AGADEZ, Niger — Beyond the sign reading "Military Zone," beyond the olive-green Humvees patrolling near a security tower, rows of tan tents stretch across the desert. For nearly two years, the remote, barren site has been home to several hundred U.S. troops working around the clock to turn it into a high-tech, multimillion-dollar drone base.
Mohamed Seraji doesn't like what he sees.
Dust kicked up by the construction makes the 29-year-old vendor cough. At night, the noise keeps him awake. But his biggest worry is that the facility — as well as Nigeriens like him who live in this city, just minutes away — will become a target for Islamist extremists.
"The base is too close," Seraji said. "If there's an attack on it, the people are exposed."
Such concerns have escalated since an ambush last month by Islamist militants that killed four U.S. and five Nigerien soldiers in the village of Tongo Tongo, along the Niger-Mali border. Agadez is in north-central Niger, more than 600 miles from that attack site, but the militants have also targeted this region in recent years.
Now, the growing perils faced by U.S. troops here are intensifying questions about the decision to build a drone base near Agadez — the second such facility in Niger, an impoverished West African country twice the size of Texas.
Local officials and community leaders say unemployment is rising in the area, boosting crime and creating opportunities for Islamist militants to exploit the disaffected. Many Nigeriens already view U.S. and other Western forces in the country as occupiers, according to interviews here and in the capital, Niamey. At least one Western embassy recently warned its citizens about extremist groups operating in areas outside Agadez.
In April 2016, U.S. security forces here thwarted a suspected attack on their compound by a convoy of men in three pickup trucks and a semi-truck, according to a U.S. Air Force account recently made public. Air Force guards spotted the trucks racing toward the compound in the dark, stopping about 50 yards from the perimeter fence. The vehicles retreated after U.S. sharpshooters aimed lasers at them as a warning, according to the Air Force account.
"It's a magnet for the terrorists," said Anastafidan el Souleymane Mohamed, a tribal elder who heads the association of traditional chiefs in Agadez, referring to the U.S. base. "Who are they looking for? They are looking for Westerners."
The U.S. military began eyeing Agadez as a drone hub almost as soon as it persuaded Niger's government to permit it to fly drones from Niamey in 2013. A year later, the government approved construction of the second base.
Agadez, about 500 miles northeast of Niamey, is much closer to Saharan smuggling routes that Islamist militants use to transport arms and fighters from Libya to northern Mali. U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones have a range of about 1,150 miles.
The Air Force initially budgeted $50 million to build an airfield, living quarters and other facilities at the Agadez site, but the project has taken far longer than expected to finish. The cost has doubled to about $100 million, according to a report last year by the Intercept, an investigative media website.
U.S. military officials originally hoped to begin flying from Agadez by the end of 2016, but the start date has been pushed back to the latter half of 2018. U.S. officials have attributed the delays to the inherent challenges of building a new airfield and military base in such a remote region.
The project calls for paving more than 17 acres of desert to create the runway, taxiways and aircraft parking areas, according to planning documents submitted by the Air Force to Congress. While the base is intended to serve mainly as a drone hub, the runway is designed to be long enough to accommodate large C-17 transport planes. Crews have also had to install major new water, sewer and electrical lines between the base and the city.
On May 23, 2013, more than a year before the base was approved, Islamist militants staged two coordinated attacks in the area. The first targeted a Nigerien military base in Agadez, killing 23 soldiers and a civilian. The second, a suicide bombing, targeted a French-owned and -operated uranium mine in the nearby town of Arlit, killing one worker.
Today, the economy has worsened. The enforcement of a tough anti-migrant law has shrunk the smuggling business, a lucrative creator of jobs and currency flows in Agadez. Some uranium and gold mines have also laid off hundreds of workers, according to local officials. Robberies are up in a city where people used to leave their cars and gates unlocked at night.
The situation worries Mohamed, the tribal elder, and other community leaders. In recent years, he said, he has watched the way Islamist militants infiltrated communities along Niger's borders with Nigeria and Mali and recruited their unemployed youths.
"The youth without jobs is like a bomb that can explode at any moment," Mohamed said. "We fear they can be tempted to do something else to get money. It is the door that is open for the terrorists."
That door, he added, could lead to the American base. Many residents, he said, are suspicious about the U.S. military presence in Agadez. Some say the troops are here to serve their own country's agenda; others argue the goal is to exploit Niger's mineral riches.
"The people here are not informed," Mohamed said. "They don't understand what's happening. To them, the base is really abnormal."
At the city's central market, views were mixed. Some people didn't know a U.S. base was being built. Others said they had not seen a single American soldier.
But Zeinabou Salou, 37, a seller of traditional medicines, approved of the project. She had heard the Americans have machines to see people from the sky.
"I am happy the base is here," she said. "The Americans will see who gets into our territory and who leaves. This will protect us against the terrorists."
Mamadou Meduka, 37, a shop owner, disagreed. He viewed the Americans as occupiers.
"It is the job of Niger's army to secure the country, not the Americans," he said.
Feltou Rhissa, the mayor of Agadez, said he is in regular contact with the base, adding that the Americans are "to protect us, if something happens." He acknowledged that for most people the U.S. troops remain a mystery. But he said the U.S. military is helping local communities, restoring schools and equipping hospitals, among other projects. "When the base begins running," Rhissa said, "it will have a big impact on Agadez."
But Mohamed, the elder, remains unconvinced.
"What we have seen in all the Arab countries is that after there's an American base, there comes trouble," Mohamed said. "We fear something like that could happen to us."
Whitlock reported from Washington.