WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military command in Africa is preparing plans to establish a drone base in northwest Africa to increase unarmed surveillance missions on the local affiliate of al-Qaida and other Islamist extremist groups that U.S. and other Western officials say pose a growing menace to the region.
For now, officials say they envision flying only unarmed surveillance drones from the base, although they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.
If the base is approved, its most likely location would be in Niger, a largely desert nation on the eastern border of Mali, where French and Malian troops are now battling al-Qaida-backed fighters who control the northern part of that country. The U.S. military's Africa Command is also discussing options for the base with other countries in the region, including Burkina Faso, officials said.
The immediate impetus for a drone base in the region is to provide surveillance assistance to the French-led operation in Mali. "This is directly related to the Mali mission, but it could also give Africom a more enduring presence for ISR," one U.S. military official said Sunday, referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
A handful of unarmed Predator drones would carry out surveillance missions in the region and fill a need for more detailed information on a range of regional threats, including militants in Mali and the unabated flow of fighters and weapons from Libya, that U.S. military commanders and intelligence analysts say has been sorely lacking.
The U.S. military has a very limited presence in Africa, with only one permanent base, in Djibouti, more than 3,000 miles from Mali. A new drone base in northwest Africa would join a constellation of small air bases in recent years on the continent, including in Ethiopia, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft.
The Africa Command's planning still needs approval from the Pentagon and eventually from the White House, as well as from officials in Niger. U.S. military officials said they were still working out some details, and no final decision had been made.
But in Niger, the two nations reached a status-of-forces agreement Monday that provides legal protection to U.S. troops in the country, including any who might deploy to a new drone base. The plan could face resistance from some in the White House who are wary of committing more U.S. forces to a fight against a poorly understood web of extremist groups in North Africa.
If approved, the base could ultimately have as many as 300 U.S. military and contractor personnel, but it would probably begin with far fewer people than that, military officials said.
Some Africa specialists expressed concern that setting up a drone base in Niger or in a neighboring nation, even if only to fly surveillance missions, could alienate local people who may associate the distinctive aircraft with deadly attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Officials from Niger did not respond to emails over the weekend about the plan, but its president, Mahamadou Issoufou, has expressed a willingness to establish what in a recent interview he called "a long-term strategic relationship with the U.S."
"What's happening in northern Mali is a big concern for us, because what's happening in northern Mali can also happen to us," Mr. Issoufou said in an interview at the presidential palace in Niamey, Niger's capital, the day before French troops swept into Mali on Jan. 11.
Gen. Carter Ham, head of the Africa Command, who visited Niger this month to discuss expanding its security cooperation with the United States, declined to discuss the proposed drone base, saying in an email that the subject was "too operational for me to confirm or deny."
Discussions about the drone base come at a time when the French operation in Mali and a militant attack on a remote gas field in the Algerian desert that left at least 37 foreign hostages, including three Americans, dead have thrown a spotlight on al-Qaida's franchise in the region, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and forced Western governments and their allies in the region to accelerate efforts to combat it.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Sunday on the CBS program "Face the Nation" that in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death and the Arab Spring turmoil, there was "an effort to establish a beachhead for terrorism, a joining together of terrorist organizations."
According to current and former U.S. government officials, as well as classified government cables made public by the group WikiLeaks, the surveillance missions flown by U.S. turboprop planes in northern Mali have had only a limited effect. Flown mainly from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso's capital, the missions have faced stiff challenges as militant leaders have taken greater precautions in using electronic communications and have taken more care not to disclose delicate information that could be monitored, such as their precise locations.
Gen. Ham said in an interview on his Niger visit that it had been very difficult for U.S. intelligence agencies to collect consistent, reliable intelligence about what was going on in northern Mali, as well as in other largely ungoverned parts of the sub-Saharan region. "It's tough to penetrate," he said. "It's tough to get access for platforms that can collect. It's an extraordinarily tough environment for human intelligence -- not just ours, but the neighboring countries as well."