The U.S. military has deployed unarmed Predator drones and more than 100… (Craig Whitlock/The Washington…)
NIAMEY, Niger — The newest outpost in the U.S. government’s empire of drone bases sits behind a razor-wire-topped wall outside this West African capital, blasted by 110-degree heat and the occasional sandstorm blowing from the Sahara.
The U.S. Air Force began flying a handful of unarmed Predator drones from here last month. The gray, mosquito-shaped aircraft emerge sporadically from a borrowed hangar and soar north in search of al-Qaeda fighters and guerrillas from other groups hiding in the region’s untamed deserts and hills.
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.
“Our countries are like the blind leading the blind,” he said. “We rely on countries like France and the United States. We need cooperation to ensure our security.”
The Predator drones in Niger are unarmed, U.S. officials said, though they have not ruled out equipping the aircraft with Hellfire missiles in the future. For now, the drones are conducting surveillance over Mali and Niger.
U.S. officials said they share video footage and other intelligence collected by the unmanned aircraft with French forces and African troops — including 670 soldiers from Niger — who are fighting the Islamist insurgency in Mali. Liaison officers from Niger, France and Chad work alongside U.S. Air Force personnel who launch and land the drones from the base in Niamey.
Most of the surveillance missions are designed to track broad patterns of human activity and are not aimed at hunting individuals, said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military operations. Although French and African troops are engaged in combat in Mali, the Obama administration has not given the U.S. military the same authorization.
“The whole issue is lethality,” the senior official said. “We don’t want to abet a lethal action.”
But the rules of engagement are blurry. Intelligence gathered by the Predators could indirectly help the French fix targets for airstrikes or prompt Nigerien security forces to take action on their territory.
Moreover, U.S. officials have acknowledged that they could use lethal force under certain circumstances. Last month, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the U.S. military had designated “a handful of high-value individuals” in North Africa for their suspected connections to al-Qaeda, making them potential targets for capture or killing.
Mission’s duration unclear