Three Green Berets Killed in Niger

Three Green Berets killed in Niger

Three members of U.S. Army Special Forces were killed in Niger on Wednesday, October 4, 2017. They were part of a joint Nigerien-U.S. patrol conducting operations in the southwest part of the country. Initial reports indicate that three U.S. Soldiers were killed and two other U.S. Soldiers wounded during an ambush of the patrol. The U.S. Africa Command issued a statement on the situation in the early morning of October 5, 2017. It is provided below.

“U.S. Africa can confirm reports that a joint U.S. and Nigerien patrol came under hostile fire in southwest Niger. We are working to confirm details on the incident and will have more information as soon as we can confirm facts on the ground.

U.S. Forces are in Niger to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces, including support for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) efforts, in their efforts to target violent extremist organizations in the region. One aspect of that is training, advising, and assisting the Nigeriens in order to increase their ability to bring stability and security to their people.”

Edited on 6 October: The Department of Defense confirmed that a fourth member of the 3rd Special Forces Group died in the combat incident in Niger on Wednesday, October 4, 2017.

U.S. Wounded in Stable Condition. The wounded were transported to a hospital in Niamey, the capital of Niger, and reported to be in stable condition. The two wounded Soldiers were then transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for further treatment.

Niger Casualties. Some of the Niger troops were also casualties. One foreign news report says that five Soldiers from Niger were killed. On October 5th a Pentagon spokesperson said that only one ‘partner nation’ member died. In February 2017 a Special Forces Warrant Officer died from a vehicle accident in Niger. There has been four deaths of SOF in 2017 in this country; counting the three Soldiers killed in Niger on October 4th and the death in February of Warrant Officer 1 Shawn Thomas.

Attackers. It is speculated that the attackers were most likely militants belonging to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The militant group is known to operate in the region. However, the loyalties and names of various militant groups operating in the area change with the passage of time. Recently emerging groups include the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) or the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). [1] Some news reports say the attackers could have been local bandits or smugglers. At the moment the identity of the attackers is unknown.

Attack Location. The attack took place 124 miles (200 kms) north of Niamey (the country’s capital) near the border of Mali. The location is reported to be a remote desert area in the vicinity of the town of Tongo Tongo in Niger’s Tillaberi region.  Tongo Tongo is located about 20 miles due south of the Mali border.

Attack Specifics. Many news reports state that the three Special Forces Soldiers killed in Niger came under attack when their convoy was ambushed along a road. The engagement is reported to have lasted over 30 minutes. The attackers were riding in a dozen vehicles and on about 20 motorcycles. The attackers were armed with heavy weapons. French media has reported that French aircraft responded to the incident but did not engage, French troops responded to the incident, and the U.S. casualties were evacuated via French helicopter. The U.S. Defense Department has not confirmed this information.

Ongoing Military Operations in Niger. Foreign press outlets have described a significant increase in military activity in the region. Apparently (as of October 5th) there is a large operation underway in the area of the Niger – Mali border where the U.S. Special Forces and Nigerien soldiers were ambushed – possibly in response to the October 4th attack. There has been no further word from USAFRICOM or DoD on the accountability of other U.S. personnel in the patrol that was attacked. (Editor’s note: on 6 Oct DoD confirmed a 4th U.S. Soldier had been missing for 48 hours and that his body was recovered).

French Assistance. A French Army spokesman told a news conference in Paris that France’s regional Barkhane force was asked to support a counterattack after the ambush took place. Operation Barkhane is a French counterterrorism mission that began in 2014 to conduct fight and defeat militant groups operating in the region. It is estimated that French forces in the area number about 4,000. U.S. forces are also operating in Mali assisting both the French counterterrorism mission and the United Nations mission. Reports indicate that French helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft responded to the incident.

Map of Niger

Niger Mission. The U.S. SOF have been providing training, advice and assistance (TAA) to the Niger military. Special Forces have long had Foreign Internal Defense (FID) as one of their primary missions. The three Soldiers killed in Niger were very likely on a FID mission. In addition, the U.S. military has been providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support. At any given time there is usually a dozen SOF personnel in Niger on a TAA or FID mission. [2] In addition, there are a few hundred military and civilian personnel (some news reports say 600-800) who operate drones in support of counterterrorist operations in the region. [3]

SOF in Africa. The 3rd Special Forces Group based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina has historically operated in this part of Africa. [4] The overall agency responsible for all SOF operations in Africa is Special Operations Command – Africa (SOCAfrica). This organization reports to Africa Command (AFRICOM). A neighboring country to Niger’s south is Nigeria which is trying to deal with Boko Haram – an insurgent / terrorist group operating along the Nigeria – Chad and Nigeria – Niger borders in the Lake Chad Basin. U.S. SOF is providing assistance to the military of Nigeria in the fight against Boko Haram. The efforts of U.S. SOF in Niger are tied closely to the efforts of U.S. SOF in Nigeria. [5] The three Soldiers killed in Niger likely belonged to a twelve-man Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (SFODA); the basic unit of Special Forces.

Militant Groups in Africa. There are at least five major terrorist groups operating in the northern part of Africa. These include Boko Haram (Nigeria area), the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), al-Shabaab (Somalia), al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Magreb, Islamic State, and others. Including smaller violent extremist organizations (VEOs) there are probably over 50 such groups spread across the continent.

About Niger. The country is the size of the state of California, is land-locked, largely desert, and extremely poor. The country has several neighboring countries to include Mali, Nigeria, Chad, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Libya. Because of its location and poor border security it sees terrorist and insurgent incursions from many of these countries to include the Islamic State from Libya, Boko Haram from Nigeria, and al-Qaida Islamic Maghreb from Mail.

RIP.

SSG Bryan Black
SSG Jeremiah Johnson
SGT La David Johnson
SSG Dustin Wright

Footnotes:

[1] For more on the many terrorist / militant groups in the northwest African region read US Special Forces troops killed during joint patrol in NigerFDD’s Long War Journal, October 5, 2017.

[2] Special Forces in Niger – Countering Terrorist GroupsSOF News, October 4, 2017. This article describes the overall mission of U.S. forces in Niger and as well as the mission of U.S. SOF.

[3] In a letter to Congress President Trump confirmed that there were 645 military personnel in Niger to support counterterrorism missions. Some news reports indicate there may be as many as 800 U.S. personnel in Niger.

[4] Africa and 3rd Special ForcesSOF News, July 9, 2017. The 3rd SFGA has a long history of involvement in Africa. Before 2011 it was heavily involved in training missions and joint exercises on the African continent. After 9/11 the 3rd SFGA saw extensive service in Afghanistan for over a decade. As the U.S. drew down on the Afghan commitment the group resumed its primary mission in Africa.

[5] SOF and Boko Haram – Nigeria’s Long-Term Insurgent NightmareSOF News, December 28, 2016. Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist / insurgent group, operates in the border region of Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. U.S. SOF is providing support to all four countries in the fight against Boko Haram.

References:

“3 Special Forces Troops Killed and 2 are Wounded in an Ambush in Niger”The New York Times, October 4, 2017.

“US troops ambushed in Niger, fatalities feared”Army Times, October 4, 2017.

Additional News Reports:

Deadly Ambush of Green Berets in Niger Belies a ‘Low-Risk’ MissionThe New York Times, October 5, 2017.

4th US Service Member Killed in Niger AmbushABC News, October 6, 2017.

Editorial Note: This article has been updated several times since the original posting to reflect new information as it becomes available in the domestic and foreign open press and press releases by the Department of Defense and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).

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