The CIA under President Donald Trump has expanded its drone program in Africa with a recently built-up airbase in northeastern Niger the likely launchpad for surveillance and bombings across the region, the New York Times reported Sunday.
The expansion reflects the agency's reclaimed authority to conduct covert lethal drone strikes—a capacity President Barack Obama curtailed but which Trump returned to the CIA soon after taking office.
The new base, the Times reported, is in the desert town of Dirkou. That makes it much closer to the militant hotbed of southwestern Libya than the Pentagon's base 800 miles southwest in the capital of Niamey, and also closer than the Pentagon's new massive and pricey drone base in the Saharan city of Agadez in central Niger.
The CIA is yet again expanding its paramilitary role. https://t.co/dw1SjEd9ua. A reminder that in Yemen, Pakistan, and other countries, the CIA killed civilians, caused justifiable outrage, and sought to shield itself behind absurd secrecy arguments
— Hina Shamsi (@HinaShamsi) September 9, 2018
Satellite imagery obtained by Times shows how the Dirkou airbase, "labeled a United States Air Force base as a cover," has expanded since February. It now includes "a larger paved taxiway and a clamshell tent connected to the airstrip—all features that are consistent with the deployment of small aircraft, possibly drones." It also appears that there are "new security gates and checkpoints both to the compound and the broader airport."
Drones launched there reportedly target al Qaeda and Islamic State insurgents.
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According to both Nigerien and American officials, surveillance missions out of the base have already been underway for months, with flights taking off late at night and in the pre-dawn morning hours.
"One American official said the drones had not yet been used in lethal missions, but would almost certainly be in the near future, given the growing threat in southern Libya," the Times reported.
An anonymous Nigerien security official, however, told the Times that he believed that the agency had launched an armed drone from the site on July 25.
The new CIA activity in Dirkou, the Times noted, adds to the agency's "covert missions in eastern Afghanistan for strikes in Pakistan, and in southern Saudi Arabia for attacks in Yemen."
The Trump administration has unleashed an uptick in airstrikes targeting Libya, while special operators including Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other commandos continue to engage in secret missions across the continent.