The CIA is preparing to conduct secret drone strikes against al-Qaeda and ISIS militants from a newly expanded air base in Niger, as reported by the New York Times (NYT).
According to the outlet, the operation in Niger was scaled back under the Obama administration, however it was restored by President Trump.
The NYT reported that Barack Obama sought to bring greater transparency to attacks that the United States often refused to acknowledge its role in. Thus, he put the military in charge of drone strikes “after a backlash arose over a series of highly visible strikes, some of which killed civilians.”
But, as reported by the NYT, under the Trump Administration the CIA is broadening its drone operations, moving aircraft to the air base in northeastern Niger to target militants in southern Libya. The outlet also adds that the expansion comes in addition to the agency’s limited covert missions in eastern Afghanistan for strikes in Pakistan, and in southern Saudi Arabia for attacks in Yemen.
Nigerien and American officials, cited by the NYT, said the C.I.A. had been flying drones on surveillance missions for several months from a corner of a small commercial airport in Dirkou. Since February 2018, the airport has grown significantly, to include a new taxiway, walls and security posts.
The NYT also cited one unnamed American official said the drones had not yet been used in lethal missions, but would almost certainly be in the near future, given the growing threat in southern Libya.
A C.I.A. spokesman, Timothy Barrett, declined to comment. A Defense Department spokeswoman, Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, said the military had maintained a base at the Dirkou airfield for several months but did not fly drone missions from there.
As reported by the NYT, the drones take off from Dirkou at night, between 10 pm and 4 am. “A New York Times reporter saw the gray aircraft — about the size of Predator drones, which are 27 feet long — flying at least three times over six days in early August.” The drones reportedly also have no blinking lights signaling their presence.
“All I know is they’re American,” Niger’s interior minister, Mohamed Bazoum, said in an interview. Dirkou’s mayor, Boubakar Jerome, said the drones had helped improve the town’s security. “It’s always good. If people see things like that, they’ll be scared,” he said.
The Pentagon’s Africa Command has carried out five drone strikes against al-Qaeda and ISIS militants in Libya this year, including one two weeks ago. The military launches its MQ-9 Reaper drones from bases in Sicily and in Niamey, Niger’s capital, 800 miles southwest of Dirkou. However, the CIA base is hundreds of miles closer to southern Libya.
NYT also cited an unnamed US official who said that the C.I.A. began setting up the base in January to improve surveillance of the region, partly in response to an ambush last fall in another part of Niger that killed four American troops. The Dirkou airfield was labeled a United States Air Force base as a cover, according to the anonymous source.
The NYT further reported: “Despite American denials, a Nigerien security official said he had concluded that the C.I.A. launched an armed drone from the Dirkou base to strike a target in Ubari, in southern Libya, on July 25. The Nigerien security official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified program.” A spokesman for the Africa Command, Maj. Karl Wiest, said the military did not carry out the Ubari strike. Ubari is in the same region where the American military in March launched its first-ever drone attack against al-Qaeda militants in southern Libya.
This report comes with the end of violent clashes in Tripoli. On August 27, heavy clashes erupted between different armed groups inside and around the Libyan capital of Tripoli. According to local sources, several armed groups that are tasked with protecting the areas around the capital, led by the Tarhona 7th Brigade, attacked the positions of the groups, which are based inside Tripoli.
On September 9th, the Libyan Ministry of Health reported that the death toll of the clashes between government forces and armed militias in Libya’s capital Tripoli has increased to 78. The Department of Wounded within the ministry said in a statement that the clashes left 78 dead and 210 wounded until September 8th.
On September 6th, the UN Support Mission in Libya announced that a ceasefire was signed between the parties. According to Reuters, on the same day, a spokesman for the Tarhona 7th Brigade, which led the attack on Tripoli armed groups last week, said that his group accepted the U.N. ceasefire. However, some armed groups have not commented on the UNSMIL statement so far.
The clashes in the Libyan capital began as in-fighting within the Government of National Accord dramatically escalated, plunging the country’s capital into chaos.
A joint statement delivered by the U.S., U.K., France and Italy on September 3rd condemned the fighting as part of a “not acceptable” effort “to weaken the legitimate Libyan authorities and hinder the ongoing political process,” adding that “those who seek to undermine stability, in Tripoli or elsewhere in Libya [will] be made accountable for it.”
This could all be to the benefit of Khalifa Haftar’s government, which controls Libya’s east as well as many of the country’s most important and lucrative oil fields and ports. The oil fields and the means of its transport are the main joint interest of the foreign powers involved in the conflict.