The United States turned over a communications and operations center to the Niger army to help the African nation battle Boko Haram, a statement said.
The planning and operations control center, worth $16.5 million (€14.4 million), is designed to help Niger forces synchronize its operations through improved communications, U.S. Ambassador Eric Whitaker said during the handover ceremony on Monday, February 4.
Niger has taken on an important geostrategic role in the U.S. fight against Islamist groups in Africa, and the center known as a C2 Node comprises two tactical operations units equipped with sophisticated communications material.
It aims to “streamline pertinent battlefield information to commanders, so that they can best employ their forces,” a copy of Whitaker’s remarks said.
The U.S. has already provided Niger with Cessna C-208 surveillance planes, armored personnel vehicles and small craft known as mud boats, along with other equipment and training.
“We believe all these capabilities are critical to helping Niger defeat Boko Haram and other terrorist organizations,” Whitaker said.
The U.S. operates an aerial drone base in Agadez that provides surveillance of Boko Haram units and others allied with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that operate along borders with Libya, Mali and Nigeria.
Niamey has also given the U.S. permission to base armed drones on its soil.
The U.S. presence in Niger was revealed on October 4, 2018, when four U.S. soldiers and five Nigerien troops were killed in an ambush by fighters affiliated with Islamic State.
According to reports, there are about 800 U.S. personnel in Niger, where the U.S. is also building a large air base near Agadez. The $110 million Air Base 201 project, due to be operational this year, will house drones and fighter jets, and will be capable of launching strike and surveillance missions in West and North Africa.
The handover comes two days after Boko Haram militants shot and killed six people in Bague Djaradi, near Niger’s border with Nigeria.
On January 3, Nigerien ground and air offensive in the area killed nearly 300 Boko Haram militants, according to the defense ministry.
Although Lake Chad forms a natural barrier limiting Boko Haram’s access across the border from Nigeria, the presidents of Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon appealed for international support at a November 29 meeting in Chad’s capital N’Djamena.
In December, Niger’s defense minister said he feared Boko Haram would launch renewed attacks on its positions from January, when the Komadougou Yobe river’s waters begin to recede. The river, which helps prevent incursions, serves as a natural border between Niger and Nigeria.
Boko Haram’s bloody insurgency began in northeastern Nigeria in 2009 but has since spread into neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, prompting a regional military response. Some 27,000 people have been killed and two million others displaced, sparking a dire humanitarian crisis in the region.
Boko Haram split into two factions in mid-2016. One is led by Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi and largely focuses on attacking military and government targets, while the other, led by Abubakar Shekau, is notorious for suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings of civilians.
Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, but ISIS central only gives formal backing to the Barnawi faction, which is known as Islamic State West Africa province.
Both factions of Boko Haram have intensified attacks in the region over several months, but the upsurge in ISWA attacks has been much more serious. Amid signs of a takeover by more hardline leaders, the group has launched dozens of assaults on military targets in Borno and Yobe states in Nigeria.
With reporting from AFP