A month after an ambush by militants aligned with the Islamic State killed four American special forces operators and at least four Nigerien troops, Niger has asked the United States to deploy armed drones to hunt down jihadis along the border with Mali.
Defense Minister Kalla Mountari told Reuters he asked for the U.S. to arm its drones and “use them as needed.” When the interviewer asked if the Americans said yes, Mountari replied: “Our enemies will find out.”
Mountari added that the team of 12 American and 30 Nigerien troops ambushed on October 4 were operating “right up to the Mali border and had neutralized some bandits,” which would contradict the U.S. military’s assurances that the mission was not intended to involve contact with enemy forces.
“They came back to Niger, they greeted the population, they gathered intelligence and it was inside the country, when they didn’t expect anything, that the attack happened,” he said.
“The Americans are not just exchanging information with us. They are waging war when necessary,” he insisted. “We are working hand in hand. The clear proof is that the Americans and Nigeriens fell on the battlefield for the peace and security of our country.”
ABC News reported on Thursday that four senior Nigerien officials supported Montauri’s description of the mission as a “kill or capture” operation, specifically targeting a notorious local terrorist leader known as Dandou who has ties to both ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Niger’s Prime Minister Brigi Rafini said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that American drones were operating in his country to provide “investigation and reconnaissance,” but he was willing to allow them to be armed “if we need them for other uses.”
The Journal stated that U.S. military officials sought permission to deploy an armed drone with the patrol that was ambushed, “but the request was blocked in a chain of approval that snakes through the Pentagon, State Department and the Nigerien government.”
“They don’t have permission to go onto our territory to do the work of the Nigerien army, but I can tell you that we’re satisfied with the collaboration,” Rafini said of the American troops operating in Niger.
Three American defense officials told CNN last week that the U.S. military and State Department have been seeking permission from the Nigerien government to arm the drones used in Niger, an authority that has already been extended to French forces operating in the country. This request is said to have become more urgent in the wake of the October 4 ambush.
Another potential obstacle mentioned in the CNN report is that the U.S. military is reluctant to store munitions at the current drone base in Niger’s capital city of Niamey. A new drone base under construction in a different city could resolve that problem.