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The New York Times reports that the CIA is expanding its presence at a recently established drone base at Dirkou, Niger, an oasis town in the Sahara that has a small airport. Over the past two years, the U.S. military has been building another drone base in Agadez, central Niger, to conduct reconnaissance. It will have an expected ten-year price tag of over a quarter-billion dollars, is run by the U.S. air force, and will host armed Reaper drones. The CIA has already used the expanded base in Dirkou for surveillance missions, but now the drones are likely to be used on lethal ones. For now, the targets are militants in southern Libya.
The U.S. Army’s Africa Command has also carried out lethal drone strikes against al-Qaeda and Islamic State operatives in Libya from bases in Sicily and Niamey, the capital of Niger. Dirkou is hundreds of miles closer than either to southern Libya. The Nigerien government, according to the Times, is supportive of the U.S. use of drones.
President Barack Obama transferred responsibility for drone attacks from the CIA to the U.S. military, in part in response to civilian casualties, and in part to manage better the public relations aspect of what are supposed to be clandestine operations. President Trump reversed that decision at the urging of then-CIA director Mike Pompeo in 2017. Now, it would appear that both the CIA and AFRICOM are, or are about to be, operating lethal drone strikes from bases in Niger.
As U.S. Special Forces are preparing to reduce their footprint in Africa, lethal drone use is ramping up. As experience in Afghanistan and Yemen have shown, drones are by no means immune from causing unintended civilian casualties and their effectiveness against enemy terrorists is subject to debate. For now, there appears to be little Nigerien or local opposition to expanded drone use. If casualties, intended and otherwise, are restricted to Libya, that is likely to continue. This could change if local militants are targeted. In fact, U.S. Special Forces, including those killed at Tongo Tongo, were fighting and targeting militants in Niger.