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Pentagon To Release Niger Probe Results Into Deaths Of 4 U.S. Soldiers

Mar 26, 2018
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NOEL KING, HOST:

We are awaiting the release of a Pentagon investigation into the deaths of four American soldiers who were ambushed in Niger last fall. Those soldiers were part of an effort to train and advise local forces fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist groups all across North Africa. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, these training efforts take place in many countries. And at times, they involve firefights with terrorists who are often shielded from the public.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: In a recent National Geographic series called "Chain Of Command," Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright is shown grinning and sitting on a dirt mound in Niger. He's about to detonate some captured weapons.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CHAIN OF COMMAND")

DUSTIN WRIGHT: Anybody can shoot a gun, you know? Demo is something else. It's a lot more fun.

BOWMAN: Then he does his job.

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BOWMAN: A few weeks after that video was taped, another one appeared - this one put together by the Islamic State using captured footage from a soldier's helmet camera. Sergeant Wright is shown desperately pulling a comrade to safety behind an SUV. Moments later, he and three other Americans were killed in the ambush along with five Nigerien soldiers. That firefight ended tragically, but it's not unusual. Officials tell NPR that American soldiers at times get into gunfights when accompanying local soldiers in Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAC THORNBERRY: What is it about Africa? What are the national security interests...

BOWMAN: That's Congressman Mac Thornberry, who heads the Armed Services Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THORNBERRY: ...That justify sending United States military men and women in there, conducting missions and possibly even at the risk of their lives?

BOWMAN: The congressman posed that basic question earlier this month to Marine General Tom Waldhauser, who leads all American forces in Africa. The general had a ready answer.

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TOM WALDHAUSER: One of the huge challenges of the African continent are the violent extremist organizations.

BOWMAN: Like ISIS, and Boko Haram, and al-Qaida and al-Shabab.

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WALDHAUSER: They permeate the entire continent in various locations. At the present time, they really do not have the capability to conduct operations, for example, in the United States. But they certainly aspire to do that.

BOWMAN: Aspire to do that. So, too, do other terrorist groups operating in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Does that mean U.S. commandos have to be operating everywhere there's a terrorist threat? There were some 6,000 American troops just in North Africa.

SETH JONES: I think what the U.S. has to look very carefully about is both the intentions and the capabilities of terrorist organizations.

BOWMAN: Seth Jones is a defense analyst who focuses on special operations forces at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says most terrorist groups in Africa are not a direct threat to the U.S., like those operating in an area known as the Sahel, including countries like Mali.

JONES: Most are primarily focused on targets in and around the region and don't pose a major threat to the U.S., certainly not like what we saw in Iraq and Syria with the Islamic State attempting to inspire attacks.

BOWMAN: So can the U.S. pull special operations forces from these countries and leave it up to either local forces or even, you know, the allies?

JONES: Libya's the one that I would argue has the most serious threat. It's a haven for jihadist groups. There already been connections to attacks in Europe. But there may be a few other places, including the Sahel, where the U.S. could probably back off a little bit.

BOWMAN: The U.S. is pressing its European allies to send more troops to help pacify a region where those countries have direct interests and ties that go back to the colonial era. France has uranium mines in Niger that help fuel its nuclear power plants back home.

JONES: The French did a pretty good job a couple of years ago in Mali, for example, in being the focal point of actions against Ansar al-Deen and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

BOWMAN: And Italy has a growing concern about the failed state of Libya, fearing militants could cross the Mediterranean and mount attacks. Italy's Parliament agreed earlier this year to deploy more troops to Libya and a new deployment of forces to Niger. Retired Army Brigadier General Don Bolduc was in charge of U.S. Special Operations forces in Africa until last fall. He says the allies are doing a lot, and the U.S. military can't just walk away from these countries where the terrorists would expand their reach, threaten the region and beyond. But, he says, it's more than just Americans with guns.

DON BOLDUC: Where the U.S. comes up short in its strategy is it's not comprehensive enough. We don't have anybody working the long-term solutions, which is better governance and development.

BOWMAN: General Waldhauser echoed those comments to Congress, but he said security comes first.

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WALDHAUSER: In order to have development, you have to have a secure environment so various countries can secure their borders from these violent extremist organizations who want to have freedom of movement, who want to essentially overthrow some of these governments.

BOWMAN: And that means, at least for the time being, more soldiers like Staff Sergeant Wright to help out. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAEDELUS' "HOLD SWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.