The US Air Force is nearing completion of a secret $100 million drone base in northern Niger that will target militant groups operating in the area. Foreign Policy says weaponized drones could be ready for action in the coming months, marking a significant escalation in the war against terrorists in Africa.
The base is located in the northern city of Agadez, in the Sahara Desert. General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers, an unmanned aerial vehicle, will patrol the skies targeting militants and smugglers that traverse between Niger and Libya, Algeria, Mali, and Chad.
Until recently, the drones were based in Niger’s capital and were used solely for surveillance purposes. But that is all changing.
Preliminary reports suggest approximately 650 US military members will be deployed to the new airfield once it is operational.
The Air Force said an undetermined number of military drones, including MQ-9s, will also be transferred to the base.
Nigerien Defense Minister Kalla Mountari confirmed that his government requested the Air Force’s presence to aid in the battle against armed terrorist groups.
US military support via Niger surged last November after an attack killed five Nigerien and four American special operations personnel near the village of Tongo Tongo.
“The Tongo Tongo ambush spotlighted a policy issue that draws little public attention in the United States—the ongoing war in Africa’s Sahel region against militant groups emboldened by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” said Foreign Policy.
The incident brought some scrutiny to the Agadez drone base, offering new insight into the upcoming military operations in Africa.
“I suspect it is part of this concern around the terrorist organizations in the Sahel region that give no sign of being defeated anytime soon,” said Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, who spoke with Foreign Policy about armed terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Boko Haram.
“They have carried out a number of attacks that have been high profile and very concerning,” he said, adding that much of the violence is centered in Niger’s volatile southwest region.
Niger, one of Africa’s most impoverished countries, has out of control violence due to economic woes, an illicit drug and weapons trade, human trafficking, and dangerous borders with volatile nations, notably Libya and Mali.
However, the Americans are not the only foreigners based in the country. The French have also given military assistance to the country, deploying troops across the country to fight Islamist militants.
The Pentagon has said US troops have no direct combat missions in Niger. But the deaths of four US soldiers in Tongo Tongo have raised serious questions about official military statements.
Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of US Africa Command, said soldiers were playing a backup role for Nigerien forces on a mission against jihadis and did not intend to get involved in direct combat.
“The direct cause of the enemy attack in Tongo Tongo is that the enemy achieved tactical surprise there, and our forces were outnumbered approximately 3 to 1,” said Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., who was then Africom’s chief of staff and now commands U.S. Army Africa.
“There was some processes at all levels of the chain of command that need to be improved.”
Agadez will be the second US drone base in Africa. Drones are currently stationed in Djibouti are used for airstrikes in Yemen and Somalia.
Meservey said the deployment of armed drones in Agadez would “give a little bit more teeth to the ongoing operations.”
The Agadez drone base coincides with calls within the Pentagon to decrease troops in the region. After the Tongo Tongo ambush, Waldhauser proposed winding down operations of special operation missions on the continent.
“That has caused the Pentagon to rethink … the special operators’ posture in that region,” Meservey said.
“Drones have a smaller footprint, they are easier to run and deploy, and they don’t [attract as much] attention.”
Maj. Karl Wiest, a spokesman for Africom, told Foreign Policy that the Pentagon is pivoting away from counterterrorism operations in hybrid wars and toward tackling traditional threats posed by Russia and China.
Alice Hunt Friend, a senior fellow in the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the critical question would be whether reaper drones make the region safe.
“I think the government-to-government relationship with Niger for the moment will hold steady, but from a community relations perspective and from a public relations perspective … African communities are extremely sensitive to U.S. presence,” Friend said. “Drones could certainly upset that latent anxiety.”
While the Pentagon is constructing a new drone base in Niger, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with his Nigerien counterpart Mahamadou Issoufou on Friday, to discuss the building of new medical care, infrastructure, energy, and transportation projects. Xi said China firmly supports the efforts of maintaining national security and stability in the African country.
So maybe, the Pentagon is neglecting to tell the American people why their tax dollars are hard at work in the most impoverished country in Africa, as it seems it could be all about deterring China.