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Expanding counterterrorism in the Sahel region

Does the CIA drone base expansion signal increased concerns over terrorism activities?


By: Chiara Longmore

Recent satellite images have shown that the CIA’s Dirkou drone base in Niger has been expanding, with a report from the New York Times stating that the CIA are continuing to conduct drone flights from the base. Within Africa’s Sahel region, home to growing violent Islamist extremism, the expansion of the Dirkou base could be indicative of increasing counterterrorism operations in the region. This is a surprising development, given Joe Biden’s statement halting US drone strikes in non-conflict zones.

CIA’s Sahara airbase

Within Niger’s Sahara Desert, situated next to a small airport, lies the Dirkou air base. The base, used by the CIA since 2018, has been steadily developed under the Trump administration with the purpose of conducting remote drone surveillance operations. A recent report from The New York Times shows satellite images indicating that Dirkou has undergone an expansion, with the site’s runway almost doubling in length.

The CIA has made no public statement on the expansion of the base which will now be able to house MQ-9 Reaper drones and U-28 aircraft. The development of the drone base emerges despite the Biden administration’s temporary directive to limit remote airstrikes in non-conflict zones outside of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Figure I: USAF Drone Base in Dirkou, Niger [Satellite image]. Hozint – Horizon Intelligence, Political and Security risk monitor [Horizon+]. Brussels, EU. Using MapBox and OpenStreetMap Contributors. Leaflet Javascript.

In Niger, the US military has airbases in Agadez and Niamey which carried out drone strikes in Libya during the Trump administration. The Agadez and Niamey airbases have also given support to the French-led International Coalition for the Sahel which aims to address the growing crisis in the Sahel by fighting armed terrorist groups, strengthening armed forces in the region, as well as assisting regional development. The Dirkou base is closer to the Libyan border than Agadez and Niamey and, consequently, is better positioned for counterterrorism surveillance of Islamist militants in southern Libya. Its strategic position may explain the base’s recent expansion, particularly as activities from extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Libya and across the Sahel region have intensified.

Crisis in the Sahel

Africa’s Sahel region crosses several states including Senegal, Sudan, Mali, Niger, Burkino Faso and Chad. The region has been subjected to growing violent activities from Islamist extremist groups, with the Islamic State based in southern Libya actively recruiting from the West African region.

According to the UN, the Sahel has recently seen ‘unprecedented terrorist violence’ against both civilian and military targets, with casualties from terrorist-related attacks increasing ‘five-fold since 2016’ in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Indeed, in January of this year, 100 civilians in northern Niger were killed as a result of Islamist extremist fighting and intercommunal conflict.

Contested counterterrorism strategies

To combat the crisis in the Sahel, the international coalition led by France has engaged in a military-led strategy, training regional security forces and engaging in direct military engagement with extremist groups. Recently, the US and British militaries’ conducted training of the Somali National Army which demonstrates further military-led counterinsurgency strategies in the Sahel region. The expansion of the Dirkou base does not necessarily indicate increased US military activity, however, it does hint at enhancing military-led surveillance operations as well as the possibility of conducting remote drone strikes.

Yet, the efficacy of a military-led counterinsurgency strategy in combatting the Sahel crisis is disputed. A recent report from International Crisis Group has emphasised the need to ‘reorient’ the military-centred approach in the Sahel region and instead focus on strengthening governance in the region. In areas where the security of the state is weak, extremist groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda assume a form of ‘rebel governance', providing security to civilians in return for their support. Growing discontent in the West African region, for example, the Mali uprising in August of last year, can be attributed to a failure of military-led strategies which do not effectively address the core needs of the regional governments in the Sahel region.

Furthermore, ethical issues surround the use of remote strategies in counterterrorism efforts. Ethical issues are a central factor in the Biden administration’s recent halt on remote counterterrorism operations outside conflict zones, given past criticism of US drone attacks causing civilian casualties in, for example, Yemen and Pakistan.

Military-led preparedness

For an effective and sustainable strategy in the Sahel region, a balance of counterterrorism approaches is necessary to combat the complex issues at hand. On the one hand, ‘crisis of governance’ in the Sahel is indeed vital to address particularly when we consider the challenges that the vast geographic region brings to achieving sovereign power. On the other hand, military-led operations can be extremely useful in governmental support as well as placing needed pressure on Islamist groups with low financial and political costs and deter future recruitment.

In conclusion, a comprehensive counterterrorism response in the Sahel is necessary, especially when we consider comments made by the UNOWAS chief that the “geographic focus of terrorist attacks…is increasingly threatening West African coastal States”. This shift towards the coast may be a cause of concern regarding the wider influence of extremist groups such as the Islamic State beyond West Africa.

Therefore, while the expansion of the Dirkou Drone Base in Niger may not directly signal US military expansionism in the Sahel, the development of the base may be indicative of intentions to strengthen counterinsurgency surveillance in preparedness for further escalations of terrorist activities within the Sahel.

This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.

For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the Author:

Chiara Longmore is originally from Scotland; however, she has moved to the Netherlands to complete a master’s at Leiden University in International Relations and Diplomacy. With an interdisciplinary background, her bachelor’s was in Liberal Arts, she has analysed situations of violence and conflict with a multi-disciplinary framework, in particular with Political Science, Anthropology, and Sociology.

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