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.