Tag Archives: drones Niger

Like Afghanistan, Like Niger?

Agadez Niger

On the scorching edge of the Sahara Desert, the U.S. Air Force is building a base for armed drones, the newest front in America’s battle against the growing extremist threat in Africa’s vast Sahel region.  Three hangars and the first layers of a runway command a sandy, barren field. Niger Air Base 201 is expected to be functional in 2019. The base, a few miles outside Agadez and built at the request of Niger’s government, will eventually house fighter jets and MQ-9 drones transferred from the capital Niamey. The drones, with surveillance and added striking capabilities, will have a range enabling them to reach a number of West and North African countries.

Few knew of the American military’s presence in this desperately poor, remote West African country until October 2018, when an ambush by Islamic State group-linked extremists killed four U.S. soldiers and five Nigeriens.

The $110 million project is the largest troop labor construction project in U.S. history, according to Air Force officials. It will cost $15 million annually to operate…. Already the U.S. military presence here is the second largest in Africa behind the sole permanent U.S. base on the continent, in the tiny Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti.  “We are afraid of falling back into the same situation as in Afghanistan, with many mistakes made by American soldiers who did not always know the difference between a wedding ceremony and a training of terrorist groups,” said Amadou Roufai, a Nigerien administration official.  Civic leader Nouhou Mahamadou also expressed concerns.

“The presence of foreign bases in general and American in particular is a serious surrender of our sovereignty and a serious attack on the morale of the Nigerien military,” he said.

The number of U.S. military personnel in Niger has risen over the past few years from 100 to 800, the second largest concentration in Africa after the 4,000 in Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. About 500 personnel are working on the new air and drone base and the base camp is marked with an American and Nigerien flag.

Excerpts  from Carley Petesch, US Builds Drone Base in Niger, Crossroads of Extremism Fight, Associated Press, April, 23, 2018

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The Power of Yes-Men

Agadez Niger Image from wikipedia

American military engagement in Niger is a $110 million drone base the U.S. is building about 450 miles northeast of Niamey in Agadez…Its existence was partially confirmed in February 2018, inadvertently, when it was discovered that Strava, a fitness app used mostly  by westerners, had released location data that showed the global movements of the users of workout trackers like Fitbit — and the data showed unusual activity in far-off Aguelal, Agadez, Niger.

On the southeast edge of the civilian airport, accessible by tracks in the sand used mainly to exit the town, is Nigerien Air Base 201, or in common parlance “the American base.” The base, scheduled for completion in late 2018, is technically the property of the Nigerien military, though it is paid for, built, and operated by Americans. It is being constructed on land formerly used by Tuareg cattle-herders. … The U.S. currently flies drones out of an airport in Niamey, but those operations will be shifted to Agadez once the new base is completed.

When asked to confirm the American presence in those areas of Niger, U.S. Africa Command spokesperson Samantha Reho replied, “I can confirm there are approximately 800 Department of Defense personnel (military, civilian, and contractor) currently working in Niger, making that country the second-highest concentration of DoD people across the continent, with the first being in Djibouti at Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.”

The U.S. is just one of several Western militaries that have established and strengthened military ties to Niger over the past few years. France has had soldiers in the country since 2013, when it launched Opération Serval in neighboring Mali. In 2015, France reopened a colonial fort in Madama, close to the border with Libya — unthinkable during the times of Moammar Gadhafi; the Libyan leader maintained a sphere of influence in the region that would have been at odds with a French military presence. Germany sent its own troops in Niger to support the United Nations peacekeeping mission across the border in Mali, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel even visited Niger in 2017. And Italy recently announced it would send 470 troops to a French base in the north of Niger to fight migrant transporters….

The base in Agadez is about 6 square kilometers, though most of the land is yet to be developed. ….. The base is tucked away and hidden from Agadez first by the 8-to-10-foot wall that separates the city of 125,000 from the airport, and it is surrounded by a barbed wire fence with sandbags, so despite there being a few hundred Americans in Agadez, you would hardly know they were there unless you went looking. Both the Nigerien and the American governments prefer to keep it this way…

The man the middle is Mahamadou Issoufou, the president of Niger. In power for six years, he has adopted a clear strategy for trying to keep control of things – by aligning himself closely with Europe and the United States, while presiding over an electoral system that his opponents describe as rigged. This is not a recipe for stability in a country that has had little of it since its founding in 1960, at the end of French colonial rule.

Issoufou is a trained engineer and a former secretary-general of Somaïr, a uranium mine that was run by the French company Areva. Until migration and terrorism, uranium was the focal point of outside, particularly French, interest in Niger. France’s electricity grid is powered by nuclear energy, and Areva’s uranium concessions in Niger provide up to one-fifth of the uranium necessary to power that grid. Issoufou’s predecessor, Mamadou Tandja, had sparred with the French over the concession, and in 2009, then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Niger to negotiate a deal on opening a new mine called Imouraren. After a $1.2 billion deal was struck, Tandja tried to reverse the constitution to stay in power for a third term, and after street protests, a group of low-ranking army officers carried out a coup d’état.

