About 100 American troops have been deployed to the African nation of Niger, where a U.S. defense official said they would be setting up a drone base for surveillance missions.
President Barack Obama announced the deployment Friday in a letter to Congress, saying that the forces "will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region."
French troops have been fighting Islamic militants in Mali, which neighbors Niger. The drone base will allow the U.S. to give France more intelligence on the militants. Over time, it could extend the reach not only of American intelligence-gathering but also U.S. special operations missions to strengthen Niger's own security forces.
The defense official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the project.
The drones at the Niger base will be unarmed and used for surveillance, not airstrikes.
Obama said in his letter to Congress that the U.S. forces has been deployed with the consent of Niger's government. The forces were also deployed with weapons "for their own force protection and security," the president said.
Last month, the U.S. and Niger signed a status-of-forces agreement spelling out legal protections and obligations of American forces that might operate in Niger in the future.
Africa is increasingly a focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, even as al-Qaida remains a threat in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Last month's terrorist attack on a natural gas complex in Algeria, in which at least 37 hostages and 29 militants were killed, illustrated the threat posed by extremists who have asserted power propelled by long-simmering ethnic tensions in Mali and the revolution in Libya.
A number of al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist groups operate in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahara, including a group known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which originated in Algeria and is active in northern Mali.
In January, French forces intervened to stop the extremists' move toward Mali's capital, and Washington has grown more involved by providing a variety of military support to French troops.