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The big picture: Niger and what we know about what happened to U.S. troops
Allison Graves
By Allison Graves October 22, 2017
Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan October 22, 2017
By Sophie Kaplan October 22, 2017

This report was updated Tuesday, Oct. 24, to include information from a press conference with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.

An attack in Niger that left four American military members dead has triggered a fight between President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla. Wilson said that Trump’s words of condolence to one of the widows were insensitive. Trump and chief of staff John Kelly in turn attacked Wilson for publicizing Trump’s call.

"Wacky Congresswoman Wilson is the gift that keeps on giving for the Republican Party, a disaster for Dems. You watch her in action & vote R!" Trump tweeted Oct. 22.

Behind the name-calling and tweets, there are still unanswered questions regarding the ambush that sparked the political controversy.

Here, we take a look at what we know about the events that transpired in Niger.

Niger - the background

Niger is a landlocked, west African country bordered by Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad. Since its independence from France in 1960, it has experienced military rule, coups and now a democratically elected government. The current president of Niger is Issoufou Mahamadou.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. Food production isn’t keeping up with the population growth due to the arid climate, the lack of farmable land and the high fertility rate.

Recent terrorist attacks near the uranium mines in Niger have also hurt its economy. Uranium is a main source of income for Niger, in addition to agriculture.

What terrorist groups operate in and around Niger?

Groups linked to both ISIS and al-Qaida are active in and around Niger.

Niger shares a border with many countries where terrorists groups operate. For example, at one point, al-Qaida affiliated groups and other Islamic groups took control over northern Mali. In Libya, ISIS is regrouping. And in Nigeria, a militant Islamist group known as Boko Haram has wreaked havoc in the region.

These groups promote a strict form of Sharia Law. Boko Haram, which was founded in 2002, encourages a type of Islam which says it forbidden ("haram") for Muslims to participate in activities related to Western society.

Al-Qaida, another militant Islamist group, was formed in the late 1980s against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Now, thousands of troops fight for al-Qaida affiliated groups in North Africa, Somolia, Yemen and elsewhere. ISIS started as an al-Qaida splinter group and  is known for trying to create an islamic state across Iraq and Syria and for setting up  terrorist attacks across Europe.

Why were U.S. troops in Niger and when did they get there?

Some U.S. troops arrived in Niger in 2013. During this time, extremists were on the rise in northwest Africa. The French had intervened in Mali in 2012 when an al-Qaida affiliated group and other tribal groups took control of the northern part of the country. In addition, Boko Haram continued its assault on Nigeria through bombings and killings.

Former President Barack Obama deployed 40 U.S. military personnel to provide support to the French forces. This brought the total number of troops in Niger to 100 in 2013. Since then, the number has grown to 800.

"This deployment will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region," Obama said in a letter to the House speaker.  

Currently, troops are assisting the U.S. Embassy in Niger’s capital of Niamey, while others are working on construction efforts at Air Base 201 in Agadez, according to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). At the press conference Monday, some

What has the military said about what happened?

Four soldiers died in Niger in Oct. 4; the Defense Department said that it was "as a result of hostile fire while on a reconnaissance patrol." The first three identified were Army Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wa.; Army Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Army Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga.

The fourth soldier identified was Sgt. La David T. Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Fla. He died Oct. 4, but his body was recovered by U.S. personnel Oct. 6, according to the Defense Department.

Few details were known about what happened until Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke at a press conference Oct. 24. Dunford said that in the early morning on Oct. 3, 12 members of a U.S. Special Operations task force accompanied 30 Nigerian forces on a reconnaissance mission from Niger’s capital Niamey to a location near the village of Tongo Tongo.

By mid-morning on Oct. 4, U.S. and Nigerian forces were making their way back to their operating base when the group was attacked by by about 50 enemy fighters.

U.S. troops requested additional support about an hour after the hostilities started, and French Mirage jets arrived at the site almost an hour the troops requested back-up.

The three U.S. soldiers killed in action were evacuated Oct. 4, but Johnson’s body was still missing at that time. On Oct. 6, Johnson’s body was found and evacuated, Dunford said.

Before Dunford’s press conference, military officials have provided few details publicly about what happened or how events unfolded. (The New York Times reported a detailed account of events that day based on anonymous sources; the report acknowledged there were conflicting accounts.)

Defense Secretary James Mattis said at an Oct. 19 press conference that a full investigation was underway but had not been completed. "We in the Department of Defense like to know what we’re talking about before we talk, and so we do not have all the accurate information yet," Mattis said.

Mattis specifically criticized the media for asking questions about the delay in recovering the body of Sgt. La David Johnson.

"The U.S. military does not leave its troops behind, and I would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once," Mattis said.

Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, said on Oct. 19 that more was known about events than has been reported in the press but that he would not disclose it.

What questions does Congress want answered about Niger?

Nearly two weeks after the deaths of the service members, members of Congress said they are still seeking answers about what happened.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters recently that Congress could use subpoena power to compel answers if necessary.

