Elite U.S. soldiers came under sustained and sophisticated attack for hours by militants in Niger on Wednesday, resulting in at least three of them dead in a part of the world where most Americans did not know they operated.
Knowledgeable sources from the special-operations community described an ambush in which a handful of Army Special Forces and the Nigerien soldiers they mentor were overrun and significantly outnumbered. According to initial accounts described to The Daily Beast by people who spoke only on condition of anonymity, between 40 and 50 militants overmatched the Americans by at least four to one.
Sources emphasized that their understanding of what happened in Niger was based on early accounts that are likely to be incomplete and updated in the days that follow. They were not cleared to talk to reporters and described events on condition of anonymity.
This early picture holds that a patrol mostly consisting of Nigerien soldiers and augmented by smaller than a typical 12-man detachment of Special Forces troops were maneuvered into an ambush by militants. The American and Nigerien soldiers appear to have been returning from a completed mission and were on the road in a small convoy when they came under fire.
It is not clear whether their vehicles were armored. It is also unclear what sort of weaponry the militants used, how they arrayed themselves for the ambush, or whether they maneuvered the Special Forces team into favorable terrain. But sources indicated that what occurred next was a sustained assault overrunning the convoy, not a series of well-placed lethal shots that militants fired before fleeing.
On Wednesday night, the U.S. Africa Command, which oversees all U.S. military missions on the African continent released a short statement confirming “reports that a joint U.S. and Nigerien patrol came under hostile fire in southwest Niger.”
Military officials confirmed Thursday that three soldiers were killed and two wounded. The New York Times reported that those killed were all Green Berets and that the ambush occurred on the border with Mali, where al Qaeda’s local affiliate has been active. But The Daily Beast understands not all the special forces involved were Green Berets.
Sources indicated that the special-operations community had been shaken by the assault. An ambush of this size is the first that Special Forces had experienced in over four years of low-key operations in Niger. The three U.S. combat deaths are the first in Niger, though in February, a warrant officer died from what AFRICOM described as a vehicle accident.
But they also said its warning signs, in retrospect, had been evident. In recent weeks and months, security had deteriorated as local militant groups had forged new alliances and grew bolder. The Nigeriens use vulnerable vehicles and are considered unreliably capable partners. Sustainment and logistics had come under strain by the remoteness of the terrain from other American outposts, even by air.
In February 2013, Barack Obama disclosed that about 100 troops were in Niger to aid French forces with aerial reconnaissance through drones as the French reversed a militant advance in neighboring Mali. That mission has expanded to include another of the military’s training and advisory efforts for allied militaries. In June, Donald Trump informed Congress that the U.S. military presence in Niger, which signed an accord with the U.S. to base forces in January 2013, currently totals 645 personnel. But their presence in Niger has remained obscure to all but the closest observers of the military, even as the U.S. Air Force began flying drone operations out of a base there in 2013.
While the training and reconnaissance missions are not considered combat, the ambush and deaths of the Special Forces soldiers underscore how the distinction can lose its meaning in the blink of an eye. Most U.S. special operators in places like Syria are formally designated advisory forces, but they accompany the forces they mentor on patrols and, as necessary, into or out of battle.
By degree and under the radar, the U.S. military presence across Africa has expanded significantly in recent years. Another 300 personnel remain in nearby Cameroon on a related aerial-reconnaissance mission against terrorist groups, an open-ended effort. In east Africa, U.S. forces conduct attacks on al-Shabab in Somalia, a mission, sustained by the military’s regional hub at Camp Lemonnier in Djiboutii, Trump has expanded. Documents obtained by TomDispatch, bolstered by additional reporting, indicate that the U.S. now operates out of 46 bases, including 15 “enduring” locations, in at least 24 African countries.
At the Pentagon, officials said they were unprepared to provide further details, citing "ongoing partnered" operations.
But Lt. Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the Director of the Joint Staff, denied to reporters that U.S. forces in Niger were seeking to engage militants.
“No, we’re on a security assistance and advisory mission,” McKenzie told reporters on Thursday afternoon, but added: “Clearly, there’s risk for our forces in Niger. ... Certainly, to the soldiers in the fight, it was combat.”