The United States military’s Africa Command has confirmed that its forces began deploying armed drones in Niger earlier this year.
The West African country’s government granted American forces permission in November 2017 to arm their drones – but neither side had previously confirmed their deployment.
“In coordination with the Government of Niger, US Africa Command has armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft already in Niger to improve our combined ability to respond to threats and other security issues in the region. Armed ISR aircraft began flying in early 2018,” Samantha Reho, spokeswoman for US Africa Command told The Associated Press on Monday.
The armed drones are currently deployed to Niger’s Air Base 101 in the capital, Niamey. Reho said the effort was supported by Niger’s government, describing it as part of the long-term strategic partnership between the two countries to counter armed groups in the region.
In 2013, Niger gave permission for US surveillance drones to be stationed on its territory with the intention of improving intelligence on al-Qaeda-linked fighters in northern Mali and the wider Sahara.
The US military presence in Niger has expanded in recent years to an 800-strong force that accompanies Nigerien troops on intelligence gathering and other missions.
An ambush claimed by a local Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) affiliate in western Niger last October killed four US soldiers. Groups based in neighbouring Mali have also struck military and civilian targets as far afield as Ivory Coast.
MQ-9 drones currently flying out of Niamey will eventually be moved to Nigerien Air Base 201, which is being built in Agadez, on the edge of the Sahara Desert, according to The Associated Press.
The $110m project is the largest troop labour construction project in US history, according to Air Force officials.
The drones’ range enables them to reach a number of West and North African countries.
The military views the drones as a cost-efficient way to counter armed groups, but the US programme has been heavily criticised for many of its operations – one example is the ones that have taken place in Pakistan.
The New America Foundation tracks US drone raids in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
According to its data, the US has carried a total of 414 drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004, with 245 to 303 civilian casualties, and an overall estimation of 2,366 to 3,700 people dead.
In Yemen, there has been a total of 267 drone attacks since 2002, with 111 to 142 civilian casualties, and an overall estimation of 1,330 to 1,716 people dead.
And in Somalia, there have been a total of 92 drone attacks since 2003, with 22 to 37 civilian casualties, and an overall estimation of 666 to 743 people dead.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks US drone raids and other covert actions operations in several countries, says the US has carried out a minimum of 4,076 attacks in Afghanistan since 2015, with 3,594 to 4,879 people reported killed, including 150 to 313 civilians and 36 to 77 children.