The harsh terrain of North and West Africa is rapidly emerging as yet another front in the United States’ long-running war against terrorist networks, a conflict that has fueled a revolution in drone warfare.
Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has relied heavily on drones for operations, both declared and covert, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia. U.S. drones also fly from allied bases in Turkey, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines.
Now, they are becoming a fixture in Africa. The U.S. military has built a major drone hub in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, and flies unarmed Reaper drones from Ethiopia. Until recently, it conducted reconnaissance flights over East Africa from the island nation of the Seychelles.
The Predator drones in Niger, a landlocked and dirt-poor country, give the Pentagon a strategic foothold in West Africa. Niger shares a long border with Mali, where an al-Qaeda affiliate and other Islamist groups have taken root. Niger also borders Libya and Nigeria, which are also struggling to contain armed extremist movements.
Like other U.S. drone bases, the Predator operations in Niger are shrouded in secrecy. The White House announced Feb. 22 that Obama had deployed about 100 military personnel to Niger on an “intelligence collection” mission, but it did not make any explicit reference to drones.
Since then, the Defense Department has publicly acknowledged the presence of drones here but has revealed little else. The Africa Command, which oversees U.S. military missions on the continent, denied requests from a Washington Post reporter to interview American troops in Niger or to tour the military airfield where the drones are based, near Niamey’s international airport.
Government officials in Niger, a former French colony, were slightly more forthcoming. President Issoufou Mahamadou said his government invited Washington to send surveillance drones because he was worried that the country might not be able to defend its borders from Islamist fighters based in Mali, Libya or Nigeria.
“We welcome the drones,” Mahamadou said in an interview at the presidential palace in Niamey. Citing the “feeble capability” of many West African militaries, he said Niger — which is three times the size of California — and its neighbors desperately needed foreign help to track the movements of guerrillas across the Sahara and Sahel, an arid territorial belt that covers much of the region.