In a letter yesterday, President Obama informed Congress that 40 troops, mostly Air Force logistics specialists, have been sent to Niger to establish a new drone base that will run surveillance in west Africa. The drones will support the French-led efforts against extremists in Mali, and is the latest maneuver in a steady US military build-up on the continent.

The New York Times spoke with the spokesman for America's African Command, which was formed in 2008 and has embarked on an unprecedented amount of US military activities on the African continent,

"Africa Command has positioned unarmed remotely piloted aircraft in Niger to support a range of regional security missions and engagements with partner nations," Benjamin Benson, a command spokesman in Stuttgart, Germany, said in an e-mail message on Friday.

Niger signed a "status-of-forces" agreement last month that paved the way for greater American involvement inside of the large, poor, strategically-located African country. However, while they might start as strictly surveillance, African Command has left the door open for more deadly use of the drones:

For now, American officials said, Predator drones will be unarmed and will fly only on surveillance missions, although they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.