There are lots of questions, fewer answers, and a healthy dose of conspiracy theories surrounding the deaths of four American troops in Niger earlier this month — a tragedy that has swiftly intensified into a fierce brawl over whether the Trump administration mishandled the mission.
The comparisons to Benghazi, the coordinated attack against U.S. facilities in Libya in 2012 that killed a pair of diplomats and two CIA contractors — and spawned a series of hotly partisan but largely inconclusive election-season probes — may have been inevitable.
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“The circumstances are similar,” says Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), who has become a lightening rod herself for insinuating one of the dead soldiers in Niger was abandoned and President Donald Trump was insensitive in a condolence call to his family. “Just like in Benghazi, they were given the impression that everything was fine.”
But such comparisons and the conjecture being shopped around to explain what happened and why threaten to overpower the rigorous bipartisan scrutiny that is needed, warn experts who study American military involvement in Africa and retired military officers.
“It risks making this issue just another political football without asking the reasonable, pertinent questions about what U.S. forces are doing in the region and how they are doing it,” said Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who studies terrorism in northwestern Africa.
Here is a reality check on the Oct. 4 firefight and its aftermath, which is the focus of a Pentagon investigation.
What are American troops doing in Niger?
Many Americans were surprised to learn this month that American troops are deployed to Niger at all, let alone so many of them — 800 at the time of the attack, according to the Pentagon.
But U.S. troops have been in Niger in increasing numbers since at least 2013, with part-time deployments for years before that, working with the Nigerien military as it fights insurgent and terrorist groups and using the country to spy over other countries in the Sahel and Sahara regions of the vast continent.
“Mostly, we’re providing refueling support, intelligence support, surveillance support. But we also have troops on the ground,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Thursday. “Their job is to help the people in the region learn how to defend themselves.”
It is essentially a two-part mission: hundreds of Air Force personnel operating drones and other spy flights out of a growing American base in the country, and a smaller number of special operations troops training and advising Nigerien troops as they fight Islamist extremists.
“While U.S. Special Forces are advising and assisting the Nigerien Armed Forces, they make up a fraction of the overall U.S. force composition in Niger,” U.S. Africa Command explained in a fact sheet released on Friday. “Africa Command is establishing a temporary, expeditionary contingency support location in Agadez, Niger.”
But it doesn’t capture the whole picture.
For instance, the U.S. flies surveillance missions from Niger, which is twice the size of Texas, all over northern and western Africa — including over Libya, where the United States is conducting some of its most sensitive counter-terrorism operations.
Part of the reason U.S. advisers were deployed to Niger in the first place was as a “quid pro quo” for allowing the Washington to locate a regional surveillance hub there, said Michael Waltz, a retired lieutenant colonel and Green Beret who served in the country in 2014.
“You let us base our surveillance assets there, and we’ll help improve your military,” Waltz explained.
What’s Chad got to do with it?
On Thursday, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, in a segment that was roundly criticized, questioned whether the Trump administration’s immigration policies toward neighboring Chad, which recently withdrew its own anti-terror military contingent from Niger, had put American troops in danger.
Maddow drew a link between three events: the Trump administration’s decision to add Chad to its list of countries subject to a new travel ban due to its shoddy passport control procedures, Chad’s recent military withdrawal from eastern Niger, and the attack on U.S. troops in western Niger.
She argued that Chad pulled its troops out of Niger in response to the travel ban and increased the risk to American advisers in Niger.
There are two big problems with that argument. For one, the area of Niger where the American team was ambushed is more than 700 miles away from where the Chadian troops were operating. And while the Chadian troops (and a separate contingent of American advisers in the east) were helping Niger fight the Boko Haram insurgent group, the American advisers in the west were helping out against a different, newer group, which calls itself the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
“Niger is fighting insurgencies in the north, west, and east,” said Jason Warner, an assistant professor at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center who wrote a study on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara group earlier this year.
“From my perspective, it’s spurious to suggest that Chad’s withdrawal from the eastern border precipitated decreased security in the west,” he added.
Moreover, it is far from clear that Chad withdrew its troops from eastern Niger in response to the Trump administration’s travel ban, as Maddow suggested.
“I think it did accelerate the pullout, but Chad was already looking to get out of that part of Niger,” said Laura Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College who is writing a book on U.S. policy in Africa.
