United States military officials have expressed interest in developing a drone base in northwest Africa to provide increased surveillance of the region’s known militant groups. The base would launch unarmed drones to keep tabs on Islamist extremists who have been linked to al-Qaida, as well as other possible threats. Concerns over the security of northwest Africa have increased in the weeks since France intervened against Islamist rebels who threaten Mali. The U.S military’s Africa Command suggests that the base would be located in Niger, near the country’s border with Mali.
“This is directly related to the Mali mission, but it could also give AfriCom a more enduring presence for ISR,” a military official told The New York Times on Sunday. ISR refers to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, a growing priority in an area of rising conflict.
Last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the region could become a new safe haven for Islamists. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been one of the rebel groups driving the conflict in Mali, signaling the spread of al-Qaida’s influence beyond the Middle East.
“This is going to be a very serious, ongoing threat,” she said. “If you look at the size of northern Mali, and if you look at the topography, it’s not only desert, it’s caves — sounds reminiscent,” she said during testimony in Washington, drawing a comparison to Afghanistan. “We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven.”
Niger officials have not responded to the possibility of an American drone base within its borders, but the country’s president said he is considering cooperating with the U.S. for security reasons. “What’s happening in northern Mali is a big concern for us because what’s happening in northern Mali can also happen to us,” Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou said, according to The New York Times.