A joint U.S.-Nigerian patrol came under attack near the country’s border with Mali on Wednesday, resulting in the death of three American Green Berets and one other soldier from an unspecified “partner nation.” Two other U.S. soldiers were wounded in the attack.
The American troops were “providing advice and assistance to Nigerien security force counter-terror operations, approximately 200 kilometers north of Niamey in southwest Niger,” according to a statement from the U.S. Africa Command.
“U.S. forces are in Niger to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces in their efforts to counter violent extremist organizations in the region,” the statement explained. The BBC cites a June letter to Congress from President Trump that stated 645 American military personnel have been deployed to Niger.
The identity of the attackers is not yet clear. CNN notes that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is active in the Mali-Niger border region, opposed by a French-led military operation in progress since 2014, when terrorists came close to overthrowing the government of Mali. The U.S. Africa Command has assisted French forces in the region with intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as helping to train indigenous forces.
Concern over terrorist activity in the region also led the U.S. to conduct drone strikes against Islamic State camps in Libya in the past few weeks. CNN’s report implies those drones might have been launched out of an airport in Niger, although AFRICOM has not confirmed this.
The Islamic State’s Nigeria-based affiliate, Boko Haram, has also been known to carry out attacks in Niger. A Boko Haram attack on a village in Niger killed at least nine people in July, while about 40 more were abducted.
The slain soldiers have not yet been publicly identified because next-of-kin must be properly notified first. The two wounded soldiers have been evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and are reportedly in stable condition.
“The deaths represent the first American casualties under hostile fire in a mission in which United States Special Forces have provided training and security assistance to the Nigerien armed forces, including support for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. A Special Forces soldier died in a vehicle accident in Niger in February,” the New York Times reports.
The NYT also quotes an anonymous military official who said American forces are “rushing to the scene of the ambush, presumably to evacuate American and Nigerien casualties, and possibly to hunt down the attackers.”
The Washington Post quotes local media reports that the joint patrol was “lured into an ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo in the Tillaberi region” by attackers who came from Mali. This would increase the odds of the attackers being affiliated with al-Qaeda.
The Post notes that weapons have been flooding into the Sahara region ever since the fall of Moammar Qaddafi in Libya.
“There’s been a U.S. military presence, largely special operators and advisers, in many of the countries in North Africa going back 15 years,” former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton noted in a Thursday appearance on Breitbart News Daily. “It was one of the reasons why the Pentagon created the African Command, separating it off from the European Command because Islamic terrorists, in particular, were spreading throughout North Africa.”
“Basically there’s a seam between Saharan Africa, northern Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa—between Islamists in the north and Christian and animist populations to the south of that seam,” Bolton explained. “The Islamists have been radicalized in North Africa, just like they have been across the Middle East, increasingly threatening governments really from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Our presence there was intended to help out the legitimate governments fight against those terrorist threats.”
Correction: the original version of this story included a citation of condolences from President Trump on Twitter that was not, in fact, from the president’s authentic Twitter account. The citation has been removed. Apologies for the error.