Three soldiers with the United States Special Forces were killed and two wounded in an ambush in Niger on Wednesday. The troops were on a training mission with others from Niger in northwestern Africa, The New York Times reports.
Lieutenant Commander Anthony Falvo, a spokesman for the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in Stuttgart Germany, confirmed the attack on U.S. and Nigerien patrols in an email.
The soldiers, all five are Green Berets, came under hostile fire 120 miles to the north of Niger’s capital, Niamey. The area is near the border with Mali; militants with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have been known to conduct cross-border raids in the same area.
The names of the soldiers are not yet released. It is also not currently known whether Niger’s troops also suffered casualties in the attack. Newsweek reports that a Nigerien official told Reuters that five of Niger’s soldiers had been killed.
Details of the ambush are murky at best. Soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group were undergoing counterterrorism training—not a combat operation—with their Nigerien counterparts when they came under fire. As of Wednesday, no group has claimed responsibility for the deadly ambush.
“These militants have proven remarkably resilient, exploiting local and/or ethnic grievances to embed themselves into communities as well political borders and differences to escape capture,” J. Peter Pham, a vice president at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center in Washington, told The New York Times. “It was no accident that this attack took place near Niger’s border with Mali, an area that has seen numerous incidents in recent years.”
The United States provides training and security assistance to the Nigerien army; this includes support for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. This assistance aims to target violent extremist groups in the Niger region. According to The New York Times, the deaths mark the first U.S. casualties under enemy fire in such a mission. The last time a Special Forces soldier died in Niger was in February in a vehicle accident.
Newsweek explains that Niger has to combat a plethora of violent extremists and insurgents in and around their borders. To the west and southwest, the country shares borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, countries where Al-Qaeda insurgents have been active for years. AQIM played a central role in seizing a large portion of the northern region of Mali in 2012. A French counter operation beat the insurgents back. A developing group associated with ISIS has also been active recently, carrying out attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger.
Niger’s northern border is with Libya, where ISIS insurgents remain active. After a “lull” since January, the U.S. once again is operating drone strikes on ISIS outposts in Libya.
Libya is also a central departure point for African migrants. Many migrants first travel through Niger before reaching Libya’s coasts.
To Niger’s southeast is Nigeria; both countries share a border with Lake Chad. Boko Haram remains prevalent in the region, traveling easily through the “porous” borders.
Even with aid from both the United States and France, Niger struggles to maintain control of its borders and battle insurgents.
The U.S.’ relationship with Niger increased a couple of years ago. Washington has one permanent base in Africa, located in Djibouti. However, plans are underway to build an America drone base, and a rather large one, in a barren desert city in Niger. Congress initially approved a $50 million budget request for the base; other reports estimate it will cost nearer $100 million.
U.S. drones have launched from a secret military base near Niamey since 2013. The unarmed drones completed surveillance missions of 10 hours or more while tracking Al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups.