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Eric Schmitt and Scott Sayare | The New York Times

A Malian soldier discovered the body of an Islamist in Gao on Friday, where fighting has flared in recent days.

A Malian soldier discovered the body of an Islamist in Gao on Friday, where fighting has flared in recent days.

WASHINGTON — Opening a new front in the drone wars against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, President Obama announced on Friday that about 100 American troops had been sent to Niger in West Africa to help set up a new base from which unarmed Predator aircraft would conduct surveillance in the region.

The new drone base, located for now in the capital, Niamey, is an indication of the priority Africa has become in American antiterrorism efforts. The United States military has a limited presence in Africa, with only one permanent base, in Djibouti, more than 3,000 miles from Mali, where insurgents had taken over half the country until repelled by a French-led force.

In a letter to Congress, Mr. Obama said about 40 United States military service members arrived in Niger on Wednesday, bringing the total number of those deployed in the country to about 100 people. A military official said the troops were largely Air Force logistics specialists, intelligence analysts and security officers.

Mr. Obama said the troops, who are armed for self-protection, would support the French-led operation that last month drove the Qaeda and affiliated fighters out of a desert refuge the size of Texas in neighboring Mali.

Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, signed a status-of-forces agreement last month with the United States that has cleared the way for greater American military involvement in the country and has provided legal protection to American troops there. Read More

Associated Press

(French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD/ Associated Press )

(French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD/ Associated Press )

WASHINGTON — Plans to base unarmed American surveillance drones in the African nation of Niger highlight the Obama administration’s growing concern about extremist influences in the volatile region. They also raise tough questions about how to contain al-Qaida and other militant groups without committing U.S. ground forces in yet another war.

In the short run, a drone base would enable the U.S. to give France more intelligence on the militants that French troops are fighting in neighboring Mali. Over time it could extend the reach not only of American intelligence gathering but also U.S. special operations missions to strengthen Niger’s own security forces.

The U.S. and Niger in recent days signed a “status of forces agreement” spelling out legal protections and obligations of American forces that might operate in Niger in the future. Read More

David Axe | Wired

An MQ-9 Reaper in Iraq in 2008. Photo: Air Force

More secret bases. More and better unmanned warplanes. More frequent and deadly robotic attacks. Some five years after a U.S. Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flew the type’s first mission over lawless Somalia, the shadowy American-led drone campaign in the Horn of Africa is targeting Islamic militants more ruthlessly than ever.

Thanks to media accounts, indirect official statements, fragmentary crash reports and one complaint by a U.N. monitoring group, we can finally begin to define — however vaguely — the scope and scale of the secret African drone war.

The details that follow are in part conjecture, albeit informed conjecture. They outline of just one of America’s ongoing shadow wars — and one possible model for the future U.S. way of war. Along with the counterterrorism campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and the Philippines, the Somalia drone war demonstrates how high-tech U.S. forces can inflict major damage on America’s enemies at relatively low cost … and without most U.S. citizens having any idea it’s even happening.

Since 2007, Predator drones and the larger, more powerful Reapers — reinforced by Ravens and Scan Eagle UAVs and Fire Scout robot helicopters plus a small number of huge, high-flying Global Hawks — have hunted Somali jihadists on scores of occasions. It’s part of a broader campaign of jet bombing runs, naval gun bombardment, cruise-missile attacks, raids by Special Operations Forces and assistance to regional armies such as Uganda’s.

In all, air raids by manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft have killed at least 112 Somali militants, according to a count by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Fifty-seven innocent civilians also died in the raids, the nonprofit Bureau found. The dead jihadists have included several senior members of al-Qaeda or the affiliated al-Shabaab extremist group. In January, a drone launched three Hellfire missiles at a convoy near Mogadishu and killed Bilaal al-Barjawi, the mastermind of the 2010 bombing in Kampala, Uganda, that claimed the lives of 74 soccer fans.

In an escalating secret war, drones are doing an ever-greater proportion of the American fighting. Read More

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