WASHINGTON — The US military command in Africa is preparing to establish a drone base in northwest Africa to increase unarmed surveillance of local affiliates of Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups that 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 battling Al Qaeda-backed fighters who control the northern part of that country. The US military’s Africa Command is also discussing options for the base with other countries in the region, including Burkina Faso, officials said.
The key 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 US 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 US military commanders and intelligence analysts say has been sorely lacking.
In a separate development Monday, US officials said authorities in Yemen seized a boat in their territorial waters filled with a large quantity of explosives, weapons, and money. The authorities are investigating whether Iran was smuggling the military contraband, including shoulder-launched missiles, to insurgents inside Yemen. The United States assisted in the interdiction last week, the officials said.
Yemen is already awash with small arms and explosives acquired over years of war and insurgency, much of it brought in from a number of foreign sources through its poorly controlled ports.
The United States has an acknowledged security assistance effort under way with Yemen. At the same time, the US military and the CIA are engaged in a clandestine program of using drones to strike militants associated with a terrorist organization, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen.
The US 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. US military officials said they were still working out some details, and no final decision had been made.
But in Niger on Monday, the two countries reached a status-of-forces agreement that provides legal protection to US 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 any additional US 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 US military and contractor personnel, but it would probably begin with far fewer people than that, military officials said.