The road to Agadez is long and treacherous. The city lies in the middle of the Sahara, about 900 kilometers away from the capital city of Niger, Niamey. Yet Agadez is strategically important to the United States. The American government plans to build a drone base in the former caravan city from which it can strike against Islamist groups in the Sahel region.
Residents have mixed feelings about this idea. "American soldiers are helpful in the fight against the jihadists," a passer-by in Agadez told a DW reporter. "But I am worried that they want to spy on us." The distrust of foreign soldiers is great, and with it comes the fear that Agadez, as an American staging point, could again become a target of Islamist terror – as it had already in May 2013, when dozens of people were killed in attacks.
It is not clear yet how many American soldiers will be stationed in Agadez. But Niger's president Mahamadou Issoufou has already given his consent in principle at the US-Africa summit in July 2014 in Washington. The US army already has a staging area with around 120 soldiers in the capital of Niamey. The new base will be very useful, said West Africa expert Virginia Comolli from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "Through it, the USA will be able to better monitor not only Niger, but also neighboring countries like Chad, Nigeria and Mali."
The border regions of Algeria and Libya, in which Islamist groups are active as well, are also not far away. This desert region has by and large eluded the control of African countries and serves as a corridor for drug and weapon smuggling – and as a refuge for militant Islamist groups.
Counter-terrorism of economic interests?
Those familiar with the region have seldom ventured a guess as to how many fighters are active in the region. "There are many different groups, that repeatedly coalesce or collapse," Comolli said. Additionally, it is important to determine who belongs to such groups. "There are full-time members and those who play more of a supporting role, or criminals, who are hired when the opportunity is favorable to them." The group "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQMI) caused an international stir as Tuareg rebels brought northern Mali under its control in March 2012. The Islamists emerged first as an ally of the Tuareg separatists in order to claim the region for themselves.
In the beginning of 2013, soldiers from Mali and France were eventually able to conquer back the territory. After the retreat of the Islamists from large portions of Mali, France announced that as part of "Operation Crescent Dune" it would station more soldiers in the Sahel region. Observers doubt that the former colonial power in west Africa is acting out of concern for securing peace. "We cannot forget that there are Uranium mines in Agadez that are operated by the French company AREVA," Comolli said. "There are also great economic interests in the region." These also entice other great powers like China - or even the USA - to cooperate militarily with France in the Sahel region.
Over the heads of the population
Even if France and the US publicly declare they are fighting terrorism in the Sahel region and want to secure stability in the area - security expert Comolli can understand why people react with skepticism. In Agadez, Assalek Ibrahim from the environmental and civil rights group Hed Tamat is also demanding more information. "The state of Niger must explain to its people, why this Drone base will exist," Ibrahim says. Otherwise he worries that the new staging area will bring trouble instead of stability between the people and the government.