4 American Soldiers Killed in Niger
Four American servicemen were killed in Niger last Wednesday in a daytime attack by Islamist militants, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. The casualties were members of the US Army’s 3rd Special Forces group conducting a training exercise with Nigerien soldiers near the border with Mali when they were ambushed by a large number of insurgents with improvised fighting vehicles.
In addition to the four US deaths, four Nigerien soldiers were killed and two Americans were injured. These are the first US combat casualties in the West African country, and shed light on the widespread US military deployment in counterterrorism efforts far beyond Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan.
Niger is one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries; in the latest UNDP Human Development Report, it was ranked 187th out of 188 countries. The vast country is twice the size of its former colonizer, France, and the Sahara Desert covers 80% of its territory. It shares porous borders with seven countries, nearly all of which are currently battling insurgencies.
To the North, Libya remains in a ruinous civil war with three rival governments and various armed groups, including ISIS, holding territory. To the South, Boko Haram continues to terrorize Northern Nigeria in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and forced more than 2.3 million people from their homes. To the West, soldiers from France and a multinational coalition have supported the government of Mali in its fight against Tuareg separatists and Al-Qaeda linked Islamist groups.
The US signed a status of forces agreement with Niger in January 2013 allowing it to establish a drone base and it deployed the first 100 troops the next month. According to a letter at the time from President Obama informing Congress, the US presence “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.”
The number of boots on the ground has steadily grown as drone flights increase and American soldiers take on increasingly active roles training African forces. In a report to Congress this June, President Trump disclosed the presence of approximately 645 troops in Niger tasked to “provide a wide variety of support to African partners conducting counterterrorism operations in the region.” The US is also spending $100 million to build its second drone base in Niger, in the central town of Agadez.
According to chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White, a detachment of 12 or fewer Special Forces was patrolling with Nigerien security forces near the village of Tongo Tongo when they came under attack by well-equipped militants. Early reports have been inconsistent on several key details. The fourth US death was not reported until several days after the battle when the body was recovered, and it was unclear how the soldier was separated from the others and whether he was captured.
It was also initially unclear whether the attackers were affiliated with ISIS or Al Qaeda, although The New York Times has reported that they were members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. If the attack was a premeditated ambush, it raises questions about the precautions taken by US forces operating in a hostile environment.
The incident highlights the increasing deployment of US troops to Africa. According to an article in The New Yorker, “seventeen hundred members of the Special Forces and other military personnel are undertaking ninety-six missions in twenty-one countries.” US troops often are tasked with training local forces and providing them with intelligence from drones and other sources. Special operations forces have also conducted many direct operations against high-value targets. But the line is often blurred between training missions and combat when training means joint patrols in conflict areas.
The attack also highlights the extreme instability of the Sahel region, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea on the Sahara’s southern border. US counterterrorism strategy in the region is unlikely to change and may deepen in the coming years as climate change, population growth, and unequal development further strain Sahel countries.