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US Secretly Expands Drone Bases to North Africa

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U.S. Has Secretly Expanded Its Global Network of Drone Bases to North Africa (excerpt)

(Source: Washington Post; published Oct 26, 2016)

By Adam Entous and Missy Ryan

The Pentagon has secretly expanded its global network of drone bases­ to North Africa, deploying unmanned aircraft and U.S. military personnel to a facility in Tunisia to conduct spy missions in neighboring Libya.

The Air Force Reaper drones began flying out of the Tunisian base in late June and have played a key role in an extended U.S. air offensive against an Islamic State stronghold in neighboring Libya.

The Obama administration pressed for access to the Tunisian base as part of a security strategy for the broader Middle East that calls for placing drones and small Special Operations teams at a number of facilities within striking distance of militants who could pose a threat to the West.

U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an operation that has not been acknowledged, said the drones being flown out of Tunisia were unarmed and were principally being used to collect intelligence on Islamic State targets in Sirte, Libya, where the United States has conducted more than 300 airstrikes since August.

U.S. officials said they sought access to the air base in Tunisia to close a critical “blind spot” for U.S. and Western intelligence services­ in North Africa, which has become the Islamic State’s largest base of operations outside of Syria and Iraq. The region is also home to al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

Obama administration officials say they have tried to shore up Tunisia’s fledgling democracy and position the country as a key counter­terrorism partner in the region. Although the drones operating out of Tunisia conduct only surveillance missions, U.S. officials said they could be armed in the future if Tunisia gives the United States permission. The Tunisian Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

The U.S. military has other drone bases­ on the African continent, from Niger to Djibouti. But officials said they were too far from populous areas on the Libyan coast to be useful in day-to-day counter­terrorism operations there. The longer drones have to travel to reach their destinations, the less time they have to “loiter” over their targets. (end of excerpt)

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