On 30 September the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) confirmed the construction of a drone base in Agadez, in northern Niger. The base will house unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including the MQ-9 Reaper, for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions over the Sahel, Sahara and Lake Chad area.
The US has operated from Base Aerienne 101 at Diori Hamani International Airport outside Niamey since 2013, which it shares with French forces supporting Operation Barkhane, France’s 3,000 man strong regional counter-terrorism operation. France, which also has a base at Madama, operates a number of UAVs from Niamey. General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers will be based at the new Agadez base, which will be large enough for a Boeing C-17 Globemaster to operate from, and will reportedly be operational in 2017. The drones will initially be used for aerial reconnaissance missions over the Sahel-Sahara and Lake Chad regions, including over Libya, Nigeria, and Mali, tracking the “broad patterns of human activity and are not aimed at hunting individuals” said a senior U.S. official in 2013. The drones may be armed in the future. Germany also announced the building of a military base outside Niamey, on 5 October, to support the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali.
Niger faces a number of security threats which it cannot afford to address without international support; Boko Haram factions continue to mount attacks on Nigerien forces along the poorly protected border with Nigeria. The country faces ongoing threats from militant groups, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Mourabitoun. Over 20 Nigerien soldiers were killed in a militant attack upon a Malian refugee camp at Tazalit on 6 October; the militants reportedly arrived from and fled back to the Malian border in a dozen ATV’s. The latent threat of separatist insurgencies by marginalised ethnic groups, such as the Tuareg, also threaten the security environment; on 7 September, the Mouvement pour la justice et la réhabilitation du Niger (MJRN), an ethnic-Toubou armed group threatened to launch attacks on mining and oil sites in Niger in response to economic and environmental grievances.
Regional militant groups may escalate retaliatory attacks due to Niger’s increasing involvement in counter-terrorism operations with international partners. Attacks on military personnel linked to the base would likely be in the form of IED roadside bombs aimed at vehicles operating in the region, VBIED attacks at the base entrance and associated checkpoints and opportunistic small arms fire. A more pressing concern is the fate of western nationals operating in Niger, who may be targeted, as the high-profile attacks in the regional capitals of Bamako, Ouagadougou, and Abidjan since 2015 demonstrate. Foreign nationals will also be at elevated risk of kidnapping; a US aid worker was recently kidnapped in the Tahoua region in mid-October by militants, likely by Jamaat At Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Gharb Afriqqiya (MUJAO) who then fled to Mali, according to statements by the Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum. Foreign nationals in the mining industry are also likely to be affected by attacks and KRE, due to the risks associated with operations in remote locations compounded by generally insufficient levels of government security. This threat was aptly demonstrated with the kidnapping of four French nationals working for the French energy firm Areva in 2008 by Tuareg militia, and released in 2013.