Niger ambush could become a scandal Trump can't evade

Why are U.S. troops in West Africa? What we know, and don't know, about the attack that killed four Americans

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published October 24, 2017 4:59AM (EDT)

The remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright who was killed in an ambush  by dozens of Islamic extremists on a joint patrol of American and Niger Force. (AP/Staff Sgt. Aaron J. Jenne)
The remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright who was killed in an ambush by dozens of Islamic extremists on a joint patrol of American and Niger Force. (AP/Staff Sgt. Aaron J. Jenne)

Dozens more militants have reportedly crossed the border from Mali into Niger to carry out another ambush on Nigerien troops, not quite three weeks after the mysterious ambush that led to the deaths of four U.S. Special Forces troops. Nearly every American official connected to the deaths of the Green Berets is still struggling to explain exactly what happened.

"I didn't know there was 1,000 troops in Niger," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told NBC's Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press" Sunday. Graham, who serves on the Senate Committee on Armed Services, said the Pentagon is "going to brief us next week as to why they were there and what they were doing."

In his most striking admission, the veteran Republican senator added, "We don't know exactly where we're at in the world, militarily, and what we're doing.”

The rules of engagement

Details of what happened on Oct. 4 in Niger, a large, landlocked and predominantly Muslim nation in West Africa with a population of about 21 million, remain murky. Trump administration officials have largely focused on an increasingly fractious exchange with the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the fallen soldiers, following more than a week of radio silence about the attack.

What we do know is that a 12-member team of U.S. Special Forces known as Green Berets accompanied a larger troop of Nigerien soldiers to the village of Tongo Tongo on Oct. 3. After spending the night in the village, the soldiers were ambushed as they attempted to leave on Oct. 4.

Initially, the Pentagon only confirmed that three U.S. troops had been killed and two wounded in the incident. The Department of Defense evidently withheld information about a fourth soldier who had gone missing during the ambush. (That was Johnson.) His remains were found by Nigerien forces roughly 48 hours after the ambush.

The circumstances of how Johnson was separated from his comrades, and the nature of his death, remain unknown. The FBI has joined Department of Defense investigators looking into the incident.

While no group has officially taken responsibility for the attack, the most detailed account of the firefight was reported by Voice of America on Monday.

Moussa Aksar, director of the newspaper l'Evènement in Niamey, the capital of Niger, said the soldiers were in the area to track down an accomplice of Abu Adnan al-Sahraoui, a former member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), who joined the Islamic State terror group in the Sahara Desert. (About 80 percent of Niger's land area is in the Sahara, much of it sparsely inhabited or uninhabited.)

Aksar, a specialist on terrorism in the Sahel region of Africa, told Voice of America that members of the patrol questioned residents of the village, who dragged out the discussions, possibly giving the attackers time to organize an ambush.

"It turns out that this village was a little contaminated by hostile forces," said Aksar, who said he received the details from Nigerien Defense Minister Kalla Moutari. "The unit stayed a little longer than expected because, apparently, people were aware that something was going on."

While the soldiers were still in the village, a fake terror attack was staged nearby, according to Aksar and local sources. The soldiers rushed to the scene, where about 50 or more assailants with vehicles and motorcycles opened fire with Kalashnikovs and heavy weapons

According to Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Joseph Dunford, however, the soldiers were attacked while leaving the village to return to their operating base. Dunford, who provided a timeline of events on Monday, went on to admit: “I do not know how this attack unfolded.”

Dunford pointed to the U.S. military’s rules of engagement in the region, which state that troops should only accompany local forces when the chances of combat are low, to say that the members of Third Special Forces Group based at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg “did not expect significant resistance on their visit to the village.”

Yet somehow, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black of Washington state, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson of Ohio, Sgt. La David Johnson of Florida and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Georgia all lost their lives on that visit, and two more U.S. soldiers were injured. Five Nigerien soldiers were also killed in the attack, and 13 more were killed in another ambush over the weekend.

"I totally changed rules of engagement," President Donald Trump boasted last week, as he was in the midst of a battle of words with Johnson's widow. "ISIS is now giving up, they are giving up, there are raising their hands, they are walking off. Nobody has ever seen that before." Weeks before the ambush in Niger, The New York Times reported that Trump's overhaul of the rules "paves the way for broader and more frequent operations against Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other jihadists":

It would also apply in countries where the United States has targeted Islamist militants outside of regular combat for years, including Yemen, Somalia and Libya, and would ease the way to expanding such gray-zone acts of sporadic warfare to elsewhere in Africa, Asia and the Middle East where terrorists operate.

Mission creep?

The United States has more troops stationed in Niger, where jihadists have reportedly taken root in recent years, than in any other African nation. French troops intervened in neighboring Mali in 2012 after militant groups, including one affiliated with al-Qaida, took control of the northern part of the country. Not long after that, President Barack Obama deployed 40 U.S. military personnel to the region.

That number has since ballooned to 800. The U.S. has also set up a drone base in the capital city of Niamey and continues construction on a second drone base near the border with Mali. Congress, however, has never authorized the mission in Niger -- as is required by the Constitution.

Despite this quiet buildup of international forces, the United Nations estimates that at least 46 militant attacks have been carried out on the Mali-Niger border since early 2016. On Saturday, as a UN Security Council delegation was in the country to discuss the violence, the Malian government announced a one-year extension of its national state of emergency.

Groups linked to both ISIS and al-Qaida are active in this region of northwestern Africa, known generally as the Sahel. With European countries not far away across the Mediterranean, Western forces have aggressively attempted to crack down on the movement of weapons and individuals across the Sahara.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi directed his fighters to the new “base of the caliphate” in West and North Africa in an audio message last November. A year and a half earlier,  it was revealed at a Senate hearing that al-Qaida controls an area the size of Texas in the region, where it has helped train members of Boko Haram and al-Shabab. Boko Haram, an extremist movement based in Nigeria, also operates in southeast Niger, southern Chad and northern Cameroon. In May, a U.S. Navy Seal was killed in a raid on an al-Shabab compound in Somalia -- the first American combat death in that country since the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993.

But as The Washington Post’s Max Bearak recently noted, despite the significantly increased American involvement on the continent -- and an increasing American death count -- President Trump’s National Security Council has yet to appoint a senior director for Africa, while the highest Africa position in the State Department is held by a temporary appointee.

“You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less; you’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less; you’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field,” insisted Sen. Graham, after being briefed on the Niger ambush late last week.

Now, as the atmosphere of scandal surrounding the death of U.S. troops begins to thicken, many members of Congress are finally calling for a proper accounting of our military involvement in Niger and elsewhere in Africa. But as legislators appropriated billions of dollars to deploy troops to an ever-growing list of sovereign states in a seemingly endless war on terror, they have refused to engage in actual oversight to ascertain any semblance of a strategic plan from the Trump administration.

The White House defended its actions on Monday by pointing out that it notified congressional leaders in June that 645 troops were conducting counterterrorism duties in Niger.

Across Democratic and Republican administrations, Congress has taken advantage of poor nations’ difficulty dealing with destabilizing forces to abrogate its constitutionally mandated duty. American troops were stationed in Niger at the invitation of that nation's government, and operated under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which remains in force 16 years after the 9/11 attacks. With that in mind, all remaining questions surrounding the ambush seem just a tad too late.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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