By Dan Gettinger
Niger is in a tight spot. In the wake of the recent French intervention in Mali along its western border, Niger faces a continued threat from Islamist militant groups allied with al-Qaeda. In the vast Sahara desert in the north, Libyan militias roam and Tuareg tribesmen threaten to make a renewed push for autonomy. To the south, the conflict between Boko Haram – Nigerian Islamist militants – and the Nigerian government is growing more violent. In response to these threats, Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s foreign minister, has said that Niger would welcome armed American drones.
Bazoum encouraged greater cooperation with his nation’s American and European partners on security concerns including terrorism and drug trafficking. “I would really welcome armed drones to shoot down drug traffickers, and all those who live from activities linked to drug trafficking. I don’t see why that shouldn’t be possible,” he said in an interview with Reuters.
American drones already have a presence in Niger. When al-Qaeda fighters and militants advanced on the capital of Mali in January, Niger supported the French-led intervention and allowed 100 American service members and unmanned aircraft to set up a base outside the capital of Niamey. The drones, which were unarmed, conducted intelligence operations in support of French forces fighting on the ground in Mali.
According to a French defense minister, the American drones were “absolutely necessary for us because we don’t have enough drones to protect our troops and to get permanent visibility about what’s happening on the ground.” In terms of sighting targets for French air strikes and protecting French and Malian ground forces, the Americans played a critical role in the conflict without any ‘boots on the ground.’
Victory against al-Qaeda might have been claimed in Mali, but associated Islamist groups are taking the battle elsewhere. In May, a pair of car bomb attacks in northern Niger on a military barracks and a French uranium mine killed 30 soldiers and wounded hundreds of civilians. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a breakoff faction of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claimed responsibility for the attack as a response to the support Niger gave to France during the Malian intervention. The rise of al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations like MUJAO and Boko Haram are a major source of worry for the Obama administration and at the heart of an evolving counter-terrorism strategy.
“Lethal yet less capable al-Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We must take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them,” said President Obama in his May 23 speech at the National Defense University.
While drones fly on targeted killing missions over Yemen and Somalia from a base in east Africa, unmanned aircraft have only flown surveillance sorties over west African nations like Mali and Niger. However, Eric Schmitt wrote for the New York Times in July that the American drones operations in and around Niger could set a precedent for U.S. military activity in the continent. If armed drones do take to Nigerien skies in search of drug traffickers as per the request of Minister Bazoum, it would be a significant expansion of the drones’ targeted killing portfolio. It is much more likely that the decision to arm the drones in Niger would be in response to a security situation that is becoming increasingly central to the White House’s counterterrorism strategy.
(Cover Image: The air base in Niamey, Niger. The Public Intelligence blog featured photos of drone outposts across Africa in post last February.)