The United States military has said it is building a $100 million temporary base for surveillance drones in Agadez, central Niger, to help the West African country combat militant groups and protect its borders.
Niger, a landlocked nation in West Africa, located along the border between the Sahara and Sub-Saharan regions, shares borders with Nigeria and Benin to the south, Burkina Faso and Mali to the west, Algeria and Libya to the north and Chad to the east.
But Nigeria shares land borders with Niger to the north, the Republic of Benin in the west, Chad and Cameroon in the east, and its coast lies on the Gulf of Guinea in the south and it borders Lake Chad to the northeast.
Niger which has over time been a security ally of the West, is grappling simultaneously with incursions from jihadist group Boko Haram across its southern border with Nigeria as well as roaming al Qaeda-linked groups in its vast desert spaces.
Security sources, according to Reuters have also expressed concern about a possible southern influx of Islamic State fighters into Niger and Chad from Libya where they are retreating from Libyan forces.
“At the request of, and in close coordination with, the Government of Niger, United States Africa Command is establishing a temporary, expeditionary cooperative security location in Agadez, Niger,” said a U.S. Africa Command spokesperson in an emailed response to Reuters.
“Agadez is an ideal, central location to enable ISR collection (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) to face the security threat across the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin region,” she said. The $100 million covered initial costs for construction, fuel and equipment.
Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou was re-elected in March having promised to boost security in the poor, semi-arid state. However, the southern region of Diffa, which borders the Boko Haram stronghold in northeastern Nigeria, is still in a state of emergency and subject to regular attacks.
Government officials in Niger were not immediately available for comment on Friday.
The United States first said it was considering establishing a drone facility adjacent to an existing Agadez airbase in 2014.
It already has forces in Niger’s capital Niamey and will eventually relocate them to Agadez, the U.S. Africa Command spokesperson added. Intelligence gathered by the drones will be shared with other partners in the region such as Nigeria, Chad, Mali among others, she said.
Agadez is also a major transit point for African migrants seeking a northwards path towards Europe.
The new facility is the latest example of the United States’ deepening military ties with the fragile Sahel region, a semi-arid band stretching from Senegal to Sudan.
In May, it signed a defense deal with Senegal to ease the deployment of troops to the country.
France also has strong military ties with Niger, including a base in northern Niger, and has 3,500 troops spread across the Sahel combating Islamist fighters.
WHAT ARE DRONES AND HOW DO THEY WORK?
Drones are more formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Essentially, a drone is a flying robot. The aircraft may be remotely controlled or can fly autonomously through software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems working in conjunction with GPS.
To the military, drones are UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems). However, they are more commonly known as drones.
Drones are used in situations where manned flight is considered too risky or difficult. They provide troops with a 24-hour “eye in the sky”, seven days a week. Each aircraft can stay aloft for up to 17 hours at a time, loitering over an area and sending back real-time imagery of activities on the ground.
Those used by the United States Air Force and Royal Air Force range from small intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance craft, some light enough to be launched by hand, to medium-sized armed drones and large spy planes.
Although the US does not routinely speak publicly about operations involving drones, However, President Obama in 2012, confirmed that they regularly strike suspected militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Then, Obama, following critics condemning US action in Pakistan confirmed the US was using unmanned aircraft to target suspected militants in tribal areas of Pakistan. He defended the drone attacks, saying they made precision strikes and were kept on a “tight leash.”