The body of a US service member who went missing following a deadly ambush Wednesday in southwest Niger has been recovered, multiple US officials told CNN Friday.
The discovery of the missing US service member in a remote area of the northwestern African country by Nigerien troops comes nearly 48 hours after he was first discovered to be missing in the wake of the attack.
The recovery of the missing US service member raised the number of US troops killed in Wednesday’s attack to four.
The American service member, who has been identified by US military personnel, went missing after a group of US soldiers near the Niger-Mali border were attacked by up to 50 fighters that are thought to be likely affiliated with ISIS, a US official said.
The 12-member US team was leaving a meeting in unarmored pick-up trucks when they began taking fire from small arms, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades, according to a US defense official.
With window glass exploding all around them, the US soldiers, including multiple Green Berets, exited the vehicles, ran for cover, and began returning fire.
It is unclear how the missing service member became separated during the firefight from the rest of the advisory team he was accompanying. None of the other soldiers involved in the engagement witnessed him being captured or taken away by enemy forces.
The US military does not believe the missing service member was ever in enemy hands.
One reason the US military launched the urgent search and rescue mission was that electronic signals were monitored indicating the possibility that he was still alive in the field.
The US military initially issued a statement Thursday saying the attack left three US service members dead and two wounded.
A large scale search and rescue operation involving US, French and Nigerien troops was launched soon after US officials realized one of the US service members was unaccounted for.
Elite US Special Operations Forces troops were flown in from the continental US to aid in the recovery effort.
US Navy SEALs were deployed to a US military base in Sigonella, Sicily in anticipation of a possible rescue attempt but never went into Niger.
CNN did not report the details of the search operation while it was ongoing and did not report the deceased service member’s recovery until CNN was assured that his family was notified.
A spokeswoman for the French Ministry of Defense told CNN Thursday that French troops from the Barkhane anti-terror force based in neighboring Chad are currently involved in an operation in Niger. She said the operation is being led by Niger and the French troops are there to support them. US officials told CNN Thursday that French military Super Puma helicopters evacuated the wounded Americans along with those killed in action while also providing covering fire. The wounded were first flown to the capital Niamey and later to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
French military attack aircraft also flew to the area in an attempt to support US personnel on the ground.
Five Nigerien soldiers also were killed in the attack, according to a Nigerien security official.
The US soldiers were part of a team advising and assisting local forces.
The Army issued a statement Friday identifying the three soldiers earlier reported killed in action as being two Green Berets, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, and a third soldier, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson.
All three soldiers were assigned to 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, according to a statement issued by US Army Special Operations Command.
The attack occurred approximately 200 kilometers north of the country’s capital, Niamey, in southwest Niger, according to the statement from Africa Command, which oversees military operations in Africa.
“US forces are in Niger to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces, in their efforts to counter violent extremist organizations in the region,” the statement from Africa Command said.
There are about 800 US troops in Niger and the US military has maintained a presence in the northwest African country for five years, with small groups of US Special Operations Forces advising local troops as they battle terrorist groups, including, Islamic State in Greater Sahara, the ISIS-affiliated Boko Haram and al Qaeda’s North African branch, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
“Niger is an important partner of ours, we have a deep relationship with them,” Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday.
“We are committed to that relationship, we believe that they are as well in fact I think it’s a very good success story,” he added.
US officials assess that these terrorist groups view Chad, Niger and Mali as being particularity important as they serve as bridges between north and sub-Saharan Africa, saying that local al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates use control of these transit routes to gain revenue that helps them recruit, expand and export attacks. ISIS uses these North-South transit routes to move fighters northward, where they can gain more easily access Europe and the West.
One official told CNN that ISIS is attempting to illegally infiltrate the gold mining industry in Niger to sell on the black market and finance world terrorism.
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.
And while US troops largely play a supporting role in Niger, military leaders acknowledge the risks they face.
“Clearly there’s risks for our forces in Niger,” McKenzie said while declining to discuss the specifics of Wednesday’s attack, citing “ongoing partnered operations.”
“Any time we deploy full forces globally, we look very hard at the enablers that need to be in place in order to provide security for them and that ranges from the ability to pull them out if they’re injured to the ability to reinforce them at the point of a fight if they need reinforcement,” he said.
“Certainly to the soldiers in the fight it was combat,” McKenzie added.
“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,” US Navy Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, a spokesman for US Africa Command, said Wedensday, 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.”
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.