Three American Green Berets were tragically killed and two more wounded when a joint U.S.-Nigerien patrol was ambushed near the Mali-Niger border Wednesday. As details continue to emerge, we take a look at what brings U.S. forces into the West African landlocked country.
The patrol was reportedly ambushed by militants operating in the region. The Pentagon has disclosed few details about the operation in southwest Niger.
However, according to local media reports, the attackers (which media reports speculate may be members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM) may have come into the country from neighboring Mali. A U.S. official told Reuters that the joint patrol had no specific objective that day. Five Nigerien soldiers were reportedly killed in the attack.
What are we doing there?
The U.S. role in Niger and the surrounding region is often described as a support role, helping local governments with the resources and training to combat global jihadist groups.
According to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the military is in Niger “to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces, in their efforts to counter violent extremist organizations in the region.”
In January 2013, the Obama administration struck a deal with Niger to allow unarmed U.S. surveillance drones to be based in the country to monitor Islamic terrorists in the region. At the time, Islamic militants were battling against a French-led coalition in neighboring Mali.
How many troops do we have there?
In February 2013, the U.S. deployed around 100 soldiers to Niger to provide intelligence support.
A June letter to Congress by President Trump indicated there were 645 U.S. military personnel deployed to Niger, and hundreds more in the surrounding countries.
What is the threat to American interests in Niger?
The chief threat to U.S. interests in Niger and the surrounding region is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Like most terrorists organizations, AQIM seeks to install an Islamic caliphate and institute sharia law.
Given that its leadership is mainly Algerian nationals and north African Arabs, AQIM has taken a particular interest in overthrowing the government of Algeria, along with all other non-Islamist governments .Since its 2007 rebranding, the group has successfully carried out many mass casualty terror attacks.
According to the State Department, AQIM raises a great deal of its funds through kidnapping for ransom payments and other criminal activity such as arms trafficking, money laundering, and drug trafficking. Additionally, the Algerian government alleges that AQIM receives financial and logistical support from the Iranian regime and the Sudanese government.
Niger and the surrounding region also face threats from the Boko Haram terrorist group, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Forces from Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria are training alongside the U.S. military in response to the terrorist threat.
Another new jihadist group, which calls itself the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), has claimed many attacks in the region in recent years. The outfit has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terror group.
Is the U.S. military presence in Africa legally justified?
That’s up for debate. Since 2001, Presidents Bush, Obama, and now Trump have justified overseas military action under the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which Congress initially approved for operations in Afghanistan.
French troops are reportedly readying a counterattack as part of a response to Wednesday’s ambush. The Pentagon has not released details about whether American forces will be involved in the reported ongoing operation.