Less Than a Mile From Drone Base, Bandits Stole Bags of U.S. Tax Dollars in Broad Daylight

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by Nick Turse, published on The Intercept, February 20, 2023

“The Americans have drones, they have planes, they have sophisticated equipment,” a Nigerien activist told The Intercept. “But it’s not helping.”

AGADEZ, Niger — Officially, Base Aerienne 201, located in this town on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert, is not a U.S. military outpost. In reality, Air Base 201 — known locally as “Base Americaine” — is the linchpin of the U.S. military’s archipelago of bases in North and West Africa and a key part of America’s wide-ranging intelligence, surveillance, and security efforts in the region.

Built at a price tag of $110 million and maintained to the tune of $20 to $30 million each year, AB 201 serves as a Sahelian surveillance hub that’s home to Space Force personnel involved in high-tech satellite communications, Joint Special Operations Air Detachment facilities, and a fleet of drones — including armed MQ-9 Reapers — that scour the surrounding region day and night for terrorist activity. A high-security haven, Air Base 201 sits within a 25-kilometer “base security zone” and is protected by fences, barriers, upgraded air-conditioned guard towers with custom-made firing ports, and military working dogs.

The trappings of security can, however, be illusory. Late last year, in the shadow of this bastion of American techno-militarism, four men in a pickup truck carried out a daylight armed robbery of defense contractors from the base and drove off with roughly $40,000 in U.S. taxpayer money. U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, did not report on or publicly acknowledge the theft from Australian-based Austability, a subcontractor apparently working with U.S. defense giant Amentum.

It is troubling that an affiliate of a major U.S. contractor is unable to provide basic security, even for payroll funds, while traveling near a major U.S. base,” wrote William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a defense contracting expert. “It is indicative either of lax security procedures or an especially dangerous environment close to a sensitive U.S. facility — or both.”

Neither AFRICOM nor U.S. Air Forces Africa provided answers to questions about the robbery prior to publication. “We have nothing further to add,” Timothy S. Pietrack, the deputy chief of AFRICOM Public Affairs, told The Intercept.

On November 3, 2022, Nigerien private contractors carrying the payroll of fellow Nigeriens working at Base Aerienne 201 drove a silver van through the Tadress neighborhood near the western edge of the base, not far from a shisha café and a field where local youths play soccer. Less than a mile from the base entrance, they were overtaken by a tan pickup truck filled with three or four men. A gunman in the bed fired an M-80, a Chinese copy of the venerable Soviet PKM machine gun, according to a U.S. contractor working at the base; the other bandits were reportedly armed with AK-47 assault rifles. A few shots later, the attackers had stolen two bags containing about 24 million West African CFA francs, or $40,000.

Mohamed Ibrahim’s fada — a group of men who regularly sit, talk, and drink tea together — meets next to the shisha café and had a front-row seat during the heist. “They followed the van in from the city, and once they were in the open, they passed in front of the van and opened fire,” he said. “They shot a few bullets. The van stopped and one of the bandits got out and grabbed the bag of money. And then they were gone.”

A spare account of the armed robbery was reported by the Agadez-based newspaper Aïr Info, and basic elements of the crime were confirmed by a local police official who spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity. Additional details were supplied by a U.S. contractor who was not authorized to speak to the press and a video of the last moments of the heist, filmed by a man at the shisha café, that was widely shared via WhatsApp. A day after the attack, local law enforcement arrested the man who shot the video, Ibrahim said. “I have no idea who told them, but they knew who he was and they said they were arresting him because he posted the footage on social media,” he told The Intercept.

Photos published by Aïr Info show that the contractors drove what appears to be a silver Toyota HiAce van bearing the logo of Austability, whose self-described mission is to support the “continued war against terrorism and related transnational serious organized crime.” Last year, Austability announced that it had won AFRICOM contracts to provide dining facility and custodial services, as well as the transportation and delivery of bulk water at Air Base 201. Austability and its president and CEO, David Khandan, did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

With this project Austability will support Amentum/PAE and the Air Force Contract Augmentation Program (AFCAP) in their mission,” the company announced in a March 2022 press release, referring to a prime contractor formed last year when Amentum acquired another top firm, PAE. The latter company originally inked a nearly $37 million deal with the Air Force “to provide installation support and sustainment services to the 724th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron in Agadez, Niger” in 2021 that is set to run through September 2026. Last year, after Amentum raked in $3.3 billion, the publication Washington Technology ranked it as the 12th largest U.S. government contractor.

Amentum would not clarify the nature of its relationship with Austability, although contractors at Base Aerienne 201 characterized the latter company as a subcontractor of Amentum. “We don’t disclose our subcontractors due to competitive sensitivities, unless it’s a requirement by the customer,” Chanel Mann, Amentum’s senior manager of marketing communications, told The Intercept by email. But official U.S. government contract data shows that Austability received numerous “sub-awards” at Air Base 201, through the now Amentum-absorbed PAE, for pest control, grounds maintenance, pickup trucks, a Chinese-made street sweeper, and various undefined “consumables.”

