US Operators May Have Chased Terrorists Before Niger Ambush

(U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Hamann, 102nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)

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Saagar Enjeti White House Correspondent
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U.S. soldiers later killed in an ambush accompanying Nigerien security forces in early October may have given chase to Islamic State militants all the way to the Malian-Nigerien border, Nigerien military officials tell The New York Times.

U.S. officials denied the Nigerien account to TheNYT, instead saying they became aware of ISIS militants presence in a border town and were later ambushed after a meeting with a local village elder. The circumstances leading up to the meeting are what remain in dispute, whether U.S. soldiers participated in chasing the militants or whether they simply became aware of them.

The ISIS group thought to be responsible is known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and are led by Abu Walid al Sahrawi. Sahrawi has a long history with militant groups in Mali and at different times having associations with al-Qaida, running his own militia, and finally pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in May 2015.

The 12 U.S. soldiers were reportedly detailed to a reconnaissance mission and did not originally go out with intent to engage ISIS militants. Officials declined to tell TheNYT whether the soldiers acted outside their mission parameters or received clearance from higher headquarters throughout their time on the ground.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed and two others wounded in the ambush by what officials have anonymously described as a band of nearly 50-100 ISIS militants. One soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson was separated from his team during the firefight, and his body was not found until two days later.

Pentagon officials have been largely mum on the circumstances of the ambush and the overall U.S. government response has been highly unusual. Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. later told Pentagon reporters partner forces were on the battlefield for nearly two days searching for Johnson’s body before it was found by local tribesmen.

The U.S. has approximately 1000 troops stationed in Niger to bolster the Nigerien military’s ability to deal with terrorist threat themselves.

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