WASHINGTON — Opening a new front in the drone wars against al-Qaida and its affiliates, President Obama on Friday said about 100 U.S. troops had been sent to Niger in West Africa to help set up a new base from which unarmed Predator aircraft would conduct surveillance in the region.
The new drone base, for now in the capital, Niamey, is an indication of the priority Africa has become in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. The U.S. military has a limited presence in Africa, with only one permanent base, in Djibouti, more than 3,000 miles from Mali, where insurgents had taken over half the country until repelled by a French-led force.
Obama, in a letter to Congress, said about 40 U.S. troops arrived in Niger on Wednesday, bringing the total number of those deployed in the country to about 100 people. A military official said the troops were largely Air Force logistics specialists, intelligence analysts and security officers.
Obama said the troops, who are armed, would support the French-led operation that last month drove al-Qaida and affiliated fighters out of a refuge the size of Texas in neighboring Mali.
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The base in Niger marks the opening of another U.S. military front against al-Qaida and its affiliates, adding to drone combat missions in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The CIA is also conducting drone airstrikes against al-Qaida targets in Pakistan and Yemen.
Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, signed a status-of-forces agreement last month with the United States that has cleared the way for greater U.S. military involvement in the country and provides legal protection to U.S. troops there.
In an interview last month, President Mahamadou Issoufou voiced concern about the spillover of violence and refugees from Mali and growing threats from Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group to the south, in neighboring Nigeria.
French and African troops have retaken Mali’s northern cities, including Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, but about 2,000 militants have melted back into desert and mountain hideaways and have begun a small campaign of harassment and terror, sending suicide bombers, attacking guard posts and infiltrating liberated cities .
“Africa Command has positioned unarmed remotely piloted aircraft in Niger,” Benjamin Benson, a command spokesman in Stuttgart, Germany, said in an email Friday. He did not say how many aircraft or troops ultimately would be deployed, but other U.S. officials have said the base could eventually have up to 300 U.S. troops and contractors.
U.S. officials said Predator drones would at first fly only unarmed surveillance missions, although they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes if the threat worsens.
U.S. officials would like to move the aircraft eventually to Agadez, in northern Niger that is closer to parts of Mali where cells of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other militants groups are operating.
There is evidence that al-Qaida fighters in West Africa are already bracing for drone warfare.
The Associated Press reported finding an al-Qaida document in Timbuktu, Mali, that listed 22 tips for avoiding drones.
On Friday, meanwhile, suicide attackers detonated two car bombs near Tessalit, in Mali’s far north, according to news reports, while Islamist fighters clashed with Malian soldiers farther south in Gao, where fighting has flared in recent days.
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.