Niger Ambush—what do we know?
The details of the ambush of a Special Forces patrol that was ambushed in Nigeria 3 weeks ago are slowly emerging. The media is implying a cover-up in the tone of the reporting.
A cover-up is of course possible, but more likely there are operational secrets about such operations and the extent of operations in the region that Africa Command (AFRICOM) does not want to disclose in its fight against ISIS offshoots in Africa. (Readers should note that this type of re-emergence of ISIS was anticipated in my previous article about the destruction of ISIS)
What do we know?
- There are over 1000 troops from AFRICOM operating in Africa as part of an effort that began during the Obama administration to attack terrorist elements of many different stripes in Africa. These include ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
- After years of missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 3rd Special Forces Group, the unit to which the men were assigned, announced that it was returning its focus to Africa in 2015.
- About a dozen members of an Army Special Forces unit joined roughly 30 Nigerien soldiers on October 3 launched what was initially expected to be a routine reconnaissance mission.
- The American team leaders told their superiors in seeking approval for the mission that there was a “low risk” of hostile activity in the region close to the border between Niger and Mali.
- The patrol was a mounted patrol, which meant that it was travelling well defined routes. (This of course would make setting an ambush much easier.)
- They were attacked by about 50 militants while returning to base, and four Americans and four Nigeriens were killed. Two Americans were wounded, as were six Nigeriens.
- The troops waited almost an hour before they called for help, possibly thinking that they could handle the band that attacked them.
- There was a drone overhead within minutes of the call for assistance and French Mirage fighters 60 minutes after that, though the French could not engage because the two sides were so close to each other.
Speculation includes that they might have stopped in an ISIS friendly village for supplies and were delayed while the ambush was established. There is also speculation that they were seeking an ISIS leader.
The fact that it took an hour for them to call for help may have also been caused by communications problems. This is a problem if they did not anticipate such problems. It is also unlikely that they did not report initial contact, unless their communications were being jammed. Planning for such patrols should always include contingencies to deal with exactly what happened. Had they become too complacent because of a lack of contact on previous such patrols? One would not expect this, but until the final report is rendered we can only speculate.
A final, related comment. It is always a sad day when we lose an American Service Man in combat against ISIS. It is even a worse day when the wife of one of the fallen chooses, along with her congress-lady, to make a political issue out of the death of a brave soldier. I am hard pressed to understand when the President called the wife to express his condolences as to why the congress-lady was present. I have made calls like the President did and consoled the families of fallen soldiers. It is one of the toughest tasks that I had to do in my 30 years of active duty. Trying to console and help the families of fallen soldiers is in the same category of not leaving a comrade on the battlefield—we take care of our own! I can only guess at my reaction if someone had treated my efforts like they treated the President’s, but it would not have been pretty!
We will follow up on this story as it continues to unfold.
The Caliphate is destroyed but ISIS lives
The last of the ISIS stronghold in /Syria and along the Syrian border with Iraq have fallen. The Caliphate is no more, but ISIS is not dead. Also the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are not over. In fact they may be just beginning.
With the fall of Raqqa, the titular capitol of the caliphate the ISIS dream of a caliphate stretching across the middle-east is ended, for now. ISIS can no longer sell oil and women. It can no longer collect taxes and impress youths into their militias. It no longer controls any major geographic areas in the middle-east. But the conditions that allowed ISIS to rise so quickly are still very much present. The Sunnis and the Shias are still antagonistic towards each other. The Kurds don’t trust either group or the Turks cannot stand the new US supported Kurdish militias that have emerged victorious in their efforts. The Free Syrians have captured areas from ISIS that the Syrians are going to want to have control of again. The Russians, Iran and Hezbollah are still supporting Syria. Iran, the US allies and others are still supporting Iraq. The US and the Turks are still supporting the Free Syrians.
Additionally, ISIS has now established roots in Afghanistan, Africa, and the Philippines to name a few places. Each of these ISIS affiliates will continue to wreak havoc where and when they can. The key for ISIS and its affiliates is to reestablish a source of resources now that its population and economic base is gone. It must continue to recruit from the Islamic refugees and victims of the violence in Syria and Iraq who have been scattered all over the globe. Continued recruitment is key because over time the existing followers will be found and dealt with. Rooting out the cells in both Syria and Iraq and the rest of the world will be a very difficult struggle but over time attrition of the existing ISIS follower will occur and ISIS will wither without recruits. It also needs resources. The need for resources suggests crimes of violence—kidnappings, bank robberies, drugs, human trafficking, etc.
Thus though the ground war is won against ISIS the celebration will be brief and meaningless unless the root distrust and poverty are not dealt with. This will be difficult because the cities like Mosul and Raqqa suffered severe damage. Homes must be rebuilt. Businesses must be reestablished. Social conflict must be minimized. A different type of war is thus necessary—one to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS, probably in some other name.
Superimpose these conditions with the multi-sided power seekers who believe they have won their pieces of the geographic pie. The two key non-governmental players here are the Kurds and the Free Syrians. The Kurds want their independence from Iraq and Iran (and Turkey?). The Free Syrians want to over throw Assad and claim all of Syria. This probably means renewed combat but by a different set of players. How will the outsiders react? Will the Russians and withdraw their support for Assad? Will the US withdraw its support from the Kurds and the Free Syrians? How will Iran try and gain control of Iraq in its own efforts to create a caliphate. These are all unanswered questions that must be answered quickly.
There have been four significant phases of Islamist militancy over the past 50 years. The first two—growing threat and threat local efforts occurred in the late 1970s through the 90s. These were in large part ignored until they threatened western interests. The third and the have combined great violence in Muslim-majority countries with a series of spectacular attacks in the west.
All four have followed a similar path– a slow, mostly unnoticed period of growth, a spectacular event or series of events that brought the new threat to western public attention, a phase of brutal conflict and sever casualties and then retreat to fight another day. We are now entering the fourth phase
However, a victory is a victory, and there are so few reasons for cheer these days. So nations should briefly celebrate the defeat of the Islamic State and its hateful so-called caliphate while keeping a watchful lookout for the next fight, which will be different but the same.