When the transition period ended with Issoufou’s election in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan caused a sharp downturn in global uranium prices. Areva dropped its plans for Imouraren, and Issoufouacquiesced to the French firm’s plans for delaying the mine until prices rose, denting economic growth prospects for the country. But despite losing out on Imouraren, Issoufou quickly became a donor darling and found that the closer he was to France and the West, the better his image and the more firm his hold on political power. Issoufou was criticized heavily for going to Paris to attend the “Je Suis Charlie” march in January 2015, and some human rights organizations view him as a lackey of the West. He works with Image Sept, a French firm with close ties to the Parisian political elite, to manage his image.A couple of months before his re-election in 2016, Issoufou jailed his main political opponent and former close ally, Hama Amadou of the Moden Lumana party….

Many people I spoke to in Niger feel their country has had its autonomy usurped by Westerners. “The reality is that Niger is not at a level where it can say yes or no to the French or Americans. … We only have sovereignty on paper,” said Djibril Abarché, president of the Nigerien Human Rights Association.

Exceprts from Joe Penny, Drones in the Sahara, the Intercept, Feb. 18, 2018

The Flourishing Jihadists and their Support Systems

Ansar Dine jihadists. Ansar Dine seeks to impose strict Sharia law across Mali. Image from wikipedia

U.S. special forces who accompanied Niger’s military at a meeting of village leaders in Tongo Tongo on Oct. 4, 2017were working in the country’s treacherous western borderlands, a region of shifting tribal allegiances, opaque motives and ethnic grudges going back decades, all feeding into a growing jihadi problem.  Four Americans and five Nigerien troops died after leaving Tongo Tongo and being ambushed and heavily outgunned by fighters armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The militants are believed to be from a Malian-led militia, Islamic State in the Greater Sahel, which declared allegiance to the overall militant organization in 2015.

One error appears to have been downplaying the danger. The Tillaberi and Tahoua regions in western Niger have been under a state of emergency since March 2017, as Niger has confronted the Islamic State offshoot, led by Malian extremist Abu Walid Sahrawi. U.S. forces have been present in the region to advise and assist Nigerien forces.

The United Nations has cataloged 46 attacks by extremists in western Niger since February 2016, including a February 2017 attack that killed 15 Nigerien soldiers and one a year ago that killed 22 Nigerien forces at a refugee camp.,,

Niger’s interior minister, Mohamed Bazoum, said intelligence failures were to blame for the nine deaths. He said Islamic State in the Greater Sahel is more entrenched in local communities than are government forces.

Adam Sandor, an analyst on violent extremism in the Sahel at the University of Ottawa, said….“Essentially, the attackers are believed to have been scoping out and planning the attack and must have a knowledge of local communities in the area. Local communities most likely shared with them the information regarding the Nigerien Armed Forces operating with foreigners or military advisors in this space,” he said.  Leaders of Tongo Tongo village have been arrested, amid suspicions they were delaying the departure of the Nigerien and U.S. forces to pave the way for the attackers.

America has 6,000 troops in 50 countries across the continent, according to the Department of Defense, although many of the missions are charged with guarding U.S. embassies. The counter-terrorism deployments include an estimated 1,000 special operations forces, many posted in high-risk locations such as Somalia, Mali and Nigeria. An estimated 800 troops are in Niger.  The U.S. also operates a string of drone bases throughout Africa, including one in Niger.

The Shabab is the deadliest of Africa’s terrorist groups and is believed to be responsible for the country’s worst terrorist attack: At least 358 people were killed Oct. 14, 2017 and 56 are still missing. The attack came weeks after a U.S. drone strike killed 10 civilians, including three children, in Bariire, west of Mogadishu.  The U.S. has carried out at least 60 drone strikes in Somalia since January 2017, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, killing up to 510 people, including at least 38 civilians. The Shabab has killed 2,745 people in 2017, carrying out 987 of the continent’s 1,827 incidents of violent extremism in the first nine months of the year, according to the analytical group African Center for Strategic Studies.

The Shabab also has a presence in Kenya, where it launches regular attacks, including the 2013 Westgate shopping mall massacre that killed at least 67 people, and the 2015 Garissa University College attack, where 147 people — mainly university students — were killed. The terrorist group is believed to have a presence across East Africa.

