A funeral was held over the past weekend for Sgt. La David Johnson, killed in a country few can find on a map and in a war that few lawmakers knew anything about.
Johnson, a Floridian, was one of a dozen special operations and Green Beret forces who, along with 30 Nigerien soldiers, were in southwestern Niger Oct. 4 in an effort to track down a former member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. As the team departed, they were ambushed by members of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
Four from the U.S. team died in the skirmish, as did five Nigerien soldiers. Two Americans were wounded.
“It turns out that this village was a little contaminated by hostile forces,” said Moussa Aksar, a terrorism specialist interviewed by Voice of America. “The unit stayed a little longer than expected because apparently people were aware that something was going on.”
Some 800 U.S. service members are in Niger supporting a French-led mission to defeat the Islamic State, al-Qaida and Boko Haram. The U.S. has drone bases in Niger, as well as significant intelligence resources.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the American people, including the families of the soldiers killed in Niger, deserve answers about this month’s deadly ambush.
But investigative journalist Nick Turse says there is much more to this story. Writing for Vice News, Turse said, “Today, special operators are carrying out nearly 100 missions at any given time—in Africa alone. It’s the latest sign of the military’s quiet but ever-expanding presence on the continent, one that represents the most dramatic growth in the deployment of America’s elite troops to any region of the globe.”
He continued: “In 2006, just 1 percent of all U.S. commandos deployed overseas were in Africa. In 2010, it was 3 percent. By 2016, that number had jumped to more than 17 percent. In fact, there are now more special operations personnel devoted to Africa than anywhere except the Middle East.”
Overall, there are approximately 6,000 U.S. troops across the African continent. More than half are in Djibouti, with others in Tunisia, Senegal and Somalia.
In a report obtained by Turse, U.S. Army Gen. Donald Bolduc, who runs the special operations command in Africa, admits, “Africa’s challenges could create a threat that surpasses the threat that the United States currently faces from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.”
“We owe the American people an explanation of what their men and women were doing at this particular time,” Dunford said. “And when I say that, I mean men and women in harm’s way anywhere in the world—they should know what the mission is and what we’re trying to accomplish when we’re there.”