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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

US to step up terror war in Africa after deadly Niger ambush 

But Pentagon and President Trump remain under pressure over circumstances of attack

Veteran Mick Pacheco reacts as he leaves after viewing the remains of US Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, at Christ The Rock Church in Cooper City, Florida, October 20, 2017. Joe Skipper / Reuters
Veteran Mick Pacheco reacts as he leaves after viewing the remains of US Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, at Christ The Rock Church in Cooper City, Florida, October 20, 2017. Joe Skipper / Reuters

The Trump administration has signalled it will step up the war on terror in Africa as it comes under increasing pressure to explain the apparent intelligence failures that led to the deaths of four soldiers in Niger.

President Donald Trump’s defensive reaction to questions and his feud with a member of Congress over his condolence call to the widow of one of the soldiers have focused attention on the US role mentoring African forces in their struggle against ISIL and Al Qaeda-linked militants.

Now it has emerged that Sgt La David Johnson — one of the four dead – was found more than a kilometre away from the ambush site, adding to the swirling controversy.

At the same time, the Pentagon is reportedly planning to take more aggressive action in Africa and loosen global rules of engagement to allow its forces to open fire on terrorist suspects even if they do not represent an immediate threat to US personnel.

The moves were revealed by Lindsey Graham, a senior Republican senator, after he met Jim Mattis, the secretary of defence, to discuss the Niger deaths.

“The war is headed to Africa. It's beginning to morph,” he said. “As we suppress the enemy in the Mid-east, they are going to move. They are not going to quit.”

Read more: Deadly attack on US special forces highlights terror resurgence in Africa's Sahel

The plans emerged as controversy grows over the October 4 ambush.

Officials believe the 12-member US team was attacked by a 50-strong ISIL-linked force after meeting with local elders on the border close to Mali.

Militants on motorcycles, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, opened fire on US troops travelling in unarmoured pickup trucks.

One report suggested the mission had been lured into an ambush after they chased a small number of militants.

The New York Times reported that a number of locals, including a village chief accused of deliberately delaying the US team, had been taken into custody by Nigerien authorities.

However, American officials have been reluctant to provide more information.

During a briefing at the Pentagon, Mr Mattis said: “The loss of our troops is under investigation. We in the department of defence like to know what we're talking about before we talk.”

The Pentagon’s Africa Command is working on an hour-by-hour timeline to establish exactly what happened and what went wrong.

Among the questions it must answer are: Why were the Americans caught by surprise? Should they have been in armoured vehicles? Why did it take two days to recover the body of Sgt Johnson and how did he end up a kilometre away?

Was ISIL responsible — through its affiliate, ISIL in the Greater Sahara, led by Adnan Abu Walid Al Sahraoui - or could it have been a different group, such as a breakaway faction of Boko Haram or Al Qaeda? And why did the troops not have air cover until French warplanes came to their rescue?

The confusion has led critics of the Trump administration to speculate that the attack was the result of US policy.

Rachel Maddow, a host on the liberal MSNBC cable news channel, on Thursday outlined a theory that the ambush was linked to Mr Trump’s latest travel ban. The inclusion of Chad – a US ally in counter-extremism efforts – led the country to withdraw its troops from Niger, which Maddow said emboldened ISIL to step up its attacks.

However, the theory is discredited by experts on the region who say attacks were on the increase anyway and it was only a matter of time before American forces got caught out.

The story took on a life of its own last week when details were leaked of Mr Trump’s condolence call to the widow of Sgt Johnson. He apparently said her husband “knew what he signed up for … but I guess it still hurt.”

On Saturday, Mr Trump kept up his spat with Frederica Wilson, the member of Congress who revealed the call.

"I hope the Fake News Media keeps talking about Wacky Congresswoman Wilson in that she, as a representative, is killing the Democrat Party,” he tweeted.

The partisan firefight and unanswered questions have led to speculation that the attack could be Mr Trump’s “Benghazi moment”, an unexplained foreign tragedy that dogs his administration.

Robert Shapiro, professor of political science at Columbia University, said Mr Trump’s repeated missteps and controversies had had almost no impact on his support base.

“His supporters don’t care about these things. They just want to keep him in the White House where they want him doing bigger things than calling soldiers’ families,” he said.

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