Boko Haram, operating in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and southeastern Niger, was responsible for 2,232 deaths in the first nine months of the year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

In Mali, myriad armed extremists operate, including Islamic State in the Greater Sahel and its rival the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, formed in March 2017 from several Al Qaeda-linked extremist groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In 2012, Islamist militias took over half of the country before the French military drove them out of major cities.

The militias range freely across rural areas, crossing borders at will, launching operations in Mauritania, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, including attacks on hotels and resorts popular with foreigners.   In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where myriad rebel groups vie for control over mineral resources, a new organization emerged recently declaring fealty to Islamic State.  By comparison, Niger is one of the more stable countries in the region, making it the U.S. choice for a drone base being built outside Agadez, in central Niger, that will launch strikes across the region.

The Tongo Tongo attack has focused attention on Sahel leader Sahrawi…. He has a history of swapping sides and financing his operations through kidnappings.  He has recruited fighters from among the Fulani nomads in western Niger, exploiting ethnic rivalries with the Daoussahak people in the region, some of whom have formed a militia called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. Both Niger and France have used the group as a proxy force to fight Islamic State in the Great Sahel, deepening ethnic animosities.

Excerpts from After Niger attack, a look at clandestine jihadis posing a growing danger to U.S. forces in Africa, L.A. Times, Oct. 21, 2017

Drone War Moves to West Africa

Niamey airport.  Image wikipedia

The newest outpost in the US government’s empire of drone bases sits behind a razor-wire-topped wall outside Niger’s capital Niamey.  The US air force began flying a handful of unarmed Predator drones from here last month (Feb. 2013). The drones emerge sporadically from a borrowed hangar and soar north in search of al-Qaida fighters and guerrillas from other groups hiding in the region’s deserts and hills.  The harsh terrain of north and west Africa is rapidly emerging as yet another front in the long-running US war against terrorist networks, a conflict that has fuelled a revolution in drone warfare.

Since taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama has relied heavily on drones for operations, both declared and covert, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia. US drones also fly from allied bases in Turkey, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines.  Now they are becoming a fixture in Africa. The US military has built a major drone hub in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, and flies unarmed Reaper drones from Ethiopia. Until recently, it conducted reconnaissance flights over east Africa from the island nation of Seychelles.  The Predator drones in Niger, a landlocked and dirt-poor country, give the Pentagon a strategic foothold in west Africa. Niger shares a long border with Mali, where an al-Qaida affiliate and other Islamist groups have taken root. Niger also borders Libya and Nigeria, which are also struggling to contain armed extremist movements.

Like other US drone bases, the Predator operations in Niger are shrouded in secrecy. The White House announced in February that Obama had deployed about 100 military personnel to Niger on an “intelligence collection” mission, but it did not make any explicit reference to drones. Since then, the defense department has publicly acknowledged the presence of drones here but has revealed little else. The Africa Command, which oversees US military missions on the continent, denied requests from a Washington Post reporter to interview American troops in Niger or to tour the military airfield where the drones are based, near Niamey’s international airport.

Government officials in Niger, a former French colony, were slightly more forthcoming. President Issoufou Mahamadou said his government invited Washington to send surveillance drones because he was worried that the country might not be able to defend its borders from Islamist fighters based in Mali, Libya or Nigeria.  “We welcome the drones,” Mahamadou said in an interview at the presidential palace in Niamey. Citing the “feeble capability” of many west African militaries, he said Niger and its neighbors desperately needed foreign help to track the movements of guerrillas across the Sahara and Sahel, an arid territorial belt that covers much of the region.  “Our countries are like the blind leading the blind,” he said. “We rely on countries like France and the United States. We need co-operation to ensure our security.”  The Predator drones in Niger are unarmed, US officials said, though they have not ruled out equipping the aircraft with Hellfire missiles in the future. For now, the drones are conducting surveillance over Mali and Niger….

But the rules of engagement are blurry. Intelligence gathered by the Predators could indirectly help the French fix targets for airstrikes or prompt Nigerien security forces to take action on their territory.  Moreover, US officials have acknowledged that they could use lethal force under certain circumstances. Last month, army general Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the US military had designated “a handful of high-value individuals” in north Africa for their suspected connections to al-Qaida, making them potential targets for capture or killing.  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 US military wants to establish a long-term presence in west Africa.  After years of negotiations, the Obama administration signed an agreement with Niger in January that provides judicial protection and other safeguards for US troops in the country.  Two US defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, said the Pentagon ultimately wants to move the Predators to the Saharan city of Agadez, in northern Niger.  Agadez is closer to parts of southern Algeria and southern Libya where fighters and arms traffickers allied with al-Qaida have taken refuge. The airfield in Agadez, however, is rudimentary and needs improvements before it can host drones, officials said.

Excerpts,Craig Whitlock, Drone warfare: Niger becomes latest frontline in US war on terror, Guardian, Mar. 26, 2013