US has drones and hundreds of troops in Niger. Here's why

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Story highlights

  • Niger shares a long border with Mali, Nigeria and Libya
  • All three nations are battling different militant groups

(CNN)The killing of four American soldiers in Niger has drawn attention to the role of US troops in western Africa, where several terror networks roam freely.

In the region, the US has enemies all around. Niger shares a border with Mali, where an al Qaeda affiliate and other Islamist groups thrive in the vast desert. It also borders Libya, where ISIS and other extremists are regrouping, and Nigeria, where Boko Haram is a major challenge.
    The Defense Department said 50 ISIS-affiliated fighters ambushed the US soldiers on October 4, leaving two others wounded.
    As a debate rages over President Donald Trump's phone calls to the soldiers' grieving families, here are things to know about the US operations in Niger:

    American troops have been in Niger for years

    The US has previously acknowledged it has troops there. But it's never gone into much detail.
    In 2013, the White House announced that then-President Barack Obama had deployed 100 military personnel to Niger.
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    "This deployment will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region," Obama said in a letter to the House speaker.
    Small groups of US special operations forces advise local troops as they battle Boko Haram and al Qaeda.

    Niger is crucial to the war on terror

    The nation, along with Chad and Mali, serves as a bridge between north and sub-Saharan Africa, and all three serve as significant transit routes for local al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates. The terror groups use these routes to generate revenue that helps them recruit, expand and export attacks, according to US officials.
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    ISIS also uses the transit routes to move fighters northward, where they gain easy access to Europe and the West. The terror group is also attempting to infiltrate the gold-mining industry in Niger so it can sell the element on the black market and finance terrorism, according to one official.
    Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- the terror group's local affiliate -- operates along the border between Mali and Niger, despite a French-led military counterterrorism operation that started three years ago. The US military says it largely plays a supporting role by providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets in support of French forces.
    "Niger is an important partner of ours, we have a deep relationship with them," said Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff.
    Staff Sgts. Bryan Black, Dustin Wright, Jeremiah Johnson, and Army Sgt. La David Johnson, were part of a team advising and assisting Niger forces when they were attacked. Five Nigerien soldiers also died in the ambush.

    The US works with allies in the region

    The US is not the only nation with a large presence in the region, McKenzie said.
    France has about 5,000 forces in the area, he said. The French operation also involves forces from Germany, Mali, Niger and other countries in the region.
    "We have about 1,000 forces distributed over the Chad Basin, most of them in Niger, but not all of them," McKenzie said last week at a news conference.
    The Chad Basin area includes the nations that border Lake Chad: Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
    Nigeria militant group Boko Haram, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, is a threat to the nations in the Chad Basin.

    The US has drones there, too

    Starting next year, the US Africa Command will launch its MQ9 Reapers -- "hunter/killer" drones with advanced intelligence gathering capabilities -- from an air base just outside the city.
    Agadez is more centrally located and will provide the US military with surveillance over a larger, more significant area.
    The $100 million project is a massive undertaking and has included outreach to local communities.
    A US Army civil affairs team worked on several community efforts this year to build relationships and engage with the people whose lives will be affected by the drone operations
    Africa Command described the construction of the Agadez airbase as "projected to be the biggest military labor troop project in US Air Force history." The US has been using a local airport while the base is under construction, according to US Africa Command.