Article updated to reflect new information and confirmation of fatalities by US AFRICOM.
Yesterday, a joint US-Nigerien patrol near the Malian border came under fire by suspected jihadists emanating from Mali. According to reports, at least three US Special Forces soldiers were killed and two others were wounded in the ambush.
French outlet RFI first reported that the joint special forces patrol had been ambushed near the town of Tongo Tongo close to the border with Mali in Niger’s Tillabery region. Last evening, US AFRICOM confirmed that the attack took place. “US Africa Command can confirm reports that a joint US and Nigerien patrol came under fire in southwest Niger.”
This morning, AFRICOM confirmed the casualty numbers. “Three US service members and one partner nation member were killed while the US was providing advice and assistance to Nigerien security force counter-terrorism operations,” an updated statement reads. It also confirms that two others were wounded and are now recovering in Germany.
US forces operate in Niger “to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces, including support for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) efforts, in their efforts to target violent extremist organizations in the region,” as said by the AFRICOM statements.
US Special Forces are also in Mali assisting both the French counter-terrorism mission and UN forces in a similar capacity.
The region the ambush took place in has long been home to many jihadist elements which conduct operations on both sides of the border, but it is not immediately clear who is responsible for today’s ambush.
Al Qaeda’s joint entity in Mali, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), and forces led by Abu Walid al Sahrawi and loyal to the Islamic State are the two prime suspects for the ambush. JNM has claimed one attack in Niger in the past, the July 5 assault on a Nigerien army position in the nearby Tahoua region. Al Qaeda has conducted many other operations in Niger, as well, such as kidnappings and the 2013 suicide attacks in Agadez and Arlit.
JNIM was formed earlier this year when several al Qaeda groups in Mali, namely Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Sahara branch, Al Murabitoon, and the Macina Liberation Front (a subgroup of Ansar Dine) merged together and pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.
The Islamic State-loyal forces led by Abu Walid al Sahrawi, referred to as “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara” (ISGS), has been linked to several attacks in the Tillabery region, the Sahel region of Burkina Faso, and the neighboring Gao region of Mali. This includes an attempted prison break close to Niger’s capital Niamey last October.
ISGS formed out of the former Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO), which merged with forces loyal to Mokhtar Belmokhtar to form Al Murabitoon in 2013. Two years later, Abu Walid al Sahrawi, a former MUJAO spokesman, left with several fighters from the former MUJAO, and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi of the Islamic State.
A third possibility is local bandits or smugglers operating in the region.
To date, none of the suspected groups has claimed credit for the ambush. However, the significance of today’s ambush might prompt one – or both – to issue claims of responsibility quickly.
Caleb Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to The Long War Journal.