NIGER — In the vast border area between Niger and Mali, U.S.-trained special forces hunt ISIS-linked militants. The Nigerian commandos face the challenge of tracking an agile enemy along a porous border, and they say continued American support is critical. But the U.S. is aiming to reduce its footprint on the African continent.
“We could never manage without U.S. air support.” Lt. Ben Sina told VICE NEWS. “If one day they decided to let us do our operations, we could do them well. But if they continue to support us, it would be a plus for us.”
Sina and his men are tasked with patrolling an area the size of Maryland, collecting intelligence from villages and searching for fresh motorcycle tracks. Those tracks offer a clue to fighters’ movements: Motorcycles, frequently used by militants to carry out attacks, were banned in the area in late 2017 after a deadly ambush on a joint U.S.-Nigerian patrol in the village of Tongo Tongo that left four U.S. Green Berets dead and stoked outrage back home.
ISIS-linked groups in the region have stepped up their activity in the time since the Tongo Tongo ambush, claiming 19 attacks since March alone. Africa has taken on greater importance to ISIS since the collapse of its caliphate in Syria and Iraq, experts say.
But the Trump administration late last year announced a shift in its Africa policy. The Tongo Tongo has said forces in Africa will be reduced by 10 percent. That has raised questions about the future of a massive new drone base being built in Niger. Once viewed as a critical component in the ongoing war on terror on the African continent, it's cost more than $100 million to construct and is two and a half years behind schedule.
VICE News traveled to Niger to see what troops are up against – and we got rare access to the new U.S. drone base.
This segment originally aired April 25, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.