Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flight operations from Nigerien Air Base 201 have begun, United States Africa Command said in a release.
The ISR missions are “in support of our partner forces and international efforts to counter violent extremist organizations in the region,” the Friday, November 1 release said.
Work on the large and controversial U.S. air base known as Niger Air Base 201 in the northern city of Agadez began in 2016. The U.S. Air Force began limited Visual Flight Rules operations there in August, with C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft flying missions into the facility. The 6,200-feet runway is capable of supporting any aircraft type up to a C-17 Globemaster III.
“The new runway at Nigerien Air Base 201 is a joint-use runway that is suitable for both U.S. and Nigerien aircraft, allowing for enhanced response to regional requirements and better protection of Niger’s borders,” AFRICOM added.
“The location in Agadez was selected in conjunction with Niger due to the geographic and strategic flexibility it offers to regional security efforts,” said U.S. Air Force General Jeff Harrigian, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa.
Friday’s release did not specify which aircraft types had begun flying ISR missions, but an AFRICOM official told Air Force Magazine in August that MQ-9 Reaper drones were set to start flying missions from the base by the end of this year.
The government of Niger recently gave the U.S. permission to arm drones stationed in the country. Armed U.S drones already fly from Air Base 101 near the capital Niamey, around 800 km southwest of Agadez.
Niger hosts an estimated 800 U.S. troops, the largest American deployment in Africa.
“The U.S. military is at Nigerien Air Base 201 at the request of the Government of Niger,” AFRICOM Commander U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend stressed. “We are working with our African and international partners to counter security threats in West Africa.”
Armed groups in the Sahel
Many armed groups are active in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and the wider Sahel region. Most insurgent attacks are attributed to the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) which formed in March 2017 from a merger of several smaller groups including the Sahara branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and Al-Mourabitoun. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Another significant threat to the region comes from Islamic State West Africa Province in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Since May, Islamic State has attributed insurgent activities in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area to its West Africa Province affiliate, rather than to what was previously known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
International counter-terrorism missions in the Sahel
The most prominent international mission is the Sahel is led by former colonial power France, which launched its Operation Serval military intervention in Mali after extremists linked to al-Qaeda exploited a Tuareg rebel uprising to take key cities in the desert north in 2013.
Serval in 2014 evolved into Operation Barkhane, which has a mandate for counter-terrorism missions across vast Sahel region. Roughly 4,500 French troops are deployed in the region and the force focuses activity in insurgent-hit Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Personnel from Estonia and helicopters from the United Kingdom support the Barkhane force, and Denmark is to send two helicopters and up to 70 troops in December.
Barkhane troops work alongside other international operations, including the roughly 14,000-strong MINUSMA United Nations stabilization mission in Mali, and the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S), the long-planned 4,500-strong joint counter-terrorism force that comprises troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
France has begun asking its European partners to send special forces to the Sahel to assist and improve the basic training for local forces, and hopes to form a new Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force under French command.
U.S. officials said in August that the U.S. will seek additional contributions from the Global Coalition Against ISIS to combat the group and its affiliates in Africa.
At the request of France, members of the U.S.-led Coalition will meet in Washington on November 14.