Black recalled. Black would later say at the memorial service for his son. Some family members of the fallen soldiers have chosen not to speak about it. Before he deployed to Niger, Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson told his family that if he died, he did not want to see his name in the news, said his mother, Debbie Gannon. The attacks, which killed more than people and wounded 5, more, thrust Osama bin Laden onto the F. Africa had always been more of an afterthought when it came to American military policy.
Even today, the United States has 5, to 6, troops on the entire continent — compared with 40, in Japan, 35, in Germany, 25, in South Korea and 14, in Afghanistan. But Islamist militancy has spread in many parts of Africa, and after the Sept. The Bush administration expanded its presence through new basing agreements and training exercises. The Pentagon moved to build military ties with allies like Morocco and Tunisia, and sought to gain long-term access to countries like Mali and Algeria. More than 1, service members were stationed in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, to conduct counterterrorism operations.
By the end of the Bush administration, American Green Berets were training African armies to guard against infiltration by Qaeda militants. France, the former colonial power, eventually intervened. It struck deep inside Islamist strongholds in northern Mali, blunting an Islamist advance and dispersing the militants, who had created one of the largest havens for jihadists in the world. The threats continued spreading.
Militants attacked a gas plant in Algeria in early , killing 40 people from 10 countries, including the United States.
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A month after, American commandos carried out dual raids in Africa, capturing a militant in Libya who had been indicted for his role in the East Africa embassy bombings, and clashing with the Shabab in Somalia in retaliation for the mall attack. But Mr. Obama also pursued another counterterrorism strategy: relying more on allied or local troops, with a limited American combat role.
Westerners, including Americans, were killed. The United States responded by training African militaries, hoping to get them to fight back without committing American troops to another big war, like in Iraq or Afghanistan. By the time President Trump took office in , administration officials showed few signs of backing away from Mr. But the Trump administration stepped up drone strikes in Somalia, and the Pentagon presented the White House with a plan that envisioned at least two more years of combat against Islamist militants there.
The plan for Somalia includes new rules quietly signed by Mr. Trump last fall for counterterrorism operations outside of conventional war zones. Trump removed several limits that Mr. Obama had imposed in on drone strikes and commando raids, loosening vetting requirements before offensive strikes and dropping assessments that every person targeted poses a specific threat to Americans. While the American counterterrorism efforts in Libya and Somalia drew more attention, Niger had become a place increasingly surrounded by jihadist threats.
Military briefers offered him a sobering assessment: The Islamic State threatened from the north, Al Qaeda from the west and Boko Haram from the south and southeast. Niger, with American help, was trying to cope with the cascade of threats. McKeon said. The United States military presence in Niger grew from about personnel in to about troops now.
That has changed. But the downside is, the risks to U.
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Within hours of the attack, Defense Department officials said the American ground patrol had been ambushed during a routine reconnaissance mission in which it was simply advising and assisting Nigerien troops. Weeks later, American officials began privately acknowledging that the ambushed soldiers had been diverted from their low-risk patrol and sent several hours away, toward the border with Mali.
The change in plans was completely unexpected, and came as the soldiers were already on their way back to base. But an opportunity had suddenly presented itself, American and Nigerien officials now say. Just hours before, American intelligence officials had intercepted a call on an electronic device associated with Doundoun Cheffou, a former cattle herder believed to be a senior lieutenant in a shadowy local group that had recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
If captured, Mr. Cheffou, code-named Naylor Road by the military, could lead American forces to Mr. Woodke, said Rudy Atallah, the former director of African counterterrorism policy for the Pentagon. For more than two years, Mr.
French security officials say the Islamic State branch has 40 to 60 core members, but is often joined by sympathetic villagers. American officials rushed to get a surveillance aircraft over the spot of scrubland in southwestern Niger from where the signal had emanated, one American official said. Getting there quickly was crucial.
Military officials quickly ordered up an assault team of American, French and Nigerien commandos based in Arlit, miles northeast of the capital, to go after Mr. Cheffou, officials say — part of a broader counterterrorism mission named Obsidian Nomad. The Nigerien forces at Arlit were specially trained and equipped by the Pentagon for counterterrorism operations like this one.
They were accompanied by American Special Forces advisers who had arrived in the country roughly a month before, officials say. It is not clear how many Americans and Nigeriens were assigned to the helicopter assault mission, or who approved the operation. Such raids have been conducted in Somalia, but the tactic was unusual for the American military in West Africa.
Senior American officers who have served in West Africa say it probably would have required Gen. Thomas D. The scramble to pull together a raid and hunt down Mr. Cheffou upended what had been a fairly uneventful day for the four American sergeants already out on patrol. They were part of a group of 11 American and 30 Nigerien soldiers with a very different assignment: to visit a number of villages to meet with residents and leaders.
It was considered routine, low risk and something they were well equipped for. Their convoy was composed of eight vehicles: two pickup trucks and a sport utility vehicle for the Americans, and five trucks for the Nigeriens. Most had medium machine guns, capable of being fired by standing and aiming from the bed of the truck. They could quickly travel overland on missions that were less dangerous than those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Their weapons were similarly configured. Most of the team carried M4 carbines, with sights and suppressors for their rifles, according to the video footage. At least one soldier had a single-shot grenade launcher.
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And their trucks, lightly protected with open beds, would leave any passengers inside exposed to enemy fire. Soldiers traveling in the lone S. Starting around 6 a. In the afternoon, their assignment completed, they began to head back to base. Before they got there, a new order came in: provide backup to the assault mission gearing up in Arlit. The plan was not for Team to join the raid, officials say, but to get close enough to pursue escaping militants or help out as needed. So, without warning, the Army soldiers out on a daylong patrol with their Nigerien trainees were turned around, pushing deeper into potentially hostile territory, lightly equipped for a new mission that exposed them to risks their commanders did not anticipate.
Officers who have served in the region say such a change would require approval and tasking from at least several higher levels — most likely starting with a major in Niamey and a lieutenant colonel in Chad; a task force commander stationed in Germany; and possibly a two-star general overseeing all special forces operations in Africa, also from Germany, where the United States Africa Command is based. But soon, the plans changed yet again.
Back in Arlit, the preparations for the raid were falling apart. Cheffou and a handful of fighters had left the location, officials say. They believed the trail had gone cold. Still, Team and the 30 Nigeriens with it were moving into position to back up a raid that was no longer happening, officials said. The same chain of command ordered the team to press on — now on its third assignment in 24 hours. Could the team salvage some of the mission by searching the site where Mr.
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Cheffou had been, collecting any scraps of information left behind that might offer clues about his hide-outs and network? By this point, current and former military officers and counterterrorism specialists say the team and its chain of command had made some crucial mistakes that would come back to haunt the soldiers. First, the superiors who redirected Team failed to take note of the increasingly hazardous environment in the border area between Mali and Niger — an area where the United Nations had counted at least 46 attacks in the 20 months before the ambush.
But the American Special Forces had faced virtually no enemy contact during months of patrols in the region, Pentagon officials said. The Nigerien troops who set out alongside the Americans had been to the area where the ambush occurred a total of 19 times without incident, said Brig.
Mahamadou Abou Tarka, a senior Nigerien officer.
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This led to a general complacency, and a false sense of safety, which took root both in the rank-and-file members of the unit and in their commanders, American and Nigerien officials said. Although the Americans in Team were well trained, they were new to Niger, and some of the soldiers were on their first tour. They were accompanied by Nigerien troops, who are classified as special forces but are, in fact, their trainees.
The sense of urgency and risk that infused the planning around the raid from Arlit seemed to recede once that mission was scrubbed and Mr.
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