PICTURED: The base’s original footprint has doubled in size. Photo credit: Planet Labs. Published.
First noticed by satellite imagery in 2018, a small series of clamshell hangers and a short runway characterize an air base in the dunes of the Sahara Desert in Dirkou, Niger.
Now new reporting from the New York Times shows that it’s grown substantially, adding a much longer runway that’s been widened in parts, and increased security.
Furthermore, photos revealed what civilian military correspondents describe as an MQ-9 Reaper drone, one of the most successful unmanned aerial vehicles tasked with strategic bombing. Biden’s National Security Advisor rolled back Trump-era loosening of engagements that allowed local military commanders in certain theaters to sanction drone strikes.
The new mandate requires approval from the White House before a strike can be authorized. However the base would be completely capable of launching drone attacks, and the new extended runway could even host larger aircraft, though no new hangers have been built to accommodate them.
The base is not one belonging to AFRICOM, the theater command, as they operate MQ-9s from two other bases, both hundreds of miles from Dirkou. Instead reports are that it’s run by the CIA.
Why both the military and the CIA need drone surveillance or strike capabilities overlapping the same region, one in which the U.S. has never issued a formal declaration of war, or Congressional authorization for military force, is suspected as relating to an October 2017 attack which killed four U.S. troops in the country.
Another drone war?
The new tightening of drone operations restrictions make it unlikely that the MQ-9s will be doing any bombing any time soon, however recent escalations of violence in the Sahel region of Africa, a grass and scrub desert stretching from coast to coast along the southern Sahara Desert, may see them used for surveillance.
The CIA is not well-known for following the law, either international, domestic, or of whichever country they’re operating in.
The agency for its part did not respond to a request to comment from the Times, while an AFRICOM spokesperson described the Dirkou location as a non-enduring base which the command had not done any construction work at.
Despite the claim of inaction, in 2018 the Times reported the base costing $110 million, while accruing $22 million in additional costs rising from work delays related to scorching temperatures and dust storms.
The full extent of the CIA’s drone program was not curtailed, though Obama, who certainly put them to work in Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan, limited the use of drones to apply targeted deadly bombings in Yemen. There was never any restrictions placed on AFRICOM’s drone use as Obama sought to recover from the scandal when his drone program was leaked.
Furthermore, even for The Intercept, who published a broad swathe of the inner workings of said drone program, described that information on the infrastructure going up around Africa was “jealously guarded”