You know that top secret drone base in Saudi Arabia everyone's been crowing about lately? If Wired's sources are correct, that's a picture of it above. Runways, hangar, sand — it's all there. It's not very secret, either.
The base is hard to find, sure. But there it is hiding in plain sight waiting for some well informed blogger to find on Bing. Noah Shachtman, who runs Wired's Danger Room blog, was that blogger, and on Thursday night, he described the finding. It's very difficult to confirm whether this is or it isn't America's secret Saudi drone base, first of all. "But the base's hangars bear a remarkable resemblance to similar structures found on other American drone outposts," Shachtman explains. "And its remote location — dozens of miles from the nearest highway, and farther still to the nearest town – suggests that this may be more than the average civilian airstrip."
Beyond that, Shachtman earned tacit confirmation from two former American intelligence officers. "I believe it's the facility that the U.S. uses to fly drones into Yemen," one of them told Shachtman. "It's out in eastern Saudi Arabia, near Yemen and where the bad guys are supposed to hang out. It has those clamshell hangars, which we've seen before associated with U.S. drones." The other officer described the location as "way, way out in the Rub al Khali, otherwise known as Hell." We did some exploring on Bing Maps, and sure enough, it's almost comically unfriendly to human life. Ripples of sand dunes stretch for hundreds of miles, and it's dozens if not hundreds of miles to the nearest sign of civilization. In other words, it's the perfect spot to hide a secret drone base.
Something seems wrong here, doesn't it? If America was so protective of its secret Saudi drone base — enough so that it managed to keep The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing details about its location — wouldn't they double check the publicly available satellite imagery? They could at least blur it out a little bit, right?
Nope. Not in America, where information is free and the government is accountable. Or rather, not in America, where tech companies release massive amounts of data without really realizing what's inside and sometimes reveal military secrets in the process. As Wired points out, The News of Pakistan found the Jacobabad Air Base using Google Earth not long after Sen. Diane Feinstein slipped up and said the U.S. was flying drones from Pakistan. (We tried finding the Saudi air base using Google Maps, but the resolution didn't hold up. As you zoom in, everything just starts to look like a post-modern painting.) That's not all. Last year, Shachtman actually did a world tour of sorts using Apple Maps and Bing Maps, flagging such secret spots as the model of Osama bin Ladens Abottabad compound, CIA training facilities and a mysterious, drone-riddled Lockheed Martin installation in California.
It's hard to say why we can see this Saudi air base, and it's not like CIA director-to-be John Brennan is going to offer up any hints. If you'd believe Shachtman's sources, it is the secret installation that's stolen headlines this week. Maybe the government forgot to send Microsoft a letter or maybe they don't care if discoverable on Bing Maps. Or maybe it's not a secret base at all, just another strange spot in the middle of the Arabian peninsula.
Either way, it's awesome to gawk at. Above is a wide shot of the base. This is a more detailed view of the south side of the compound, where there appear to be living quarters and maybe offices:
Further north, you can see the clam shell hangars and the length of one of the runways:
By zooming out just a little bit, you can see how the base disappears into the sand dunes:
Zooming out even further, you can see the strategic location of the base, close to the border of Yemen, where a large number of the drone missions took place. That grey line is the Yemen border:
And finally, the wide view that shows the entire region:
Don't let us pigeonhole you into the static world of our screenshots, though. Click around the embedded map below, and see if you can find any other secret American military bases!