US uses Tunisia as drone base for Libya operations - report

© U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter
Washington has been secretly operating drones from a base in Tunisia since June, US officials have admitted. The unarmed US Air Force Reaper drones are said to be gathering intelligence on Islamic State targets in the neighboring Libya.

Intelligence obtained by the drones flying out of the unspecified base in Tunisian territory has been used in more than 300 US airstrikes against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in the Libyan city of Sirte. Despite the airstrikes and a push from Western-backed Libyan militias on the ground, IS militants remain entrenched in the city.

The existence of a secret drone facility in Tunisia was admitted on Wednesday by US officials speaking to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity. There are some 70 US military personnel overseeing the drone operations in Tunisia, Pentagon officials told the paper. The US government has not officially acknowledged the operation, while the Tunisian embassy declined to comment to the Post.

The US sought access to an air base in Tunisia to close a critical “blind spot” for US intelligence operations in North Africa. Since the Western-backed rebellion against the government of Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has become a major base of operations for IS as well as Al-Qaeda militants.

US aircraft fly actual bombing missions from the Naval Air Station in Sigonella, on the Italian island of Sicily. Surveillance drones have also been based there, but the Italian government has refused to grant permission for armed drones until earlier this year, citing concerns of an “antiwar backlash” at home, the officials said.

Tunisia was the first North African country to overthrow its government in 2011, launching the so-called “Arab Spring” that led to upheaval in Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere. The Obama administration has kept the negotiations secret because of concerns for “Tunisia’s young democracy” and possible terrorist attacks, officials told the Post.

Islamic State has already claimed a number of attacks in Tunisia, including the June 2015 massacre of almost 40 foreign tourists at the beach resort of Sousse and the November 2015 bombing of a presidential escort bus that claimed 12 lives. It was an IS attack on a town bordering Libya in March 2016 that helped the Tunisians make up their minds about the drone base, the US officials said.

Under the terms granting the Pentagon access to the base, the US committed to help build up Tunisian intelligence collection capabilities, the Post reported. Though currently only unarmed surveillance drones are based at the facility, they could be armed in the future if the Tunisian authorities give their permission, US officials told the paper.

Washington has sought to expand the network of its drone bases across Africa. Last month, the Intercept obtained documents showing that the US has been building a $100 million drone base in the central Niger town of Agadez, from where the remotely operated craft could stage operations in Algeria, Libya, Chad, Nigeria and Mali.