A Shadowy War’s Newest Front: A Drone Base Rising From Saharan Dust

Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, a website run by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that tracks military strikes against militant groups, said that moving the drone operations to Agadez had two main advantages.

First, he said, the base will be more centrally located to conduct operations throughout the Sahel, a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Sudan and has been seized by a growing wave of terrorism and armed conflict.

Second, Agadez is more isolated than Niamey. That will help keep the operations more low-key and away from prying eyes.

“The Agadez base has the potential to become the most active counterterrorism hub in Africa,” Mr. Roggio said.

The Niger deployment is only the second time that armed drones have been stationed and used in Africa.

Drones now based in Djibouti are used in Yemen and Somalia, where there were about 30 strikes last year against Shabab and Islamic State targets — twice the number in 2016. Drones used against targets in Libya have flown from Sicily, but with a range of about 1,100 miles, the Reapers could not reach militant hide-outs in southern Libya.

The United States also flies unarmed surveillance drones from bases in Tunisia and Cameroon.

At Air Base 201, building a runway more than 6,800 feet long and 150 feet wide poses severe logistical hurdles. Rock from local quarries is crushed into gravel for the runway’s underlying support. But the rock crushers have broken down, forcing workers at least once to use couriers to hand-deliver spare parts from Paris to avoid weekslong shipping delays.

“There’s no Home Depot downtown here,” said Colonel Harbaugh, 40, an Afghanistan war veteran from Pittsburgh.

Runway construction also requires choreographed precision.

Dump trucks disgorge piles of wet gravel. A giant grader equipped with a GPS-controlled blade spreads the rock to an exact depth. Steamrollers pace back and forth behind the grader to compact the gravel. To settle properly, the moistened rocks must not dry too quickly, so much of this work is done at night to avoid daytime temperatures that this past week soared to 107 degrees.

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