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U.S. May Build Base For Drones In Northwest Africa


We're going to head west now, from Egypt across Libya to Niger. The Pentagon has signed a deal with the government there. The agreement could allow the U.S. to establish a forward base in Niger so that it could operate drone aircraft across northern and western Africa. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been reporting on the U.S. military's growing presence on the continent. He joins me now here in the studio.

And Tom, how close is the U.S. to actually setting up a drone base in Niger?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, it doesn't seem to be that close. The New York Times first reported this. The Pentagon today wouldn't comment on a drone base. They would only say, listen, there's a new military agreement with Niger. Other officials I spoke with say, listen, if we do create a drone base, it'll be a ways off. But it does seem to make sense, and the big reason is for surveillance of Islamist militants, not only in northern Mali, where the French are fighting now, but really throughout this whole region, where there are growing numbers of Islamist militants.

And this is the top concern of U.S. officials in the region, that these militants, they say, are getting stronger and they're beginning to coordinate, share information and arms. And obviously there's a concern about destabilizing governments in west Africa, but it also extends to Europe because some of these militant groups do, you know, have criminal networks, moving drugs, money laundering, diamonds, even people and terrorists into Europe. So, it's a real concern.

BLOCK: Now, the U.S. already has a base in Djibouti, just north of Somalia. It can operate drones from there. So why a base in Niger?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. base in Djibouti is 3,000 miles away. This one, of course, would be a lot closer to where the fighting is, particularly in Mali. And also, the French have intervened in Mali, of course, and they're desperate for the kind of intelligence that the U.S. drones can provide.

Another reason for working with Niger is the U.S. wants to build up African troops and eventually get them in the lead. So a basing agreement isn't necessarily just about drones. It's also being able to put U.S. trainers on the ground to professionalize African forces, so that'd be another reason for this military agreement with Niger.

BLOCK: And the mission, exactly, Tom, you mentioned surveillance, but would the drones also conduct airstrikes?

BOWMAN: No. At this point, we're just talking about surveillance, and again, it's needed because it's a huge area here. Northern Mali is roughly the size of Texas, so you would use these drones to take pictures of where the militants are and also, maybe more importantly, pick up their radio and telephone conversations, which could help in the targeting of them and also provide useful information.

At this point, the only use of armed drones is on the other side of the continent against insurgents in Somalia, and also from African bases to strike against Yemen.

BLOCK: Tom, this is all coming on top of other assistance that the U.S. is already providing to the French in their campaign in Mali - cargo planes, refueling, I think, right?

BOWMAN: That's right. The U.S. has already provided C-17 cargo planes to carry French troops and equipment to Mali. Also, refueling aircraft for the French fighter jets. And the French say they've received intelligence assistance as well. Again, you know, likely satellite or some sort of photo reconnaissance; also again intercepts we think they're already getting of the Islamist insurgents.

BLOCK: Tom, are you hearing people express concerns about blowback from this? In other words, would this be seen as further Western provocation or a creeping military role on the continent?

BOWMAN: You know, that has been a concern for some time. Even when they created African Command five years ago, there was a fear that they would militarize foreign policy in Africa. Even the State Department officials talked about that. And if they're joining with the French on actual military attacks in northern Mali, it could be a boon to the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, getting them to recruit more people saying, listen, here comes one more Western country to kill you people.

So there is a concern here that, you know, the U.S. could get dragged further into this and it could militarize foreign policy throughout Africa.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.