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Why growing U.S. drone operations in Niger are controversial

Editor's Note: This story contains footage some viewers may find disturbing.

Over the past few years, the U.S. military has increased its activities and broadened its mission in Africa. In Niger, the U.S. Air Force has built a huge new base from which it launches drone operations. But critics worry the American presence will serve to attract more attention from terrorists and traffickers drawn to the deserted Sahel. Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports from Niger.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: Over the past several years, the United States military increased its presence and broadened its mission in Africa.

    One place where that expansion is best seen is Niger in West Africa, part of what's known as the Sahel region. The U.S. Air Force has built a huge new base there, from which it launches drone aircraft.

    But as in other hot spots where drones fly, in Niger, those operations are controversial.

    Special correspondent Mike Cerre was granted rare access to the base.

  • Mike Cerre:

    As shocking of the deaths of four soldiers ambushed in Niger in 2017 was the revelation that nearly 800 American military personnel are stationed in Niger.

    The drone watching the mission from above wasn't armed. They are now, and the U.S. is expanding its drone operations in Niger. The deserts separating North Africa from West Africa can be forbidding. But for smugglers, human traffickers and, more recently, non-state terrorist organizations, the remote expanses can also be inviting for moving fighters and weapons freely through the region, much to the concern of General Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of the U.S. forces in Africa.

  • Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser:

    One way to characterize Niger would be is, they have been a good partner in a very, very bad neighborhood.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Agadez, the traditional desert crossroads and trading outpost in Central Niger, is about to become the new hub of the expanding American drone operations in Africa.

    Here, in the middle of the desert, is where the U.S. is constructing its newest drone base, now that more drone missions are originating out of Africa than the Middle East, estimated cost, $110 million and counting. The decision to build the base was made more than five years ago, while making neighboring Mali was under siege, according to U.S. Ambassador to Niger Eric Whitaker.

  • Eric Whitaker:

    I think it's in our interest to help a willing partner such as Niger to fight them here, rather for us to be forced to fight them closer to the homeland.

  • Mike Cerre:

    There are no flags or signs at this heavily fortified desert base outside of Agadez, Niger. The Pentagon simply calls it Base 201.

    But when it's completed by the end of the year, it will be the largest installation Air Force personnel have ever built and the newest outpost in the American military's fight against a variety of extremist organizations who use the desert to smuggle weapons and people into West Africa.

  • Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser:

    You have Boko Haram and ISIS' West Africa group who are essentially knocking at the door. Other groups come down from Libya into Northern Mali. That whole border with Algeria is a problem for the government of Niger.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The U.S. has been operating drone missions out of another base in Niger's capital since 2013.

    The CIA is also believed to be using another drone base in Northeastern Niger. But the military wants to consolidate its drone operations at this new base, with less commercial air traffic restrictions and closer to the terrorist threats in Africa's Sahel region south of the Sahara, connecting West Africa with Central Africa.

  • Maj. Conner Riley:

    Starting up from nearly nothing in the middle of sub-Sahel Africa is daunting.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Major Conner Riley is in charge of the Air Force runway construction crew, currently doing a six-month tour of duty, working days and nights, as dictated by the extreme heat, dust storms, delays in heavy equipment repairs and having to locally source gravel and asphalt.

    This 6,000-foot runway is for the drones flying around-the-clock missions, as well as for the much larger supply planes inbound from Europe that are the base's lifeline for everything from new personnel and spare parts to fresh food and mail.

  • Maj. Conner Riley:

    You're in such a logistically isolated place. You're in the middle of a country that's twice the size of Texas, and it's all dirt roads to get to the next big city.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Like any construction project, this one is well over budget and schedule. But there are some unique contingencies to building a runway in the middle of a desert.

    The air force won't disclose how many of the longer-range MQ-9 Reaper drones like these will be based here. Like other U.S. drone operations, once airborne, they will be controlled by pilots two continents away back in the U.S., conducting the missions by remote control.

  • Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhause:

    Drones have been flying out of Niger really since 2013.

    That decision was made years ago with regards to the ability to provide intelligence to the Sahel countries and with regards to our ability as the United States to take a look at the threats that were forming in that part of the Sahel.

  • Eric Whitaker:

    And one of those is because some of the groups involved here, such as ISIS and al-Qaida, are franchises, and they have spread from one country to another.

  • Salih Booker:

    It's a legitimate threat, but it's also an exaggerated threat. Terrorism is not the greatest national security threat that Niger faces. It really is poverty and internal corruption.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Salih Booker is also concerned about the new base being a magnet for increased terrorist activities in the area.

  • Salih Booker:

    That makes it very much a target for those who would oppose a U.S. interest, but also for those who may be opposed to the Nigerian government, who can use the presence of the U.S. as a target to try and undermine the government.

  • Mike Cerre:

    While construction is still under way this year, Major Kyle Yates' security attachment is responsible for protecting the American personnel and equipment, but it will be up to the Nigerian forces to protect the base itself once it's completed.

  • Maj. Kyle Yates:

    We do training and engagements with them on a daily basis. That's really just to make sure that we can operate with them on the same page.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Because it is so isolated, Base 201's first line of defense depends on the acceptance and protection of the local community, something military civil affairs reservists have been cultivating with tribal leaders and the locals by helping them with solar-powered water wells and other humanitarian missions.

    Most of the locals we were able to speak with independent of the government and military said they are hoping the new base can make up for the economic fallout from Niger's and the European Union's recent clamp-down on the lucrative human smuggling trade to Europe.

  • Salih Booker:

    I think it's a very dangerous blurring of the lines when the Pentagon and the U.S. military start getting involved in development activities in Africa. It's public relations, as they acknowledge.

    And, yes, it may benefit a particular village, but that is not a development strategy that's going to succeed in addressing the crushing poverty that Niger faces.

  • Sr. Airman Alex Gibson:

    Welcome to my crib. This is about how all the rooms are that we live in.

  • Mike Cerre:

    As for the more than 300 service men and women stationed here in this air-conditioned tent city for six months at a stretch without any R&Rs, the Air Force is shipping in all the food and flying in fresh produce from Europe.

  • Sr. Airman Alex Gibson:

    My family only knows I'm in Africa. They have no clue where I am. I would prefer not to tell them, because you see stuff on the news, surrounding countries, et cetera, and there's no need to worry them.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The U.S. is financing and building Base 201 under a 10-year lease agreement with Niger, and the base ultimately belongs to the Nigerians, for however long the American military is the tenant.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Mike Cerre near Agadez, Niger.

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