Program has intensified as part of a growing shadow war against Al-Qaida affiliates and other militant groups.
OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO - The U.S. military is expanding its secret intelligence operations across Africa, establishing a network of small air bases to spy on terrorist hideouts from the fringes of the Sahara to jungle terrain along the equator, according to documents and people involved in the project.
At the heart of the surveillance operations are small, unarmed turboprop aircraft disguised as private planes. Equipped with hidden sensors that can record full-motion video, track infrared heat patterns, and vacuum up radio and cellphone signals, the planes refuel on isolated airstrips favored by African bush pilots, extending their effective flight range by thousands of miles.
About a dozen air bases have been established since 2007, said a former senior U.S. commander. Most are small operations run out of secluded hangars at African military bases or civilian airports.
The nature and extent of the missions and the bases being used have not been previously reported but are partly documented in public Defense Department contracts. The operations have intensified in recent months, part of a growing shadow war against Al-Qaida affiliates and other militant groups. The surveillance is overseen by U.S. special operations forces but relies heavily on private contractors and support from African troops.
U.S. officials said the surveillance operations are necessary to track terrorist groups that have taken root in failed states and threaten to destabilize neighboring countries.
A key hub of the U.S. spying network can be found in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Under a classified surveillance program code-named Creek Sand, dozens of U.S. personnel and contractors have gone there in recent years to establish a small air base. The unarmed U.S. spy planes fly hundreds of miles north to Mali, Mauritania and the Sahara, where they search for fighters from Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, a regional network that kidnaps Westerners for ransom. The flights have taken on added importance after a March coup in Mali that enabled Al-Qaida sympathizers to declare an independent Islamist state in the northern half of the country.
Elsewhere, commanders have said they are increasingly worried about the spread of Boko Haram, an Islamist group in Nigeria blamed for a rash of bombings there. U.S. forces are also orchestrating a regional intervention in Somalia to target Al-Shabab, another Al-Qaida affiliate. In Central Africa, about 100 U.S. special operations troops are helping to coordinate the hunt for Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of a brutal guerrilla group known as the Lord's Resistance Army.
In Central Africa, the main hub is in Uganda, though there are plans to open a base in South Sudan. U.S. aircraft also fly out of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, the Seychelles, and periodically out of Mauritania.
Some State Department officials have expressed reservations about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy on the continent. They have argued that most terrorist cells in Africa are pursuing local aims, not global ones, and do not present a direct threat to the United States.