"We did not know about Niger until it came out in the paper. We need to have a process of communications, which I've had with other administrations, of exchanging information and knowledge," said McCain, who serves as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Oct. 19.

McCain’s Democratic counterpart on the committee, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said the same day that he and McCain hoped to receive a classified briefing on the incident, and that it was "dismaying" that the defense secretary didn’t seem to have all the facts yet, either.  

"The secretary of defense and national command should be able in this time -- we're talking about days, not hours -- to be able to assemble a good picture of what happened," Reed said on CNN.

Reed said he specifically wanted to know about intelligence, air cover, evacuation plans, and why the United States seemed to have a slow response when events in Niger went wrong.  

Is Niger like Benghazi?

There are many differences between the recent events Niger and the attacks that happened in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012. Most notably, one was a military endeavor while the other was diplomatic. Those who died in Niger were members of the U.S. Army. In Libya, the U.S. ambassador and a colleague, as well as two security contractors were killed.

The events are broadly similar in that administration officials have struggled to explain to Congress and the public exactly what happened, and that security lapses may be to blame.

In Benghazi, independent investigators faulted the State Department for not taking more security precautions in Libya.

McCain suggested in remarks on the Senate floor that a lack of funding for the U.S. military means that troops are being sent into situations without sufficient resources.

"We are sending our young men and women into hazardous situations without their being completely equipped and capable of defending themselves. That is wrong," McCain said Oct. 19. "Four just died in Niger. How many of the 100 Members of this body knew that we even had an operation in Niger? I will not go into the details, in deference to the family, but this is wrong, what we are doing. We saw it in the 1970s, and now we are seeing it again."

Overall, though, it’s far too soon to tell if there are any real similarities between the two events.

What did we learn from the Oct. 24 press conference?

Dunford held a press conference Monday at the Pentagon to address the perception that the Defense Department has not been transparent about the ambush in Niger and to provide new information about the events that unfolded in early October.

Dunford was able to provide additional details about the timeline of the events, but specific questions, like why Sgt. La David Johnson's body wasn’t located until 48-hours after the attack, remained unanswered.

"What you're asking is a fair question, but we don't know that definitively right now," Dunford said.

Dunford also said there is no indication that the troops were operating outside their orders at the time of the ambush. According to him, the troops were executing a planned "reconnaissance mission."

"I think anyone that speculates about what special operations forces did or didn't do is doing exactly that, they're speculating," he said. "That's what the investigation's all about. So I think anyone that speculates about what special operations forces did or didn't do is doing exactly that, they're speculating."

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Our Sources

CIA World Factbook, Niger, accessed Oct. 22, 2017

U.S. Africa Command, Why the U.S. Military is in Niger, Oct. 20, 2017

U.S. Defense Department, Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White and Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. in the Pentagon Briefing Room, Oct. 5, 2017

U.S. Defense Department, Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White and Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. in the Pentagon Briefing Room, Oct. 19, 2017

U.S. Defense Department, Mattis Discusses Niger Operation, Asks Media to Stop Second-Guessing, Oct. 19, 2017

U.S. Defense Department, Remarks by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and His Excellency Avigdor Lieberman, Minister of Defense of Israel, during an honor cordon at the Pentagon, Oct. 19, 2017

U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Dunford in the Pentagon Briefing Room, Oct.23

U.S. Defense Department, DoD Identifies Army Casualties, Oct. 6, 2017

U.S. Defense Department, DoD Identifies Army Casualty, Oct. 7, 2017

U.S. Defense Department, Africom Announces Death of 4th Service Member in Niger Attack, Oct. 6, 2017

The White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Chief of Staff General John Kelly, Oct. 19, 2017

U.S. Senate, floor speech by Sen. John McCain, Oct. 19, 2017

New York Times, 3 Special Forces Troops Killed and 2 Are Wounded in an Ambush in Niger, Oct. 4, 2017

New York Times, Deadly Ambush of Green Berets in Niger Belies a ‘Low-Risk’ Mission, Oct. 5, 2017

New York Times, Fourth U.S. Soldier Is Found Dead After Ambush in Niger, Oct. 6, 2017

New York Times, Niger Attack Lays Bare U.S. Troops’ Long Wait for Medical Help in Africa, Oct. 10, 2017

New York Times, Conflicting Accounts in Niger Ambush Are Subject of Pentagon Investigation, Oct. 20, 2017

CNN, What we know and don't know about the deadly Niger attack, Oct. 19, 2017

CNN, US has drones and hundreds of troops in Niger. Here's why, Oct. 18, 2017

CNN, McCain: Niger attack information 'may require a subpoena,' Oct. 19, 2017

CNN, Interview with Sen. Jack Reed, Oct. 19, 2017

BBC News, Who are Nigeria's Boko Haram Islamist group? Nov. 21, 2016

NPR, The U.S. Military In Africa: A Discreet Presence In Many Places, Oct. 20, 2017

CIA, CIA World Factbook, Oct. 19, 2017

PolitiFact, Fact-checking Benghazi: The rhetoric hasn't matched up with reality, May 16, 2014

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The big picture: Niger and what we know about what happened to U.S. troops