CIA base in northern Niger expands, as Islamism spreads in the Sahel

Dirkou NigerA REMOTE BASE THAT houses an outpost of the United States Central Intelligence Agency in northeast Niger appears to have expanded in recent months, as Islamist groups continue to make their presence felt in Africa’s Sahel region. The base was built quietly in 2018 in Dirkou, a small oasis town and commune located 800 miles northeast of Niamey, Niger’s capital. The area where the CIA base is located is sparsely populated and arid, making it one of the world’s most inhospitable regions.

Northeast Niger, where Dirkou is located, is part of the Sahara. The region is largely inhabited by nomads, who journey in caravans between networks of oases that include Dirkou. In recent years, however, the territories of north-central Niger, northern Mali, southern Algeria, northern Chad and southern Libya, have witnessed an alarming growth of extremist groups, many of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. Increasing numbers of young men are joining these groups, whose leaders also exploit local grievances stemming from poverty, ethnic divisions and the dramatic effects of climate change.

Since 2014, France, the region’s former colonial power, has spearheaded a counterinsurgency campaign led by a 5,000-strong military force stationed in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena. But the effort has seen few successes, and its commanders have been forced to downgrade their objectives: instead of their original goal of neutralizing the Islamist insurgency, they now hope to contain it in the Sahara, and not let it spread to the region’s urban areas. It is within this context that the CIA outpost in Dirkou was set up in 2018.

The New York Times, which first reported the existence of the CIA outpost three years ago, said last week that it has seen no evidence to suggest that the outpost has been used for anything more than to carry out airborne surveillance using drones. However, the outpost now has a paved runway, which appears to be twice the length of the original landing strip of 2018. There are also a new buildings at the outpost, as well as a fixed perimeter, which indicates increased security, according to The Times. This, says the paper, shows that the CIA would now “be ready to carry out armed drone strikes” in the region, if authorized to do so by the White House.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 March 2021 | Permalink