Two U.S. officials have told VOA that military drone flights from bases in Niger have been "limited" since the July coup, a restriction experts believe is likely hindering the international counterterrorism mission in West Africa.
The officials spoke to VOA this week on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive security issues.
The Pentagon has been hesitant to discuss the specifics of its security and counterterrorism operations other than saying that the U.S. military has suspended "security cooperation" with Niger in light of the political upheaval.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder has conceded to reporters that the situation in Niger "clearly" is "not normal" for the U.S. military, while adding that U.S. force posture in Niger remains unchanged, as the U.S. hopes for a diplomatic solution to the situation.
Niger is the U.S. military’s hub for counterterror intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance in West Africa. The region has been battling several militant groups in the region, including the Islamic State group and Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, based in Mali and active in West Africa.
Current and former U.S. officials have raised concerns that the limited intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance will hurt international efforts to help local security forces fight terrorist organizations.
The United States "is barely keeping a lid on this problem, and when you remove that, when you remove all of those enablers that help keep these jihadists from overrunning countries or overrunning regions, then you are giving them an advantage," said Bill Roggio, a former soldier and editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, which publishes reporting and analysis of global counterterrorism efforts.
The U.S. military can fly drones out of Niger’s capital, Niamey, and it set up another air base hundreds of kilometers away, in Agadez, to extend the reach of its surveillance and reconnaissance missions in the volatile Lake Chad Basin area of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. The U.S. has flown intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance drone missions out of Agadez since 2019.
Limiting those missions has a “significant effect” on the military’s ability to conduct counterterror operations, according to retired Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the former commander of U.S. military operations in the Middle East.
"It reduces your ability to find targets. It reduces your ability to go to the final stages when you’re going to be able to attack," he told VOA.
The jihadist threat is twofold, not only can jihadists use these countries as a hub to try to attack the West and Western interests, they also wreak havoc on local populations.
At least 17 Nigerien soldiers were killed in an attack by armed groups near the Malian border last month, according to Niger’s Defense Ministry.
The Islamist threat has been growing in neighboring Mali, which has been run by military leaders since a 2020 coup, despite claims by Mali’s military that Russian Wagner Group mercenaries are turning the tide of their campaign.
Roggio told VOA he worries that the political discord in the region is setting up West Africa as the next place for a country to fall under jihadist control.
"If the U.S. is not able to fly counterterrorism missions from Niger, is Mali the next state to fall after Afghanistan?" Roggio asked.
Air space reopened, U.S. forces repositioning
Earlier this week, a spokesman for Niger’s military leaders said they had decided to reopen the country’s airspace to all commercial flights, ending a closure that had been in place since they took control of the government Aug. 6.
However, a U.S. military official told VOA that the change to commercial flight access had not "normalized" U.S. drone flight frequencies this week.
News of the U.S. military’s drone limitations comes as the Pentagon said it was repositioning some of its troops and military equipment within Niger from a base in Niamey to the Agadez base.
"There's no perceived threat, in terms of any threat to U.S. troops, and no threat of violence on the ground. This is simply a precautionary measure," deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh said Thursday.
The Agadez base, known as Air Base 201, is controlled by Nigerien forces. As of 2019, the U.S. military had exclusive rights to about 20% of the compound.
There are about 1,100 U.S. military personnel in Niger, according to the Pentagon.
Singh said the repositioning of U.S. forces in Niger was "ongoing right now."