The U.S. currently operates a medium-sized drone base in Djibouti at Camp Lemonnier, where joint Special Forces and CIA strike teams target al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia. This AFRICOM “footprint” is set to spread to Niger, with the construction of a drone base for U.S. Air Force surveillance missions over Islamic militants in neighbouring Mali. President Obama said the force would “provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region.”
Predator drones already operate in Mali, assisting French troops deployed in the country in January. According to an officer interviewed in the LA Times, the unmanned aircraft could be used in other countries throughout the region – perhaps tracking Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, or other affiliates in Southern Libya and Algeria.
Surveillance drones were flown in Eastern Algeria after militants took hundreds hostage in a siege at a natural gas complex.
For now at least, the Niger drone base is a temporary construction, assisting the French. If the Obama administration decides to authorize a permanent airbase, it would probably be in Agadez, northern Mali.
What is for sure is that U.S. Predator drones have lodged themselves as a central tactic – even strategy – in global counter-terrorist operations, and their usage is rapidly becoming the geopolitcal “norm”. The sheer amount of “risk” bundled into operating these craft means that it’s just a matter of time before we witness novel, and perhaps unpredictable forms of “blowback”.