By Leah Cerilli
The United States is investing at least $50 million to create a military base in Agadez, Niger with the capability of deploying drones, as reported by the BBC. The U.S. already shares a base with France in Niger’s capital Niamey, where MQ-9 Reaper drones are stationed. The positioning of the central city Agedez will give the U.S. a greater ability to use drones to strike Islamist extremists in Libya, Mali, and Nigeria.
Michelle Baldanza, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, confirmed the U.S. had agreed to pay for a new runway, pavements, facilities, and related infrastructure for the base. The Pentagon said it expects costs to hover around $50 million, although The Intercept calculated that it will cost twice that based on formerly secret files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
There is a notable precedent of U.S. drone bases abroad. Niger is a key regional hub for U.S. military operations, as the only country in the region that allows a U.S. base for MQ-9 Reapers. Agadez in particular is also a busy location for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions against terrorist organizations. The Intercept suggested the new drone base is the latest evidence that the U.S. is beginning to increase focus on terrorist organizations in North and West Africa.
The U.S. ended drone operations in southern Ethiopia in January 2016, according to Foreign Policy. The drone base, located in Arba Minch, was established in 2011 and primarily focused on targeting al-Shabab after a string of deadly attacks across East Africa. Shutting down the base was widely thought to be because of demand to move drones elsewhere across the continent; the rise of the Islamic State in Libya, as well as extremist militants in Nigeria, Chad, Mali, and Cameroon were pressing concerns.
Baldanza also commented on this on behalf of the Pentagon, saying that the U.S. and Ethiopia have agreed that a drone base in Ethiopia is no longer necessary. The Pentagon’s Africa Command agreed that al-Shabab is as not as significant of a terrorist threat as it used to be, and that the Africa Command is better off focusing its limited resources elsewhere.
An example of American drone efforts being moved elsewhere can be seen in the U.S.’s recent building of a low-profile drone base in Cameroon. As reported by The Intercept, the base was built around October 2015 at a site proclaimed to be Garoua International Airport, near the border of Nigeria. U.S. troops at this base are forbidden to mingle with locals or go to nearby bars or nightclubs. There is fear amongst leaders stationed at the base that Cameroonians working there may harbor sympathy towards Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group most active in northeast Nigeria. The base became fully active in February 2016, allowing U.S. forces to gain intelligence on Boko Haram’s movements, bomb-making factories, and military camps.
A team of U.S. operators from the Joint Special Operations Command are rumored to fly drones and carry out counterterrorist activities in the Somalian city of Kismayo, roughly 300 miles south of the capital Mogadishu. The U.S. claims it has no drone operations on Somali soil, and that these drones originate from Dijibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Multiple Somali and African Union officials have confirmed the existence of the base, however, according to Foreign Policy, and have stated that the increase U.S. covert military action is to stabilize the volatile horn of Africa.