A social media post describes a previously unreported series of events that occurred near the city of Agadez in 2016.
More than a month after a deadly ambush in Niger left four U.S. Army soldiers dead, the U.S. Air Force has revealed the existence of a second, possible terrorist attack in the country near the central city of Agadez. The details of this incident underscore the increasing risks American forces are facing while supporting largely unknown U.S. military missions from remote locations throughout North and West Africa.
On the night of Apr. 20, 2016, Staff Sergeant Brady Little, a U.S. Air Force Security Forces airman from an unspecified unit, along with his comrades at the American base in Agadez successfully dissuaded a group of potential attackers who were approaching the site in three pickup trucks and semi-truck. U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein posted an account of the incident on Twitter on Nov. 13, 2017, which the U.S. military does not appear to have acknowledged until now, ostensibly to highlight Little’s fast thinking. The service’s top officer combined the post with the hashtag “#MondayMotivation.”
According to the official narrative, the vehicles and their occupants appeared to be preparing for a complex attack. The semi-truck came to a stop less than 200 feet from the perimeter fence, while the three pickup trucks raced toward the facility’s only entry point.
Since at least September 2014, the U.S. has been working to create a new airstrip and associated facilities adjacent to the Nigerien Air Force’s Base Aerienne 201, itself attached to Agadez’s single-runway Manu Dayak International Airport. The 724th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron manages day-to-day American activities at the site. Security Forces airmen, such as Little’s “Close Precision Engagement” team support convoy operations connecting the site with the Air Force’s main base in Niger, which is situated in the country’s capital Niamey more than 450 miles to the southwest.
As the convoy of potentially hostile vehicles approached, Little had ordered other personnel to “move the most capable weapons” into a blocking position – possibly referring to up-armored Humvees with mounted .50 caliber M2 machine guns, which have appeared in official photographs from the base – and the American forces prepared to open fire. There is no mention in the Air Force's account about the presence of Nigerien forces or private contractor security personnel during the incident. The Air Force’s account says unequivocally that this hasty defense would not have been enough to prevent the trucks from getting into the compound.
“With the vehicle’s approaching, Little instructed all responding forces to activate their visible laser aiming devices mounted on their weapon systems as the final effort to halt the vehicles,” the Air Force said in its summary of the events. “Upon seeing the lasers, the approaching trucks immediately halted, reversed course, and retreated 1,000 meters [approximately 3,280 feet] from the base for a span of twenty minutes before departing back into the local village closest to the base.”
Below is a copy of the full, official narrative of the incident that occurred near Agadez, Niger in April 2016, presented here in case the U.S. Air Force deletes down the the original social media post for any reason.
The review does not say whether or not American or Nigerien forces ultimately pursued or detained any of the individuals involved in the incident. It remains unclear whether or not this was actually a coordinated assault or a potentially deadly misunderstanding.
Terrorists aligned with Al Qaeda and ISIS do routinely launch attacks in the country and a group presently known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS, was likely responsible for the ambush on a combined U.S. and Nigerien patrol near the village of Tongo Tongo in October 2017. At the same time, smugglers and other organized crime entities similarly exploit weak government institutions and the limited reach of state security forces both in Niger and throughout North and West Africa as a whole.
The semi-truck could have been carrying illicit drugs or trafficking migrants. It is equally possible, though, that the individuals were legitimate traders or other civilians who had simply lost their way. It’s not easy to tell the difference in many cases, especially in the dark, and mistakes do happen.
In a particularly notorious incident in Iraq in 2005, American troops opened fire on a car they felt was speeding threateningly toward a road block near Baghdad International Airport. It later turned out that the vehicle was carrying Italian military intelligence personnel and journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who they had just rescued from kidnappers. U.S. troops killed secret agent Nicola Calipari and wounded Sgrena, sparking an international incident.
But what is clear is that the airmen in Agadez had limited options available to respond to the approaching convoy. Little and his fellow security forces personnel would also undoubtedly have been aware of the limited support available to American troops in the country, especially access to emergency medical care, in response to crises in general.
This only serves to underscore the questions and concerns that have emerged following the ambush in October 2017 about whether or not U.S. forces deployed to the region have adequate resources. At I have explained in detail in the past, the United States policy of having a “light footprint” militarily in Africa, which is primarily due to a number of complicated political issues, in many ways precludes the establishment of a more robust presence, for better or worse.
The threats are real, though, and potentially growing. Before the terrorist attack that killed four Americans near Tongo Tongo, the Nigerien government had already declared a state of emergency in the same area.
Much about the October 2017 incident remains unknown, as well, but the details that continue to leak out have increasingly painted a picture of limited resources and conflicting operational priorities. What started out as a routine patrol may have morphed into a larger mission to try and kill or capture Abu Walid al Sahrawi, leader of ISGS.
Multiple U.S. government investigations are still underway to determine exactly what happened when the force came upon a group of at least 50 terrorists near Tongo Tongo. Earlier in November 2017, The Washington Post reported, citing interviews with locals, that terrorists might have captured and executed U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who died some time after getting separated from the main force, or at least mutilated his body. Johnson was missing for two days before Nigerien civilians apparently found his remains and alerted authorities.
It’s unclear what, if any, new precautions the U.S. military took to prepare for possible future attacks in and around its facilities in Agadez following the 2016 incident. In May 2017, the Air Force announced it was in the market for five armored watchtowers to help bolster its defenses in Niger, but at the base in Niamey.
In its review, the Air Force said that “outside-the-wire patrols” did not occur until after the 2016 incident and that there is now a “base security zone” that extends more than 80 feet out from the physical perimeter. Staff Sergeant Little received the Air Force Achievement Medal, which the service awards “for outstanding achievement or meritorious service rendered specifically on behalf of the Air Force,” for his actions in 2016.
We do know, that as of April 28, 2016, members of the U.S. Air Force's 435th Contingency Response Group, including the 435th Security Forces Squadron, were at Agadez to help prepare the base for unspecified "follow-on forces," though this influx of personnel may have had nothing to do with the possible attack. The 435th is a rapid response element situated at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and is on-call for various short-notice support missions, including local security and military construction, both in Europe and Africa.
Earlier in November 2017, the service told to Stars and Stripes that construction work at the austere base had suffered delays due to difficulties in obtaining necessary supplies, sandstorms, and extremely high temperatures. There was no indication from that report that terrorist attacks or the threat thereof had hampered logistics convoys to or from Agadez or prompted the need for additional defensive bulwarks.
At present, the plan is for unmanned surveillance aircraft to begin flying missions from the new airstrip some time in 2018.
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