On October 4th, 3 U.S. Special Forces and 5 Nigerien soldiers were killed in an ambush while the U.S. Green berets was assisting Nigerien troops in counterterrorism training in southwest Niger.
These are the first Americans to die in the country as a result of hostile fire since the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) was deployed in Niger. The attack also wounded 2 U.S. soldiers and 8 Nigerien soldiers.
During a joint patrol, U.S. and Nigerien troops fell into an ambush set by Islamic insurgents north of Niamey, near the border of Mali. Less than a dozen U.S. troops and more than 20 Nigerien troops were involved in the fighting. French helicopters responded to the attack by providing cover fire and evacuated the injured soldiers.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but U.S. officials believe al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was involved. It is believed that the attackers came from Mali, where Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is based.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, and Islamic State (IS) are all active in the area and have staged attacks in Niger before. AQIM mainly operates in Mali and has conducted cross-border raids in Niger. Boko Haram is based in Nigeria and has also staged several attacks in Niger near the Nigerian border.
AQIM briefly took over most of northern Mali in 2012, with the aim of imposing Islamic law following an uprising by ethnic Tuareg rebels. This effort to take and hold territory was defeated following a French military intervention. Since 2016, AQIM has staged many attacks in the Sahel region of Africa which includes Mali and Niger.
In 2007, the U.S. launched AFRICOM, its military command for Africa. There is a total of 800 U.S. troops currently on the ground in Niger. The U.S. military is there to provide training and assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces to counter violent extremist organizations in the region. The U.S. mainly plays a supporting role in Niger, providing surveillance and training rather than conducting airstrikes or combat missions.
Since 2013, U.S. drones have been used in Niamey for surveillance missions to track AQIM and Boko Haram. A drone base is being built by U.S. and French troops in Agadez, in order to conduct surveillance on Islamic State (IS) in Libya.
Insurgent groups have taken advantage of African countries like Niger, a largely desert nation with borders that terrorists can easily traverse. While this was considered a low risk mission for the U.S., this attack highlights the inherent risk for U.S. troops operating in countries with an active Islamic insurgency.