Questions Swirl: What Was The U.S. Military Doing In Niger?
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The widow of an American soldier who was killed earlier this month in Niger says she wants to know what happened to her husband. Here's Myeshia Johnson speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America."
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MYESHIA JOHNSON: When they came to my house, they just told me that it was a massive gunfire. They didn't know where he was. And a couple of days later is when they told me that he went from missing to killed in action. I don't know how he got killed, where he got killed. That's what I've been trying to find out since day one.
MARTIN: The whole thing has many Americans and members of Congress asking their own questions about what the U.S. military is doing in Niger. Here's Senator Lindsey Graham on "Meet The Press" yesterday defending comments made by Senator John McCain.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: I didn't know there was a thousand troops in Niger. John McCain is right to tell the military - because this is an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time and geography. You've got to tell us more. And he's right to say that.
MARTIN: So what is the story behind that fatal ambush? Just ahead, we're going to talk with an analyst who works with U.S. programs in this region. But first, NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is in the studio with us this morning. Hi, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: What do we know at this point about what happened in Niger and why those soldiers died?
BOWMAN: You know, the investigation is ongoing. We don't have a lot of detail. What we do know, of course, is that four American soldiers were killed here. And one of the soldiers was somehow separated from his unit and was found a couple of days later by local troops. We're told that they were on a patrol with local troops here. And they went into a village and somehow came under an ambush from, we believe, ISIS-affiliated fighters here. And the French had to come in with attack helicopters, warplanes, medevacs to get out the wounded and the dead. And, again, the investigation is ongoing. So right now, we don't have a lot more detail about what exactly happened here.
MARTIN: So the questions brought up by John McCain, Lindsey Graham - a lot of people want to know what is the U.S. military doing there? So we put that to you.
BOWMAN: Right. What they're doing there is working with local troops and trying to prevent, you know, terrorist organizations - ISIS, Boko Haram - from destabilizing local governments.
MARTIN: There are several different terrorist organizations at play here.
BOWMAN: There are a number in Northern Africa, really, from Mali across an arc that ends in Somalia. So a number of terrorist groups - they're watching the ratlines, they call them, between Mali and Niger that would move north into Libya, further destabilizing Libya.
MARTIN: Routes that terrorists take up into Europe, eventually.
BOWMAN: Exactly. And then you have a - right. On to Europe would be the real concern. Just across the water is Italy. So there's a real concern in Italy that some of these terrorist groups could cross into Europe and so forth.
MARTIN: We should say the U.S. has - what? - 800 troops.
BOWMAN: Eight hundred troops. But those wouldn't all be what we call trigger pullers. You would have support personnel, intelligence analysts, people maintaining drones, all sorts of support people. So not all or exactly actually fighters, you would say.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Tom Bowman. Stay with us, Tom. I'm going to bring in another voice here. Rida Lyammouri has worked and lived in that area of Africa called the Sahel, doing analysis for U.S. agencies operating in the region. He also writes for Jane's Defence Weekly. Thanks so much for being with us.
RIDA LYAMMOURI: Thank you.
MARTIN: You have written that Niger is not a hot spot for ISIS. So who do you think might have carried out this attack?
LYAMMOURI: Yes. That's something important to clarify - is that Boko Haram operates mainly in Niger - in southeast Niger - in different region which is about 1,400 kilometers, about 1,000 miles away from where the incident took place. And American lives were lost in Tillaberi region on the borders with Mali. So the groups operating in the area where the incident took place on October 4 - there are two groups. There are ISIS affiliates. And, also, that is a small group - also still al-Qaida affiliates group operating in the area.
MARTIN: So that's really interesting. So you're saying, as Tom Bowman said, that it was an ISIS-linked group that the U.S. military believes was responsible. But you're indicating that there is some kind of relationship or cooperation between these terrorist networks there.
LYAMMOURI: Publicly, they don't lie. There is a collaboration. But in terms of on the ground, certainly they're not killing each other. They're not fighting. But in terms of operation, they exist in the same area. So there has to be some degree of collaboration. At least, they don't announce it publicly to avoid, you know, the conflict with their leaders.
MARTIN: We also heard Tom talk about these so-called ratlines, these paths that terrorists can take from the Sahel, eventually even getting up into Libya and then onto Europe. Do you understand that to be part of the U.S. mission there - stopping those paths?
LYAMMOURI: Yes. The role that the U.S. is trying to play there with the French and other partners in the region is to limit and disrupt the operations of these groups, especially logistically - to disrupt the logistics and move weapons and individuals across the Sahara and across the Sahel into Libya and from Libya and from West Africa and especially between Mali and Niger right now because of the situation in Mali and the pressure put on the militant groups in Mali. And there is some spillover and expansion of these groups into Niger and also to Burkina Faso and neighboring countries of Mali.
MARTIN: Let me ask you - so now the U.S. military has lost these four Green Berets. Has the Pentagon, along with its partners in the region - have they underestimated the threat there?
LYAMMOURI: Well, I would say yes. If - we don't know a lot about what happened. But based on what we know so far, there appears to be some underestimation of the risks in that area. For individuals and for people following closely the security situation specifically on the borders with Mali, there has been a significant increase in terms of violent incidents by militant groups in that area, in addition to other violent - different types of violence in that area. So I will say that there was some sort of underestimation of the risks there.
MARTIN: Tom Bowman.
BOWMAN: Yes and that's a concern in the Pentagon, is maybe the Green Berets and other special oppers are taking too much risk here - that they don't have enough support. They don't have the medevac. They don't have the intelligence, the drones necessary for this fight, which is getting - appears to be much worse. And I know Secretary - Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been talking with lawmakers about maybe increasing the U.S. presence there and providing more support to them and actually being more aggressive, going after some of these terrorist groups.
MARTIN: I'll just put one more question to you, Rida Lyammouri. Is the U.S. effort in Niger working?
LYAMMOURI: I will say that they are working because, so far, militant groups - they have been unable to establish themselves in Niger as much as they did in Nigeria and Mali. Of course, there's still a lot of work to do. But at least they're limiting the existence and operations of the militant groups in the area.
MARTIN: Of course, then, that broaches the question of how - what happens if and when U.S. decides to scale down there? Rida Lyammouri runs Sahel Memo Consulting. Thanks so much for your time this morning.
LYAMMOURI: Thank you.
MARTIN: We were also joined by NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.