WASHINGTON — The U.S. military believes someone in a Niger village may have tipped off attackers to the presence of U.S. commandoes and Nigerien forces in the area, setting in motion the ambush that killed four Americans, a senior defense official said Tuesday.
The official said the Army Green Berets and about 30 Niger forces stopped in a village for an hour or two to get food and water after conducting an overnight reconnaissance mission. After they left, they were ambushed by about 50 heavily armed enemy fighters, who also killed four Niger fighters and wounded two Americans and several Niger troops.
Details about the attack and the events leading up to it have been murky, trickling out over the last three weeks. According to the official, the joint U.S. and Niger patrol was asked to help a second American commando team that had been hunting for a senior member of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb believed to be in the area.
The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the incident publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The joint U.S. and Niger team was initially told to go out on a routine mission to meet local tribal leaders and work with the Niger forces. But after they had set out on Oct. 3, they received a new assignment, the official said. They were asked to go to a location where the insurgent had last been seen, and collect intelligence. Because the insurgent leader was no longer in that area, military commanders believed the operation wasn’t risky.
U.S. military officials believe the intelligence mission went well during the night. But on their way back to their base in the morning, the U.S. and Niger troops stopped at a village about 85 kilometers (50 miles) north of Niger’s capital, Niamey.
After getting supplies and meeting with tribal leaders, the joint patrol left the village. They were attacked about 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Niamey, by what officials believe was a relatively new offshoot of the Islamic State group that calls itself Islamic State in the Sahel. That group is not believed to be connected to the AQIM leader that the other American special forces team has been looking for.
The enemy fighters attacked on motorcycles, carrying rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, setting off a long and complex battle.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Monday the U.S. special forces unit didn’t call for help until an hour into their first contact with the enemy. And he acknowledged that many questions linger about the assault.
Those questions, said the defense official, will include who authorized the decision to change the team’s mission, as well as why it took so long to evacuate the wounded and why one of the killed U.S. soldiers was missing for two days before his body was recovered.
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