorious from Yemen's current political morass.

The "location of the base," according to a source familiar with U.S. intelligence operations in the Arabian Peninsula, "is not new from a U.S. operational perspective." But the source says the construction is designed to make drone strikes in Yemen more efficient.

"We are monitoring events in Yemen closely and the ongoing political turmoil," a senior Obama Administration official tells WTOP. "We're certainly concerned about AQAP attempts to take advantage of the political unrest to advance their position and threaten U.S. interests."

According to sources, Yemen has been eager to increase the use of drones in the war against AQAP, but is not stable enough for such a base.

Phillip Mudd, former deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, says the range of the missiles loaded onto the Predator and Reaper drones are very capable, but the real advantage is in the proximity of the drone to the target.

"You've got to focus on dwell time," Mudd says. "You want longer dwell time, you need targets to look at an intelligence problem."

"Dwell" time is the amount of time a drone spends at close range looking at a target.

"You want to sit over the compound and see where the women are sleeping -- where the men are sleeping. You've got to focus on the intelligence collection, and that takes a lot of hours," Mudd says. "If it takes four hours as opposed to two hours to get to box [the target] or the place you're flying to and four hours to get back -- that's eight hours. You're losing four hours over the target."

The U.S. government has not given up on Yemen, but is angling for a decisive victory over AQAP.

"We work closely with Yemeni counterterrorism organizations to counter the threat from AQAP -- a serious threat to the Yemeni people and to Western interests," the senior administration official says. "Despite the political instability in Yemen, we have been able to preserve important counterterrorism relationships that are critical to thwarting AQAP's plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Yemen and abroad.

The guessing game about where the base is being built is followed with the question of why the current Predator operations base in Djibouti is not sufficient?

"The United States has been squarely focused on putting pressure on al-Qaida in Yemen for a long time," a U.S. official says. "In a fight against terrorists, you sometimes want to adapt or add to the tools you're using to fight them."

The fight against al-Qaida has taken a turn in recent weeks with the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the killing of al-Qaida leader in Africa, Harun Fazul. The U.S. official says they're losing momentum.

"Over the past three years, al-Qaida has lost a number of top figures, including Osama bin Laden. While the group remains dangerous, they've taken some stomach blows and their strategic defeat is not at all out of the question."

At the same time, experts like Mudd say, "al-Qaida is down, but not out. We are in the middle of the [al-Qaida] book -- not the end."

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)