The US military is preparing to establish a drone base in “northwest Africa”—likely be located in Niger along the eastern border of Mali, where French forces are currently waging a campaign against jihadist rebels, anonymous officials told the New York Times Jan. 28. The base would supposedly facilitate intelligence gathering by unarmed surveillance drones on al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and related militant networks. If the plan is approved, up to 300 US military personnel and contractors could be sent to staff the base.
“This is directly related to the Mali mission, but it could also give AfriCom a more enduring presence for ISR,” one US military official reportedly said, referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The revelations come the same day that the US and Niger signed a “status of forces” agreement on the terms for a US troop presence in the country. Earlier this month, US Africa Command chief Gen. Carter F. Ham visited Niger to work out details of the agreement. However, he declined to comment on the drone base plan, telling the Times is was “too operational for me to confirm or deny.”
Officials from Niger did not respond to e-mails from the Times about the plan. But Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou recently expressed a willingness to establish what he called “a long-term strategic relationship with the US.” In the Jan. 10 interview, on the eve of the French intervention in Mali, he said: “What’s happening in northern Mali is a big concern for us because what’s happening in northern Mali can also happen to us.”
An unnamed US defense official told the Washington Post that the drone base plan is “preliminary,” and pending approval by the Pentagon, State Department, White House and Niger. “But it would be a good place to be, in terms of access,” the official added.
Reuters, however, reported that Niger has already given permission for the stationing of drones on its territory, following a request from the US ambassador, Bisa Williams. “Niger has given the green light to accepting American surveillance drones on its soil to improve the collection of intelligence on Islamist movements,” the agency quoted yet another anonymous official.
Two years ago there were unconfirmed reports that a secret US-French drone base had been established in Libya.