Neither Pietrack, Khandan, nor Mann responded to detailed questions about the robbery or its aftermath, but some with ties to the base suggested that poor operational security may have played a key role. The U.S. military contractor who was not authorized to speak with the press told The Intercept that after the Austability personnel withdrew money from the bank to make payments, one of them shared the information with a WhatsApp group of close to 200 people. “Everybody knows he has the money and where he is going,” the contractor told The Intercept. “I saw the WhatsApp. I had three friends who lost their money that day.” It reportedly took a month for those whose pay was stolen to be reimbursed.

Few in Agadez understand the purpose of the drone base or what Americans do there. They know only what they see, smell, and hear: the towers, walls, and fences; clouds of dust from speeding military vehicles; smoke from the burn pit; and the buzz of drones above their heads. The rest is a mystery.

The Nigerien government and AFRICOM have helped to fuel this uncertainty by withholding substantive information about U.S. operations. “The U.S. military is in Niger at the request of the Government of Niger and we remain committed to helping our African partners to conduct missions or operations that support and further our mutual security goals and objectives in Africa,” AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan told The Intercept by email.

The Americans have drones, they have planes, they have sophisticated equipment,” Liman Ahar Fidjaji, the president of an Agadez-based religious center for the prevention of conflict in Niger, told The Intercept. “But it’s not helping.”

Residents of the Tadress neighborhood, where the holdup happened, complained of rampant and increasing insecurity, including rapes, assaults, and robberies. They expressed disbelief that American technology could not provide more safety and said the U.S. was doing little to help those living just beyond the base’s borders.

Maria Laminou Garba runs a collective in Tadress that recycles plastic and uses the money to pay unemployed, at-risk youths to gather the recyclables, as well as to subsidize the schooling of orphans in the neighborhood. She noted that while the road to “Base Americaine” was well lit, Tadress lacked electricity. “It’s really dark, so you can’t see and can be robbed or even shot. Trucks loaded with migrants to Libya drive very fast through the neighborhood. They can’t see and they hit children,” she said.

Secrecy, failures to improve the situation for locals, and the seeming inability to protect even their own payroll has led many to question American intentions. This has helped to feed wild rumors, including long-running speculation that Americans are surreptitiously mining gold at the base. “I heard about the gold. Hopefully, it’s not true because I was there and I could have gotten some of that,” one former contractor who spent time in the United States and has a favorable opinion of U.S. involvement in Niger joked. “Still, there’s a saying in French, ‘Il n’y a jamais de fumée sans feu’ — there’s no smoke without fire — and there’s always some little bit of truth in these things.”

Following the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military embraced a governmentwide trend toward privatization, including an increasing reliance on contractors. Since 2001, Pentagon spending has totaled more than $14 trillion, one-third to one-half of which went to defense contractors, according to a 2021 report by Hartung and Brown University’s Costs of War project. More contractors than U.S. service members, according to a separate Costs of War report, have died in post-9/11 military operations.

Since 2008, Central Command, or CENTCOM, has published quarterly 15 armed banditsreports listing the number of defense contractors working on behalf of the U.S. military in the Middle East. At the end of 2022, CENTCOM reported approximately 22,000 contractors in that region, including 7,908 in Iraq and Syria. AFRICOM does not, however, publish an analogous report, and the Pentagon doesn’t keep tabs on contractors working at other geographic combatant commands.

We can’t know exactly who is getting paid and who is profiting because we don’t know where the money is going. It comes down to subcontracting that is not transparent and having very little oversight,” said Heidi Peltier, a senior researcher at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and the director of programs at the Costs of War project. Government reports, lawsuits, and investigations by inspectors general have found that 30 to 40 percent of contract spending through the Defense Department is generally wasted or lost to fraud, corruption, or other abuses, Peltier noted.

In December, local police announced the arrest of “15 armed bandits” and implied that the men who robbed the contractors were among them. But none of the stolen money was recovered, according to contractors at the base, who were unsure if those thieves were actually arrested.

AFRICOM’s 2020 posture plan, obtained by The Intercept via the Freedom of Information Act, lists the “protection of U.S. government personnel and property” as one of six key gaps or risks on the continent. That same year, an investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general found that the “Air Force did not construct Air Base 201 infrastructure to meet safety, security, and other technical requirements established in DoD, Air Force, and USAFRICOM directives.”

Fidjaji, the religious leader, is skeptical of U.S. aims in Niger and America’s commitment to enhancing security in Agadez and beyond. “It’s really serious that they got robbed right outside the base,” he said, noting increased insecurity not only in the badlands north of the outpost, but even in town. “If the bandits had an RPG and aimed it at the base, then I’m sure the Americans would have seen it and reacted,” he explained, using the shorthand for a rocket-propelled grenade. “The Americans have sophisticated tools. Drones are flying overhead every day and every night. But there are guys circulating in the streets around here with weapons. Why is that?

Nick Turse is an American investigative journalist, historian, and author. He is the associate editor and research director of the blog TomDispatch and a fellow at The Nation Institute

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