The officials cautioned that this was still an early assessment.
The US troops were part of a team advising and assisting local forces when they were attacked.
US Navy Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, a spokesman for US Africa Command, which oversees US operations in the region, told CNN late Wednesday that “a joint US and Nigerien patrol came under hostile fire in southwest Niger,” but said that the military was still “working to confirm details on the incident.”
President Donald Trump was briefed on the attack by by chief of staff John Kelly, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday night.
The US military has maintained a presence in the northwest African country with small groups of US Special Operations Forces advising local troops as they battle two terrorist groups, the ISIS-affiliated Boko Haram and al Qaeda’s North African branch, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has maintained a presence
in the Mali-Niger border area, despite a multi-year French-led military counterterrorism effort, Operation Barkhane, which began in 2014.
The US military has largely played a supporting role, providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets in support French forces operating in Mali and Niger. The French operation involves thousands of French troops as well as forces from Germany, Mali, Niger and other countries in the region.
“US forces are in Niger to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces, including support for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts, in their efforts to target violent extremist organizations in the region,” Falvo said, adding “one aspect of that is training, advising and assisting the Nigeriens in order to increase their ability to bring stability and security to their people.”
Wednesday’s attack comes after US drones struck ISIS fighters in neighboring Libya twice in a week in late September.
Those two missions, the first under the Trump administration, suggest US officials have become increasingly concerned that the terror group is regaining strength in Libya.
More than two dozen ISIS fighters were killed in the airstrikes, US Africa Command said.
While the ISIS presence in Libya has been much reduced following a near five-month-long US air campaign against the terror group in the final stretch of the Obama administration, small groups of ISIS fighters had begun to reconstitute themselves in remote desert areas, taking advantage of the lingering instability resulting from the Libyan civil war.
“ISIS and al-Qaeda have taken advantage of ungoverned spaces in Libya to establish sanctuaries for plotting, inspiring and directing terror attacks; recruiting and facilitating the movement of foreign terrorist fighters; and raising and moving funds to support their operations,” US Africa Command said in a September 28 statement.
US Africa Command did not specify where the US drones used in the Libya strikes were launched from, but the Pentagon is in the process of establishing a drone base just outside the city of Agadez in Niger in an effort to bolster regional counterterrorism efforts.
The US has been using a local Nigerien airport while the base is under construction, according to US Africa Command.
An US Africa Command news release dated October 2 says the construction of the Agadez airbase “is projected to be the biggest military labor troop project in US Air Force history.”
“While nearby terrorist cells and human smuggling are an ongoing threat, the remote location makes daily operations a task unto themselves,” says the story posted on the US Africa Command’s website.
Wednesday’s casualties were not the first this year in the US fight against terror groups in Africa.
In May, a US Navy SEAL was killed in Somalia
during an operation against local al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab.
The SEAL was the first US service member killed in action in Somalia since 1993, when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and 18 American soldiers were killed in the Battle for Mogadishu.