The CIA has reportedly built up its capacity to conduct drone strikes in a remote corner of Africa after President Donald Trump loosened restrictions on the agency’s role in the covert program.
Launched from a recently expanded air base in northeastern Niger, the CIA’s drones are being used to target al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants in nearby Libya, The New York Times reported Monday, citing American and Nigerien officials.
The drone base — adjacent to a commercial airport in the Sahara desert oasis town of Dirkou — has grown substantially since February, the officials said. While the unmanned aircraft are limited to non-lethal surveillance operations, they will almost certainly be used in the future to conduct airstrikes against Islamic militants in the region, TheNYT reported.
The resumption of CIA drone operations in Africa reverses former President Barack Obama’s policy of giving the Pentagon greater oversight of drone strikes, in part to increase transparency into the controversial program. Obama had sought to curtail the CIA’s role in response to backlash from some foreign governments, particularly Yemen and Pakistan, over civilian casualties caused by drone strikes.
Trump changed the policy in 2017, after then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo argued the Obama-era restrictions were hindering the agency’s counterterrorism operations. The CIA began building out the base at Dirkou in January to boost its surveillance of the region, prompted by an ambush during fall 2017 that killed four American soldiers in another area of Niger. (RELATED: US Special Forces Killed, Wounded In Africa Ambush)
The U.S. military already runs drone operations out of two bases in Niger — one in Niamey, the capital, and another in Agadez, about 350 miles west of Dirkou. But the CIA’s Dirkou base is much closer to the Libyan border than the other two, putting it in a better spot to track and kill Islamic militants in southwestern Libya.
That area has become a haven for al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked militants in the wake of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, which toppled the government of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi and created a lawless power vacuum throughout much of the country.
Since then, Washington has expanded military and intelligence operations in Niger to combat Islamic militants there and in neighboring countries. Today, there are about 1,000 American troops deployed to Niger on “train, advise and assist” missions in support of Nigerien security forces.
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