A month after an extremist ambush in Niger killed eight US and Nigerien troops, the two sides' officials still cannot agree on the sequence of events leading to the incident or even, possibly more importantly, on the nature of the mission itself.
Four soldiers from each nation were killed when a joint patrol was attacked in Niger on October 4 by dozens of militants with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
A Pentagon investigation into the incident, led by a two-star general from US Africa Command, may take weeks and the Pentagon says it has not settled on any final version of events.
US and Niger officials agree that on October 3, 12 US Special Forces and 30 Nigeriens left Niamey and headed north to the Mali border. Twenty six similar patrols had taken place in the area in the past six months without enemy contact, the Pentagon said.
After that, the stories of the two sides diverge.
"It was an intelligence mission but also a mission of an operational nature," Niger Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Reuters in an interview. "It was in a zone that was considered safe, not enemy territory."
Niger’s Defense Minister, Kalla Moutari, gave the same information to the French daily newspaper, Le Monde. He described the operation as “a reconnaissance mission, but also to neutralise the enemy.”
US TV's ABC News reported from unnamed US intelligence officials that the mission was originally reconnaissance, but that it changed along the way.
"They should have been up and back in a day," a senior US intelligence official told ABC. "But they were up there so long on a mission that morphed, they were spotted, surveilled and ultimately hit."
Specifically, the mission aimed to detain and question Doundou Chefou, an actively sought jihadist considered to be particularly dangerous, according to a senior Nigerien security source with knowledge of the operation and two mid-level government sources, all of whom declined to be named.
According to Nigerien sources, Chefou commands Islamic State group fighters affiliated to the movement and led by an Arabic-speaking north African called Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, and has been recruiting disgruntled youths from the Fulani ethnic group along the Niger-Mali border.
But US officials deny the mission had any such purpose.
"The service members involved in this unfortunate incident were unequivocally not directed to do a 'kill or capture mission'. They were on a reconnaissance mission," the Pentagon said in statement sent to Reuters on November 2.
The US officials said their soldiers were asked to work with the Nigerien troops to be on standby to help a second US military team whose mission was indeed to pursue a militant. That second mission was called off, however. It is unclear when or why.
"Did the mission change? That's one of the questions being asked. I can't tell you definitively the answer to that question," General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said to Reuters last month.
The US officials said the first team was asked to gather intelligence on the militant. The Americans could do this under US military rules of engagement that allow American forces to accompany partner forces only when the chances of enemy contact are "unlikely."
Three US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while it is true the team that was eventually attacked was given an additional task mid-mission, it was never in pursuit of a militant.
Asked about the existence of a second mission, none of the Nigerien sources were aware of it.
According to the senior Nigerien security official, the team initially sought Chefou out near a remote border village on October 3. They found a militant camp there but no fighters, he said.
After that, Nigerien intelligence officials on the team received fresh orders from their headquarters to pursue him in the village of Tongo Tongo, so they stayed the night nearby, the official said.
On the morning of October 4, the Nigerien and US forces passed through Tongo Tongo. While there, they stopped for about two hours to talk to local leaders, including a village chief that Le Monde reports has been suspected of secretly cooperating with jihadist forces.
US and Nigerien officials agree the team was ambushed after they left Tongo Tongo.
One of the Nigerien government sources said the jihadist fighters first came with just a few gunmen with AK47s on motorbikes to slow them down, and later brought out heavier 12.7mm machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
That might explain why the team took an hour to call for help - one of the issues that has most disturbed senior Pentagon officials - because the initial attack may have only involved light arms.
However, according to The Guardian the Nigerien soldiers on the mission fled the initial ambush, leaving the US forces to fight on their own. Though a US drone responded quickly to the scene, it was unarmed. It took the US forces an hour to call for additional air support, something that has disturbed and perplexed Pentagon officials and experts.
Citing a retired senior US military officer with knowledge of the incident, The Guardian reported that French Mirage fighter planes responded to the request for air support, but refused to engage because poor weather and the rough terrain left them unable to differentiate friend from foe.
One US official said at least some of the four US soldiers killed were then separated from the convoy. They included Sergeant La David T. Johnson, whose body was not recovered for two days. It is unclear why.
US presence likely to grow
The incident has drawn attention to the little-known US military presence in Niger at a time when many Americans are weary of US involvement in conflicts abroad and Nigeriens are chafing at the growing presence of foreign troops on their soil.
The United States has 800 soldiers operating in the largely desert West African nation, more than France, which has 4,000 in the wider Sahel trying to tackle Islamist militancy. The main US base in Africa is in Djibouti, which supports about 4,000 personnel.
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It is unlikely the United States will back away from Niger because of its central location in the Sahel and because of the proliferation of militant groups around it, including Nigeria's Islamic State-linked Boko Haram and al-Qaeda affiliates.
Niger’s Defense Minister announced on Saturday that Niger will allow the US to arm the drones it has deployed in the country. He said the decision had been made prior to the attack that killed four US soldiers.
"It was a negotiation that had been underway for a while. Arming the drones is an option we decided on before we learned of the tragedy at Tongo Tongo," Moutari told state radio.
"We are dealing with very well-armed groups," he said, and "armed drones are an appropriate and decisive response for fighting terrorism."
Niger had been reluctant to let either the US or French troops on its soil use the drones as weapons, in part because of fears for civilian casualties. The US military is currently spending tens of millions of dollars to construct a drone base in Agadez, a city located in the center of Niger.
The US also recently pledged $60 million to a new United Nations-backed anti-terrorism force composed of soldiers from five African countries, including Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Mauritania.
That force, called the G5 Sahel, began operating with French military support on Wednesday. Its activities will be initially confined to Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Their mandate allows the force to operate across borders for the first time.
Date created : 2017-11-05