US planning for new drone base in Northwest Africa, officials say

The U.S. military is planning to set up a new drone base in Northwest Africa, senior defense officials confirmed to Fox News, in the latest effort to track the ever-expanding network of Al Qaeda affiliates and help the allied nations fighting them.

The development comes as the U.S. increases its assistance to French forces fighting in Mali, where Islamist extremists who control the northern part of the country have pushed south toward the capital. A move to station U.S. drones nearby could help France with surveillance.

Officials say the U.S. is looking at neighboring Niger as the location for the base, meant for unarmed drones only. The effort is still in the planning phase and has not been formally approved by the Pentagon, the White House or Niger.

But, officials told Fox News, the U.S. has a "very strong partnership with Niger" and close military relations. Fox News has learned that the two countries on Monday signed a first-ever "status of forces agreement," which will lay the groundwork for military cooperation in Niger -- and would be an important first step toward establishing a drone base.

Just last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that North Africa was becoming a hotbed for Al Qaeda sympathizers. Terrorists earlier this month took dozens of hostages at a gas plant in Algeria -- three Americans were killed in the days-long standoff. Terrorists also attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans in September.

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    "Make no mistake about it, we've got to have a better strategy," Clinton said last week during testimony on Capitol Hill.

    In Mali, where the U.S. military is helping fly French troops and supplies in and out of the country in support of the French military operation, Clinton compared the situation to Afghanistan.

    "This is going to be a very serious, ongoing threat," she said. "If you look at the size of northern Mali, and if you look at the topography, it's not only desert, it's caves -- sounds reminiscent."

    She added: "We are in for a struggle, but it is a necessary struggle." Clinton said "we cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven."

    While officials are talking about positioning a base for unarmed drones in Niger, it marks the steady expansion of the administration's overall drone program -- which is increasingly used to target and kill terrorists.

    In Obama's first term, there was a roughly 435 percent increase in the number of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, according to one tally. Nearly 290 drone strikes were documented in Pakistan, though the administration does not confirm those numbers.

    The New York Times, which first reported on the Northwest Africa base, said officials have not ruled out conducting drone strikes in that region if necessary. The Times reported that officials were also discussing the possibility of a base in Burkina Faso.

    Fox News' Justin Fishel contributed to this report.