Though "shrouded in secrecy," operations at the new US drone base in the West African country of Niger appear to be in full swing.
According to a new Washington Post investigation of the US military's growing "strategic foothold" in the region and the goings-on at the air base established earlier this year, the skies over Niger and neighboring Mali are already humming with the buzz of US Predator drones.
Without making explicit reference to drones, President Obama announced last month that he had deployed about 100 military personnel to Niger on an “intelligence collection” mission. However, according to one US official quoted in the story, the number of Air Force personnel stationed in Niger has increased since then. The Post continues:
The Pentagon declined to say exactly how many Predator aircraft it has sent to Niger or how long it intends to keep them there. But there are signs that the U.S. military wants to establish a long-term presence in West Africa.
The Post notes that Niger—which shares a border with Mali, Libya and Nigeria—gives the Pentagon a "strategic foothold in West Africa" which has emerged as "yet another front in the US's long-running war against terrorist networks."
“We just know there are drones; we don’t know what they are doing exactly.” – Djibril Abarch, Nigerien Association for the Defense of Human Rights
Though the Predator drones in Niger are reportedly unarmed, US officials have not ruled out "equipping the aircraft with Hellfire missiles in the future" and have acknowledged that they are prepared to "use lethal force under certain circumstances," particularly in regards to the capture or killing of a "handful of high-value individuals" recently designated by the US military.
"Like other U.S. drone bases," the Washington Post's Craig Whitlock writes, "the Predator operations in Niger are shrouded in secrecy."
According to the investigation, the Niger drones are already busy conducting surveillance and collecting intelligence over Mali and Niger. That intelligence is then shared with French and other African military forces currently operating Mali.
The Post reports that although Niger President Issoufou Mahamadou supports the presence of the drones and US's personnel, officials from both countries have taken precautions in anticipation of a "popular backlash" in the roughly 90 percent Muslim country, including installing "extra security barriers outside the US and French embassies."
Critics of the new program voiced concerned about the nature of the drones' activities and how much was still unknown about the ongoing operations.
“We just know there are drones; we don’t know what they are doing exactly,” said Djibril Abarchi of the watchdog group, Nigerien Association for the Defense of Human Rights. “Nothing is visible. There is no transparency in our country with military questions. No one can tell you what’s going on.”
Read the complete story here.