President Trump was briefed on the deaths of the Green Berets, said the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Many details of the late-afternoon ambush were sketchy as military officials scrambled to piece together what happened. The attack took place in a remote part of the country where soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group were assisting their Nigerien counterparts with counterterrorism training when they came under attack. As of late Wednesday, there had been no claims of responsibility.
In his first eight months in office, Mr. Trumpâs top military officials have shown few signs that they want to back away from President Barack Obamaâs strategy to train, equip and otherwise support indigenous armies and security forces to fight their own wars instead of deploying large American forces to far-flung hot spots, including the Sahel, a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Sudan.
And that is what is happening in Niger, a desperately poor, landlocked country twice the size of California that is struggling, even with assistance from the United States and France, to stem a flow of insurgents across Nigerâs lightly guarded borders with Mali, Nigeria and Libya.
But unlike recent commando raids in Somalia or Reaper drone strikes in Libya, the deadly ambush on Wednesday in a remote desert area came during what American military officials said was a routine training mission â not a combat operation â and yet the casualties suffered by both American and Nigerien forces underscore the inherent risks of operating in a potentially hostile environment.
âThese militants have proven remarkably resilient, exploiting local and/or ethnic grievances to embed themselves into communities as well as political borders and differences to escape capture,â said J. Peter Pham, a vice president at the Atlantic Councilâs Africa Center in Washington. âIt was no accident that this attack took place near Nigerâs border with Mali, an area that has seen numerous incidents in recent years.â
In May, a member of the Navy SEALs was killed and two other American service members were wounded in a raid in Somalia, the first American combat fatality there since the 1993 âBlack Hawk Downâ battle.
The government of President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger has proved to be a stalwart partner in the United Statesâ counterterrorism campaign in the Sahel. About a dozen Army Special Forces conduct, train and advise missions at any given time in the country, and just under 100 American military personnel help operate drone operations from the country.
Since 2013, unarmed American drones have soared skyward from a secluded military airfield in Niamey, starting surveillance missions of 10 hours or more to track fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda and other militants in Mali.
Over the years, MQ-9 Reapers that have been based there stream live video and data from other sensors to American analysts working with French commanders, who say the aerial intelligence has been critical to their success in driving jihadists from a vast desert refuge in northern Mali.
The United States is building a $50 million drone base in Agadez, Niger. When completed next year, it will allow Reaper surveillance drones to fly from hundreds of miles closer to southern Libya, to monitor Islamic State insurgents flowing south and other extremists flowing north from the Sahel region.