Four members of the US Special Operations Forces were killed in southwest Niger near the Mali-Niger border when a joint US-Nigerien patrol was attacked on October 3.
Pentagon officials have blamed the attack on what they described as self-radicalized, ISIS-affiliated militants. According to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces Joseph Dunford, the US soldiers were accompanying the local military forces and did not expect to meet heavy resistance. They have called in the air support about an hour after the firefight begun. French Mirage jets arrived on the scene approximately one hour later.
Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright died as a result of the October 4 attack. Sgt. La David Johnson was found 48 hours later, as he was apparently separated from the group. He was later identified as the fourth service member killed in the attack.
Reuters reported that the US special forces soldiers abandoned, or at least extended, their more limited mission in Tongo Tongo when they learned of a raid nearby, deciding to engage the attackers themselves, Dunford said there is no indication that the US troops were operating outside their orders at the time of the ambush, although the matter is still being investigated.
“It was planned as a reconnaissance mission. What happened after they began to execute, in other words, did the mission change? That is one of the questions that’s being asked. It’s a fair question but I can’t tell you definitively the answer to that question. But, yes, we’ve seen the reports, we’ve seen the speculation,” Dunford said.
According to US Africa Command spokesman Army Col. Mark Cheadle, the military’s intelligence said it was “unlikely” that the team would run into enemy forces. “Had we anticipated this sort of attack we would have absolutely devoted more resources to it to reduce the risk and that’s something we are looking at right now,” he said.
The US troops had been embedded with a larger unit of Nigerien troops and were attacked as they left a meeting with local community leaders a few dozen kilometres from the remote town of Tongo Tongo.
Some reports claimed US troops were on a mission to kill or capture a high-value target in the area, perhaps even Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the local faction of fighters that formally pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Reuters news agency reported that the attackers were from al-Sahrawi’s group, which calls itself the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
International Crisis Group reported that jihadist groups have established a presence in the northern Tillabery region, close to Tongo Tongo, through targeted recruitment of young members of the Fulani community – one of the largest ethnic groups in west Africa comprising mostly herders – who are looking for ways to counter their ethnic rivals or protect their businesses or communities.
After the attack, the Pentagon said that the United States has about 1,000 troops in the Chad Basin, about 800 of whom are in Niger. Pentagon officials said the mission in Africa is about training partner nations in counterterrorism.