Three U.S. special operators were killed and two others wounded during an ambush in Niger Wednesday, leaving many Americans wondering why they were there in the first place.
The U.S has provided increasing assistance to the Nigerien security forces in recent years to prevent gains by two particular terrorist groups, Boko Haram and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Boko Haram largely operates out of nearby Nigeria while AQIM is located near the country’s border with Mali.
U.S. Africa Command noted in a Thursday statement that the ambush occurred “200 km north of Niamey, in southwest Niger” near the country’s border with Mali, indicating AQIM militants are likely responsible for the attack.
“US forces are in Niger to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces, including support for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts, in their efforts to target violent extremist organizations in the region,” AFRICOM spokesman US Navy Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo told CNN after the incident. “One aspect of that is training, advising and assisting the Nigeriens in order to increase their ability to bring stability and security to their people.”
Al-Qaida has long maintained a presence in central and western Africa, calling its branch al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The U.S. has carried out periodic drone strikes against the group in the region in order to prevent any safe havens in Mali from being used to plan attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
AQIM thrust itself into the international spotlight in 2013 after it overran large swaths of territory in Mali sparking a months long military intervention from France. France was able to quell AQIM’s military campaign but nascent elements have continued to target Mali’s neighboring countries for years.
The U.S. is currently engaged in multiple other counter-terrorism operations across the African continent including Libya and Somalia. Libya maintains a nascent ISIS affiliate which the Trump administration has struck twice with drones in recent weeks, and al-Qaida is active in Somalia’s civil war.
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