US seeks African airfields for its drones – WSJ

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Washington is adapting its strategy to counter Islamist threats, the newspaper has reported

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) is parked in an aircraft shelter at Creech Air Force Base on November 17, 2015 in Indian Springs, Nevada © Getty Images / Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

The US is seeking to install military drone infrastructure in airfields along the West African coast, as part of efforts to contain the influence of Al Qaeda and Islamic State in the region, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, citing American and African officials.

US diplomats have held talks with representatives from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Benin, over the possibility of basing unspecified reconnaissance drones in their airfields, the newspaper claimed. The three countries, all relatively stable, have, along with Togo, have been threatened by an increasing flow south of Islamist militants from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – where about 41,000 people have died in Jihadist violence since 2017.

The use of drone technology would allow American military forces to surveil militant movements along Africa’s west coast, as well as provide real-time tactical advice to local troops in a region at the center of the world’s most concentrated Islamist insurgency.

Deploying tactical assets to West African coastal areas – and away from regions considered hotbeds of Islamist activity – represents a strategic shift from Washington, according to a former US commander of special operations on the African continent.

“There’s really not much option other than to fall back and operate out of the coastal West African states,” retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mark Hicks told the Journal.

While violence in western coastal regions of Africa has not reached the same levels as in core Sahel countries, US officials have expressed concerns that militant groups may spill further across borders to areas of comparative peace. “Coastal West African countries that used to be insulated no longer are,” a senior US military official told the outlet.

Western influence in the region has been further diminished by a succession of military coups in Sahel countries, including Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. All three newly-established military regimes demanded the withdrawal of French forces, which had previously acted as the West’s military representatives in the region.

The coups also set in motion US laws that limit security assistance to military juntas, including the deployment of commandos to the region to assist in the training of local forces.

A senior Beninese military official said the country’s authorities would not object to the US operating from its airfields, as it would give the country access to high-end drone technology without incurring major costs.

“Such a deployment could contribute to improving surveillance of our borders and preventing malicious incursions,” the unnamed official told the WSJ. Military officials from Ghana and Ivory Coast did not respond to requests for comment from the newspaper.

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