The Trump administration is paving the way for lethal strikes against terrorists in Niger as the U.S. military pushes forward with a plan to arm the Reaper drones that fly over that country, multiple U.S. officials told NBC News.
France has already decided to arm its drones in the region, U.S. documents show, and the move to arm U.S. Reapers has been under consideration for some time — long before this month’s ambush of a Green Beret unit that resulted in the deaths of four American soldiers. But that incident, details of which are still coming to light, is fueling an urgency within the Trump administration to take more aggressive steps against the terrorist groups that are operating in North and West Africa, according to intelligence and military officials.
In the wake of the attack, the U.S. has been pressing the government of Niger to allow armed drones at the U.S. bases in that country, three U.S. officials said.
Beset by poverty, weak governance and insurgent movements, the African region that includes Niger and neighboring Mali is considered by U.S. officials to be a fertile recruiting ground for Al Qaeda and ISIS. U.S. officials believe the militants who ambushed the Green Berets belong to a group that has pledged allegiance to ISIS. President Barack Obama declined to allow armed drones to fly over the region, but the military has been pressing for some time to reverse that decision, officials said.
A move to expand U.S. drone strikes to Niger would amount to a significant escalation in American counterterrorism operations. There have been occasional U.S. drone strikes reported in Libya and Somalia, but most of Africa has not been part of the U.S. drone war, which has focused on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
“It demonstrates that the U.S. is expanding its use of lethal force … in the war on terror,” said Juan Zarate, a former Bush administration counterterrorism adviser and NBC News analyst. “It also demonstrates that the war on terror is migrating.”
Col. Rob Manning, a Defense Department spokesman, said he would not comment on “possible initiatives by the administration,” but “the Department of Defense will always ensure our forces are properly equipped and have the necessary capabilities to accomplish their mission and defeat any threat.”
The Green Berets who were ambushed were on a counterterrorism mission, multiple U.S. officials told NBC News — a mission more complex than previously understood. The Green Berets had been tracking a militant in support of a second, more secretive American special operations team operating in the area, intelligence and military officials said.
The second team was described by the officials as a joint U.S.-French intelligence collection unit, working with Nigerien forces, that had been gathering information on terrorist organizations in Niger. That team had been using an unarmed Reaper drone, which was rushed to the site of the Oct. 4 ambush within minutes of the first team’s call for help, according to multiple officials.
The officials said the second team, which included both military and civilian personnel, did not send soldiers to help repel the attack on the first team. It’s unclear why.
The presence of a second team underscores the multilayered nature of the Niger mission, and may explain the difficulty the Pentagon still has in answering basic questions about what went wrong three weeks after the incident.
The team of Green Berets and other Army soldiers were operating openly, as part of a mission to advise and assist Nigerien forces who are battling Islamic extremists who have murky affiliations — some to Al Qaeda, some to ISIS.
The second team was a clandestine unit of the Joint Special Operations Command, and was operating in both Niger and Mali, where the French have a major presence, officials said.
SOURCE: KEN DILANIAN, COURTNEY KUBE, WILLIAM M. ARKIN and HANS NICHOLS