The West African country of Niger has granted the United States permission to deploy surveillance drones to gain more intelligence on Islamist fighters in northern Mali.
“Niger has given the green light to accepting surveillance drones on its soil to improve the collection of intelligence on Islamist movements,” a senior government source told Reuters Wednesday.
The drones would be stationed at a base in Agadez, which is located near northern Mali, Algeria, and Libya, the source added. The drones would also be used to gather intelligence in northern Africa as a whole.
U.S. Ambassador Bisa Williams talked to the president about economic and military cooperation, according to the source.
Other African countries in which American drones are stationed include Burkina Faso, Morocco, Senegal, Uganda, and Djibouti, according to Al-Jazeera. But the U.S.’s only permanent drone base is located in Djibouti, which borders Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.
The base in Niger will also host U.S. troops as part of an overarching security operation in the region, CNN reported.
George Little, a spokesman with the Department of Defense, said that what role soldiers in Niger will play “has not yet been defined.”
However, one American military source told The New York Times, “This is directly related to the Mali mission, but it could also give Africom a more enduring presence for ISR,” referring to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Maman Sidikou, the Niger ambassador to the United States, confirmed that drones will be stationed in his country, but said they will be unarmed.
Nearby Mali is the home of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot of the global terrorist organization, and was at the center of last year’s takeover of much of the country’s north. More than two weeks ago, France deployed troops and warplanes to drive the Islamist insurgents out of Mali.
Right before the French intervention, on Jan. 10, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, told the Times,“What’s happening in northern Mali is a big concern for us because what’s happening in northern Mali can also happen to us.”
Robert Densmore, a former American naval flight officer and the editor of Defense Report, told Al-Jazeera that North Africans are more likely to accept having drones in their country, out of the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other linked organizations.
“Many people in North Africa rate the risk from al-Qaeda higher than they did 12 months ago,” Densmore told Al-Jazeera.
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