CIA drone mission in Africa expanding
A JOINT REPORT
THE CIA is poised to conduct secret drone strikes against Al-qaeda and Islamic State insurgents from a newly expanded air base deep in the Sahara, making aggressive use of powers that were scaled back during the Obama administration and restored by President Donald Trump.
Late in his presidency, Barack Obama sought to put the military in charge of drone attacks after a backlash arose over a series of highly visible strikes, some of which killed civilians. The move was intended, in part, to bring greater transparency to attacks that the US often refused to acknowledge its role in. But now the CIA is broadening its drone operations, moving aircraft to northeastern Niger to hunt Islamist militants in southern Libya. The expansion adds to the agency’s limited covert missions in eastern Afghanistan for strikes in Pakistan, and in southern Saudi Arabia for attacks in Yemen.
Nigerian and US officials said the CIA had been flying drones on surveillance missions for several months from a corner of a small commercial airport in Dirkou. Satellite imagery shows that the airport has grown significantly since February to include a new taxiway, walls and security posts.
One US official said the drones had not yet been used in lethal missions, but would almost certainly be in the near future, given the growing threat in southern Libya. A CIA spokesman, Tim Barrett, declined to comment.
A Defence Department spokeswoman, Maj Sheryll Klinkel, said the military had maintained a base at the Dirkou airfield for several months but did not fly drone missions from there.
A reporter saw the gray aircraft — about the size of Predator drones, which are 27 feet long —flying at least three times over six days in early August.
“All I know is they’re American,” Niger’s interior minister, Mohamed Bazoum, said in an interview.
Dirkou’s mayor, Boubakar Jerome, said the drones had helped improve the town’s security.
“It’s always good. If people see things like that, they’ll be scared,” he said.
Somalia’s Al-qaeda-affiliated Shabaab rebels.