Nigerien Air Base 201 is now operational — roughly a year after it was supposed to be completed.
U.S. Africa Command announced Friday that intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations are now being conducted out of the base in Agadez, Niger, which is designed to house armed drones and other aircraft that have historically operated out of Niger’s capital, Niamey.
AFRICOM spokesperson Air Force Col. Chris Karns confirmed to Air Force Times that ISR operations started this week, but did not disclose specific types of deployed aircraft due to security concerns.
“The U.S. military is at Nigerien Air Base 201 at the request of the Government of Niger,” AFRICOM commander U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, who visited Niger in September to meet with Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, said in a news release Friday. “We are working with our African and international partners to counter security threats in West Africa. The construction of this base demonstrates our investment in our African partners and mutual security interests in the region.”
The move comes a little more than two years after four Army soldiers were killed on Oct. 4, 2017, in an attack on a joint U.S.-Nigerien military patrol by an ISIS offshoot known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
The ISIS affiliate in West Africa claimed responsibility for the deadly attack that overwhelmed an American special operations team and roughly 30 Nigerien troops who accompanied the patrol near the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger.
The patrol was pursuing an ISIS commander named Doundoun Cheffou when it was ambushed resulting in the deaths of four American soldiers, Sgt. First Class Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright and Sgt. La David Johnson, who were all assigned to Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3212.
The central Niger location was specifically chosen for Nigerien Air Base 201 because of geographic advantages in combating threats from violent extremist organizations in the area, according to U.S. Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces in Africa.
“Flexible and diverse postures across the African continent enable us to facilitate operational needs and better support our partners in the region,” Harrigian said in an AFRICOM news release. “The location in Agadez was selected in conjunction with Niger due to the geographic and strategic flexibility it offers to regional security efforts.”
The $110-million airfield, which Karns described as a “historic civil engineering feat” due to several big projects, includes a joint-use runway that accommodates both U.S. and Nigerien aircraft.
The Nigerien Air Force and the U.S. Air Force started flying limited, Visual Flight Rule operations into the base on Aug. 1. Aircraft including U.S. Air Force C-130s conducted resupply missions into the base as part of the limited flying operations, AFRICOM told Air Force Times in August.
AFRICOM officials told Air Force Times earlier this year that it was aiming to complete the base in 2019, along with Camp Baledogle in Somalia.
Although Niger Air Base 201 was supposed to be up and running by the end of 2018, weather-related issues and other harsh conditions postponed the base’s completion, officials told Air Force Times in January.
Violent extremist groups in the region include Boko Haram and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Karns said that while the challenges in Africa require African solution, it’s in the best interests of the U.S. to establish “positive connections” in areas where violence is contained.
“Violent extremist groups remain a threat to America, U.S. interests, and if an opportunity or the capability existed, they would seek to do harm,” Karns said. “If left undisrupted or unchecked, it gives these groups time to plot and plan. African partners and international partners are actively working toward and are on a journey toward countering these threats.”
“Niger is a very willing counter-terrorism partner,” Karns said. “Nigerien Air Base 201 is tangible evidence of this fact.”