Seay accused Maddow of effectively “spreading conspiracy theories.” Americans “don’t know much about the continent” of Africa, she said, and politicizing the ambush by raising the Benghazi comparison and red herrings like the removal of Chadian forces “is almost like playing off people’s confusion and taking advantage of that.”
What happened to Sgt. La David Johnson?
Questions have swirled around how Johnson, who was reportedly acting as a driver for the Green Beret team, became the fourth American to die in the ambush and why his body was missing for two days.
It was Johnson’s family to whom Trump placed a condolence call earlier this week that Wilson listened in on and then criticized as insensitive for Trump’s statement that Johnson knew what he had signed up for — and prompting strenuous push back from Trump aides. Wilson has questioned why Johnson was left on the battlefield after the other three fallen soldiers were evacuated, and Pentagon officials have faced questions over whether he might have survived the initial attack.
There’s no evidence of that, Pentagon officials have insisted, stressing that American, French and Nigerien troops searched for Johnson continuously from the moment the battle ended until Nigerien troops located his body.
“From the moment of contact no one was left behind,” the director of the Joint Staff, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, said on Thursday. “We didn’t leave him behind and we searched until we found him and we brought him home.”
Just how and when Johnson died is one of the key questions the Pentagon’s investigation into the incident will attempt to answer. McKenzie suggested Thursday that the military may have reached some preliminary internal conclusions, however.
“Of course we do know a lot about what happened to him,” the general told reporters. “At some point when the investigation’s complete, conclusions have been reached, I’ll be happy to share that information with you.”
What role did private contractors play?
Pentagon spokespeople have faced repeated questions over the role of contracted civilian helicopters in the evacuation and recovery mission after the firefight — and some critics on social media have questioned whether contractors are appropriate or adequate for that role.
A company called Berry Aviation has a contract with U.S. Africa Command for casualty evacuation in Niger, and the Pentagon has confirmed that the first American helicopter to arrive on the scene after the fight was such a crew-for-hire.
But it’s not true, as some reports have suggested, that the contractors evacuated wounded Americans from the battlefield, the Pentagon clarified Thursday. Armed French military helicopters that got there first evacuated the wounded. The contract crew recovered dead bodies from the battlefield afterward — a less time-sensitive task — McKenzie said at a press conference on Thursday.
An intelligence failure?
The American special operations troops reportedly categorized their mission as a “low-risk” one ahead of time, a characterization that Mattis and others have echoed. The disparity between that assessment and what took place — an ambush involving as many as 50 attackers and two separate engagements — has prompted critics to ask why American intelligence failed to anticipate the attack.
“They were told by intelligence there was no threat,” Wilson said this week.
Whether U.S. or French intelligence missed any signs that insurgents were massing in the area will likely be another area of focus for the Pentagon probe.
But “every tactical engagement doesn’t necessarily proceed from an intelligence failure,” Joint Staff director McKenzie cautioned reporters Thursday. “We don’t live in a perfect environment where everything is available and visible all the time.”
A military spokesman said on Oct. 6 that an unarmed surveillance aircraft was overhead during the mission — although NBC News, citing a congressional source, reported otherwise on Friday — but didn’t spot the attackers before the ambush.
Drones or other spy planes that provide real-time footage are not well-suited for that, according to Jeffrey Schloesser, a retired Army major general who faced similar questions during an investigation into a deadly battle in Afghanistan in 2008.
Drone footage “is like looking at a huge area through a soda straw, and in any type of complex terrain, it is very hard through that soda straw” to spot small, dispersed teams of guerrillas, he said.
On Thursday, Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s interior minister, said that the area where the mission took place was “considered safe” and called the incident “a failure in human intelligence,” although it wasn’t clear whether he meant an American or a Nigerien failure.
“The question that needs to be answered is why the intelligence assessments were off,” offered Waltz, the former Green Beret. “Was there a leak of the route, that can come from the host nation, or from some type of intercepts, or who knows?”
“There are legitimate questions to be asked about what happened,” added Seay, the Colby College African politics specialist. “If they didn’t have the intel, why not? Was there a problem coordinating with the Nigerien partner military? Why did it take 48 hours to recover the fourth body? Those are reasonable questions to be asking.”