Documents and satellite images show that the United States military has built a small base in central Niger to conduct drone operations in West Africa, and its location is not only strategic but also historic.
The base is designed to accommodate military transport aircraft, “miscellaneous light- and medium-load aircraft,” and two of America’s most notorious and powerful weaponized drones — the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper — according to documents obtained by the Intercept.
The U.S. Air Force refused to confirm any details of the base to the news site, but it did refer to the location as a “Nigerian military air base.”
The base is located just north of the central Niger city of Agadez, the 600-year-old site known as the gateway to the Sahara desert. It has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
Basing operations in the middle of the arid African country may seem like a curious choice for the United States military, until you look at Niger’s neighbors.
According to the U.S. Air Force, the Reaper has a range of roughly 1,150 miles — a big improvement on the Predator, its predecessor. Which means the unmanned vehicle would be able to strike anywhere in Nigeria, where Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram militants are running a brutal insurgency campaign; Mali, which is plagued by a violent separatist campaign in its northern region; most of Libya, which is struggling to contain Islamist rebels who fight under the ISIS banner; and some of Tunisia, which is racked with instability and sectarian fighting.
There’s another compelling reason to put the $100 million base in Niger, as the documents note: “Niger is the only country in NW Africa to allow RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] operations.”
America has had some trouble running drone bases in Africa. Earlier this year, officials shuttered the U.S. base in Ethiopia, which had been used to conduct strikes on Boko Haram, telling the Washington Post that the closure was the result of “a mutual decision that our presence in Arba Minch [Ethiopia] is not required at this time.”
And it’s not clear what happened to the American drone base in Garoua, in northern Cameroon, which had been used to conduct missions in Nigeria.
Plans for the Agadez base were originally reported in 2014, but the base was billed as a secondary Niger location, as the Air Force already had assets in Niamey. The documents obtained by the Intercept reveal that assets from Niamey are being moved to Agadez.