WASHINGTON — Opening a new front in the drone wars against al-Qaida and its affiliates, President Barack Obama announced Friday that about 100 U.S. troops had been sent to Niger to help set up a new base from which unarmed Predator aircraft would conduct regional surveillance.
The new drone base, located for now in the capital, Niamey, is an indication of the priority Africa has become in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. The U.S. military has only one permanent base in Africa, in Djibouti, more than 3,000 miles from Mali, where insurgents took over half the country until repelled by a French-led force.
In a letter to Congress, Obama said about 40 U.S. military service members arrived Wednesday in Niger, bringing the total number of those deployed there to about 100 people. A military official said the troops were largely Air Force logistics specialists, intelligence analysts and security officers.
Obama said the troops, who are armed for self-protection, would support the French-led operation that last month drove al-Qaida and affiliated fighters out of a desert refuge in neighboring Mali.
Niger signed a status-of-forces agreement last month with the United States that has cleared the way for greater U.S. military involvement in the country and has provided legal protection to U.S. troops there.
In an interview last month in Niamey, President Mahamadou Issoufou voiced concern about the spillover of violence and refugees from Mali, as well as growing threats from Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group, in neighboring Nigeria.
U.S. officials said Predator drones would at first fly only as unarmed surveillance drones, although they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes if the threat worsens.