WASHINGTON — The reconnaissance patrol was supposed to be a routine training mission along the border between Niger and Mali for the nearly dozen United States Army Special Forces trainers and the Nigerien soldiers with them.
The American team leaders told their superiors in seeking approval for the mission that there was a “low risk” of hostile activity in the region 120 miles north of Niamey, Niger’s capital, according to a senior United States military official briefed on the mission planning.
Late Wednesday afternoon, that mission proved anything but low risk. The patrol was ambushed by what commanders believe was a heavily armed Qaeda force from Mali, leaving three Americans dead and two others wounded. The combat casualties were the first that the United States has suffered in a widening counterterrorism mission in Niger, in northwest Africa.
Pentagon officials expressed shock on Thursday at the deaths during such a routine mission. The brazen daytime attack raised serious questions about how the Special Forces — elite Green Berets who have spent years operating in shadowy combat zones — conduct threat assessments in the country and how their chain of command approves them.
Pentagon officials vowed to examine how many Special Forces training missions had been conducted in border areas before Wednesday’s assault — and whether the Americans in Niger had inadvertently settled into a pattern of predictable activities that Qaeda fighters could exploit with deadly consequences.