U.S. special forces soldiers were with their counterparts from Niger on Wednesday in the West African nation’s volatile southwest, a growing hotbed of jihadist violence, when the report came in of a raid nearby.
The assailants were believed to be led by Dondou Chefou, a lieutenant in a new group operating along the Mali-Niger border and called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. A decision was soon taken to pursue them.
The mixed force was ambushed by fighters on dozens of vehicles and motorcycles.
Under heavy fire, U.S. troops called in French fighter jets for air support, but the firefight was at such close quarters that the planes could not engage and were instead left circling overhead as a deterrant.
The version of events, as told by two Nigerien and two Western sources briefed on the incident, shines a light on Washington’s increasingly aggressive Special Forces-led counterterrorism strategy in Africa and its risk of casualties.
Four U.S. soldiers died in the firefight, killed in a country where most Americans were unaware that their army is deployed but where Washington has steadily grown its presence. One soldier’s body was only recovered two days later.
At least four Nigeriens were also killed and, according to one Niger security source, militants seized four vehicles in the ambush. French helicopters, scrambled after the U.S. call for help, evacuated several soldiers wounded in the clash.
A diplomat with knowledge of the incident said French officials were frustrated by the U.S. troops’ actions, saying they had acted on only limited intelligence and without contingency plans in place.
After initially offering only scant details of what happened in the Nigerien desert on Wednesday, the U.S. military’s Africa Command said on Friday the soldiers were in the area to establish relations with local leaders.
“It was not meant to be an engagement with the enemy,” Africom spokesman Col. Mark Cheadle told reporters. “The threats at the time were deemed to be unlikely, so there was no overhead armed air cover during the engagement.”
U.S. forces do not have a direct combat mission in Niger, but their assistance to its army does include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in their efforts to target violent extremist organizations.
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