The killing of three U.S. commandos in a remote West African desert has focused attention on one of the many places America has boots on the ground to push back against terrorism and train forces that are often worse equipped and trained than the extremists they confront.
The incident also underscores the extent to which Niger and several of its troubled neighbors, including Mali and Nigeria, remain a priority in U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, although President Trump offered lukewarm support for a French initiative in June to boost international forces in the region.
The three commandos were killed Wednesday in southwestern Niger, a region notorious for drug smuggling, human trafficking and myriad extremist militias, including allies of Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
The Green Berets were on a training operation with Nigerien forces when they were ambushed. Five Nigerien soldiers were killed and two U.S. commandos were injured.
The U.S. Africa Command based in Stuttgart, Germany, said the U.S. forces are in Niger to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien armed forces in their efforts against violent extremists.
Niger, an impoverished, arid country in Francophone West Africa, is one of the most strategic locations in U.S. counter-terrorism operations in Africa, sandwiched between Nigeria to the south, where an Islamic State affiliate, Boko Haram, has been fighting to establish Islamic rule, and Mali to the west, where multiple extremist militias are present.
The U.S. has been running Operation Flintlock, an annual counter-terrorism operation with regional forces in the Sahel region since 2005 and operates an air base near Niamey, the Nigerien capital, flying drone missions since 2014.
The Air Force is also developing a multimillion-dollar drone base south of Agadez, a historic town in central Niger, which will enable Reaper drones to fly sorties to address the threat posed by myriad extremists in the region. The U.S. has also provided aircraft and military hardware to Niger in recent years.
France and Germany also have bases in Niger, reflecting its strategic importance in the counter-terrorism struggle. The U.N. has a 13,000-strong peacekeeping force, known as MINUSMA, in neighboring Mali.
The U.S. Africa Command offered few details on Wednesday’s attack about 124 miles north of Niamey near the Mali border. The incident is still under investigation, but extremists allied with Al Qaeda or Islamic State are suspected, a spokeswoman said. After the attack, U.S. forces in Niamey responded and evacuated the casualties to the capital before they were flown to Germany.
Niger is the main highway on the human trafficking route used by African migrants desperate to reach Europe via Libya. France, the most active Western force in the region, intervened in Mali in January 2013 after several Islamist militias conquered half the country, armed with weapons stolen from the military of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi when he fell.
France sent forces at the request of the Malian government and helped drive extremists, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, out of the main towns. However, they remain active across the region, kidnapping foreigners and attacking hotels and restaurants popular with Westerners.
Another group, which emerged in 2013, the Al Qaeda-linked Al Mourabitoun, active in Niger, Mali and Libya, claimed responsibility for an attack that killed 20 people at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, the Malian capital, in 2015. The group and its ally, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, also claimed responsibility for an attack on a hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, last year that killed 30 people. The same groups are believed to have carried out an attack on a restaurant in Ouagadougou in August that killed 18 people.
France, which has seen a string of domestic attacks by Islamic State, is also concerned about the threat posed by militants in the Sahel, and the possibility they could use the migrant route through Libya to infiltrate Europe and mount attacks in France.
In June, French President Emmanuel Macron won international support for a U.N.-backed force of 5,000 regional troops from Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania to combat terrorism, drug smuggling and human trafficking in the Sahel.
But the proposal met a cool response from Trump, who has called for the budget for U.N. peacekeeping operations to be slashed. The force gained U.N. Security Council backing in June but lacks funding. France provided $9 million and 70 vehicles and the European Union offered $57 million, but it is unclear where the remainder of the $400-million annual budget will come from.
France maintains a base in Niger as part of 5,000 French troops deployed in the region under Operation Barkhane, its Sahel counter-terrorism force. Germany, which has about 575 troops in the U.N. mission in Mali, announced last year it would set up a military base in Niger near the Mali border.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, or MINUSMA, which costs about $1 billion annually, is the U.N.’s deadliest mission, with more than 120 service members killed in the last four years.
The White House said Trump was notified about the attack in Niger on Wednesday night as he flew aboard Air Force One from Las Vegas to Washington. Trump was in Las Vegas meeting with victims of Sunday night’s shooting, as well as first responders and doctors.
12:40 p.m.: This article has been updated with more analysis.
10:05 a.m., Oct. 5: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting and more details.
This article was originally reported at 6:55 p.m. on Oct. 4.