October 25, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: The Ambush in Niger

The U.S. has over 6,000 military personnel operating in 53 countries in Africa.

• On October 4, an ambush in Niger left four U.S. Special Forces soldiers dead and highlighted the serious counterterrorism and counterinsurgency issues in the region.

• The enemy force, thought to be local insurgents affiliated with the so-called Islamic State, used mortars and RPGs during two separate engagements with U.S. and Nigerien troops.

• The ambush was more complex than first reported and has now become a political issue.

• A very detailed October 23 briefing by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford, Jr. provided a marked shift from much recent guidance from the White House.

The U.S. has over 6,000 military personnel operating in 53 countries in Africa. Most operate in three locations: 4,000 in Djibouti, between 800 and 1,000 in Niger and another 400 in Somalia. Djibouti is an important logistics/planning naval and aviation hub for U.S. forces on the continent. Niger and Somalia are direct-action areas where embedded U.S. units train and fight as liaison partners with local forces on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency missions. While several Congressmen expressed surprise at the size and scope of the U.S. military presence in Africa following the October ambush that killed four U.S. troopers, it’s been known to many for years.

That ambush, like nearly everything that touches Washington D.C., has become a political and personal issue, As President Donald Trump feuds publicly with a grieving Gold Star family who lost their son in that action. The lack of public details around the mission — understandable both because it was a Special Operations Forces mission involving Green Berets and took place in a remote part of Niger — has led to accusations of insufficient support, particularly from the air. 

During a press briefing on October 23, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford Jr., provided additional details. According to General Dunford, a patrol of 12 U.S. troopers and 30 Nigerien soldiers was on a reconnaissance mission near Niger’s border with Mali, an area known to harbor armed extremist groups. Leaving the village of Tongo Tongo, the patrol was ambushed twice by at least 50 local fighters, affiliated with the Islamic State, and armed with mortars, heavy machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. The U.S. unit reportedly waited an hour before calling for air support; an unusually long time for a small group in combat. Once air support was requested, an unarmed U.S. drone filmed the battle until French Mirage jets arrived, an hour later. During the fight, U.S. Sgt. La David Johnson was separated from his unit; his body was found two days later a mile from the main ambush site.

The Pentagon says it will brief Congressional committees on the incident and General Dunford has promised a more open investigation, saying the families of the fallen were owed that much. While a great deal of attention has been focused on President Trump once again engaging in a personal public fight with families of lost soldiers, the larger issue of the challenges facing the U.S. and its partners in Africa is of major concern. While there has been significant success against Boko Haram in Nigeria, that group is still a serious threat to the region. Al-Qaeda affiliates al-Shabaab and AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) are persistent and significant threats in their respective areas of operation; the October 14 truck bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia, killed more than 358, one of the worst terrorist attacks anywhere in years. The pace of joint operations in Africa involving U.S. personnel will likely increase in the foreseeable future, as the conditions that help fuel terrorist and insurgent groups continue to worsen.


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