The CIA is expanding its small drone base in Dirkou, Niger, despite the fact that the Biden administration has temporarily limited airstrikes by unmanned aircraft against terrorist targets. 

According to a report and satellite imagery published by the New York Times, the CIA’s drone base has expanded. The base was constructed quickly in the second half of 2018 and is located adjacent to a small commercial airport in Dirkou. In the satellite photos, the runway has been expanded significantly and security has been increased. 

The CIA has not commented on the report of the expansion. The military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) spokeswoman, Nicole Kirschmann, said the command is not involved in the construction at the Dirkou base.

The expanded base in Dirkou will be able to handle MQ-9 Reaper drones, U-28 aircraft (shown in some satellite imagery), as well as larger aircraft. 

New satellite imagery shows that an air base in Dirkou, Niger, has grown significantly since The New York Times first reported the C.I.A. operations there in 2018. (Planet Labs via The New York Times)

The military has its own drone base about 350 miles away in Agadez, Niger, as well as in Niamey (850 miles southwest of Dirkou) to monitor and until recently attack terror targets in the Sahel.

The Sahel is a semi-arid region just south of the Sahara Desert that has been the target of increasing violence by terrorists from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The nations of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Chad, and Burkina Faso comprise the Sahel. The five countries have set up the G5 Sahel group to combat violent Islamist extremism. 

The CIA’s base is located in the northeast area of Niger and is in a good position to monitor the area of southern Libya where al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Libya have been recruiting from West African nations, including Senegal and Chad. The CIA’s drones have continued their flights, despite the halt in strikes, since they’re conducting surveillance and reconnaissance in the region. The CIA hasn’t conducted any airstrikes in Libya since September 2019, according to reports. 

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The Niamey and Agadez bases have supported the French-led coalition in the Sahel with MQ-9 Reaper drones. The security situation in the Sahel has deteriorated in recent months and the violence has been spreading south to the countries of the Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo, and Ghana.

In the immediate aftermath of President Biden’s inauguration on January 20, he issued a directive to halt drone strikes. Now the military and CIA must have White House approval before conducting airstrikes on any potential targets outside the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. That move was announced by the administration’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

That is a marked difference from the Trump administration that gave the commanders on the ground the ability to decide if the targets were justified. The use of drones to combat terrorism was initially put in place by the Obama administration, but late in his second term, Obama put much stricter constraints on their use. 

In 2017, the Trump administration gave the green light to loosen the constraints on drone attacks. Now, Washington is reviewing the legalities of the drone strikes with the administration insisting that this is just a temporary halt.

Many Republicans and military analysts have said that this halt is only helping the terrorists’ cause and will only allow the already worsening security situation in the Sahel to get even more out of control. 

However, the expansion of the CIA’s base in Dirkou could be an indication that the agency is expecting things to change and the halt of drone strikes to soon be lifted.