More Questions Than Answers Surround The Attack In Niger That Left 4 U.S. Soldiers Dead

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In early October, four U.S. soldiers were killed during an ambush (understood to be ISIS-affiliated in nature) in Niger. Sadly, public commentary on the tragedy turned political after Trump’s bizarre claim that he’s better at consoling families of U.S. soldiers than Obama is. The answer to that question easily surfaced when grieving families of fallen soldiers proved the president wrong, as did Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL). Setting that distraction aside, questions now surround what really happened to those Green Berets in Niger.

The Pentagon has launched an investigation, which might not yield answers for weeks, if not months. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) — a noted Trump adversary but also the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee — is demanding even more scrutiny. McCain wants “all the details,” but as it turns out, there are many more questions than answers here:

What Are U.S. Troops Doing In Niger? U.S. military officials consider Niger — which holds key transit routes used by both ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates — to be a crucial operation point in the war on terror. As such, President Obama first deployed troops to the country in 2013. The number of U.S. troops in Niger has since risen to 800, and small U.S. Special Forces units are often used to train and advise Nigerian troops on fighting terror groups including al Qaeda and Boko Haram.

The Initially Reported Ambush Details And Resulting Confusion: Initially, the New York Times reported that the attack occurred while about a dozen U.S. soldiers were conducting a supposedly “low risk” operation — meaning that team leaders didn’t expect to encounter hostile activity — alongside Nigerian soldier trainees north of the Nigerian capital of Niamey. Defense Secretary James Mattis has since expressed frustration about the lack of details he’s received to supplement publicly known reports. Other U.S. officials told CNN that the fight was an unexpected one, which painted a “scene of confusion.”

ISIS Hasn’t Claimed the Attack: A U.S. official told ABC News that it’s “highly likely” that this Greater Sahara ambush was conducted by about 50 members of an ISIS group. Yet more often than not, the Islamic State eagerly claims responsibility for terror attacks of any nature, and it generally does so without even offering evidence. NBC News notes that no terror organizations (not even ISIS) have stepped up to claim this ambush. However, one U.S. official believes that “a group claiming association with ISIS, ISIS in the Greater Sahara, is likely responsible.” Another U.S. official chimed in to call this a “wannabe” group that isn’t directly affiliated with ISIS.

More Fuzziness On Details Of The Ambush: Mattis told reporters that “This was a hard fight, this was a very tough fight.” Some further details have spilled forth, including how the Green Beret team had met with local leaders and then came under fire (while traveling in unarmored vehicles) “from small arms, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.” The resulting 30-minute battle ended when French Mirage jets flew overhead, sending the remaining attackers (some were killed by U.S. soldiers) away.

Mystery Surrounding The Recovery Of Bodies And Timing Of The Rescue: Amid the evacuation operation that followed, the bodies of Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright were quickly recovered. However, the body of Sgt. La David Johnson wasn’t discovered until two days later by Nigerian troops. Officials don’t yet know how he was separated from the rest of the group. Meanwhile, General Mattis says that he “completely reject[s]” criticisms that the rescue was “slow.”

Why Was The White House Response Muted? President Trump has received a fair amount of criticism about why it took him twelve days to publicly comment upon the ambush, and it’s also come to light that the White House prepared a Niger statement that was never released for some unknown reason. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), who witnessed the crass phone call between Trump and the widow of slain Sgt. La David Johnson, has already invoked the word synonymous with a Clinton scandal. Wilson has declared, “This is his Benghazi, and that is the reason why it took him so long to acknowledge it had happened.”

Whether or not this ambush will prompt a Benghazi-style set of hearings following an investigation, time will only tell. For now, the only thing that is certain is that a seemingly low-key operation ended in four U.S. lives lost.

(Via CNN, NBC News, New York Times & ABC News)