McCain Pushes for Answers on Deadly Niger Ambush

Senator John McCain
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty

As questions swirl around what happened during the ambush in southwestern Niger earlier this month that left four American service men dead and two wounded, some members of Congress claim the Trump administration is not providing enough transparency on U.S. operations in the region.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Senator John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, met on Friday to discuss the attack in Niger, which McCain on Thursday threatened a subpoena over, in order to get more information.

At a time when U.S. policy in Africa is unclear, and hardly any high-level Africa posts at the State Department are filled, the killings have turned attention toward U.S. operations in the Sahel, and whether they are working.

Three U.S. Army Green Berets and a fourth U.S. service member were killed in an attack by suspected Islamic State militants on October 4. The armed fighters ambushed the joint patrol near the village of Tongotongo in southwest Niger.

A French helicopter helped lift out the wounded, but the body of a fourth U.S. service member, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, wasn’t found until two days later.

A former U.S. defense official told The Cipher Brief that the Americans and their partners were just finishing their meeting with local leaders and walking back to their vehicles to leave when they began taking fire. The official said locals may have aided in the deadly attack, by purposely delaying the group’s departure from the village. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS, is being blamed for the Niger attack.

While AFRICOM has said it believes ISGS is likely responsible, “the fact is that there are multiple groups, multiple players, some with criminal, some with extremist ambitions” across Niger and the surrounding region, said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at CSIS.

“There will be an investigation into the details surrounding this incident to ensure the security of future missions in this region and across Africa,” AFRICOM told The Cipher Brief in an email. The FBI has also joined the investigation.

Mattis told reporters this week that the U.S. provides local Niger forces with “refueling support, intelligence support, [and] surveillance support,” via an unarmed drone base in the country.

But the U.S. also has “a little over a thousand” U.S. troops stationed there.

“Their job is to help the people in the region learn how to defend themselves. We call it foreign internal defense training,” said Mattis.

This is what the U.S. Army Green Berets were doing – jointly with Nigerien forces – when they came under fire.

The U.S. training and equipping of local forces and aiding with surveillance drones is not unique to Niger; it is the U.S. strategy for dealing with extremist groups operating all across Africa – from Boko Haram in Nigeria to al Shabaab in Somalia.

But the incident called into question whether the troops have the air and medical and intelligence support they need to safely carry out their mission. U.S. military officials had called it a relatively safe area, but the UN on Friday said 46 attacks by armed groups had occurred in the same area since early last year.

Experts told The Cipher Brief under the Trump administration, the light footprint strategy of the U.S. training local African troops and conducting drone surveillance – as opposed to putting boots on the ground to fight – is unlikely to change, especially in light of the recent attack.

“It’s very hard for me to imagine that there would be an increase in the U.S. military presence in the Sahel. Also, I don’t think there would be any popular support for it in the U.S., in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell.

But the current strategy is not adequate to defeat terrorism, Campbell told The Cipher Brief.

“Is it going to lead to the destruction of al Qaeda and IS-affiliated groups in the Sahel? No. It’s too small for that.”

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.

Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.

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