It took President Trump 12 days to speak publicly about a terrorist attack that left four American soldiers dead. And even then, it was only because a reporter asked, “Why haven't we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger?”
Trump's answer — that he likes to call and write letters to family members of slain service members, unlike his predecessors — kicked off days of strange volleys between the president and the media. Aides of former presidents quickly rejected the notion that their bosses did not communicate with families who had lost loved ones. Reporters contacted Gold Star families and found that Trump's record of reaching out was, at best, spotty. On Tuesday, Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) said that Trump's call to the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson was so insensitive it left her in tears.
But beyond that controversy, there's a lot we still don't know about what happened in Niger and why four American soldiers died there. Republicans and Democrats are calling for an investigation, and Wilson has called this “Mr. Trump’s Benghazi.”
Here's what we do know:
What were U.S. troops doing in Niger?
U.S. troops arrived in 2013 to help the French military, which was running an operation against al-Qaeda in Mali. Then-President Barack Obama sent 150 service members to Niger's capital, Niamey, to set up a surveillance drone operation over Mali. Today, there are about 800 soldiers assisting in the fight against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and Boko Haram, the Nigerian extremist militant group. Many have been tasked with setting up a drone base in the country's northern desert or running surveillance missions out of Niamey. According to ABC News, fewer than 100 Green Berets are in Niger to help build the capacity of its military. Those troops can instruct their counterparts on skills from basic marksmanship to small-team maneuvering and calling in close air support. But clearly, the mission can turn dangerous and resemble something like combat.
What happened the day of the attack?
It's unclear, but we know that a group of eight to 12 U.S. soldiers was accompanying 30 to 40 Nigerien troops on some kind of mission near Tongo Tongo. (Other accounts suggest that only eight to 12 Nigerien and American soldiers actually entered the village and that the other Nigerien troops were stationed nearby.) The group met with leaders and collected supplies. As they were heading home, they were ambushed by about 50 militants.
There was a firefight. Witnesses said the assailants blew up their vehicles. The soldiers ran for cover and began returning fire. Apparently, a French military aircraft was on the scene within 30 minutes, but it didn't fire on the attackers. (There are different accounts as to why. Reuters reported that the fighting was happening at close quarters, so the French aircraft couldn't intervene. Others have said that Niger forbids airstrikes on its soil.)
According to a CNN report based on military interviews with the survivors shared with the network by a U.S. defense official, some of the soldiers said it seemed like the local leaders were delaying the soldiers' departure, which caused them “to suspect that the villagers may have been complicit in the ambush.”
But by the end of the fight, four Americans were dead. The remains of three — Staff Sgts. Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson and Dustin Wright — were retrieved. It took 48 hours to recover the body of Sgt. La David Johnson, who had been separated from the rest of the group.
There was also some initial disagreement about who flew the medevac helicopter to rescue the wounded and retrieve the dead. The Washington Post confirmed that contractor Berry Aviation conducted the casualty evacuation and transport.
Did the Army do enough to protect its soldiers?
According to the Pentagon, the answer is yes. Defense Department officials said that soldiers had carried out 29 similar operations in the past six months with no problems. By this time, they were considered routine.
But critics wonder whether enough precautions were taken. The troops were armed only with rifles and traveled in unarmored pickup trucks. There was no U.S. drone flying overhead to track the soldiers. French officials told Reuters they felt the U.S. military acted without enough intelligence or contingency planning.
Who were the militants?
The Defense Intelligence Agency has said it believes the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara was behind the attack. The group has been around at least since 2015, when its leader split from al-Qaeda. According to U.S. officials, this isn't an “officially recognized” branch of the Islamic State — one American official called it a “wannabe.” In the past, the group has attacked French counterterrorism forces, but it has never before launched an attack on U.S. forces. (A rival group, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, kidnapped an American aid worker, Jeffery Woodkey, from his home in Abalak, Niger, in 2016. Woodkey is still being held with five other hostages.)
The men were carrying small arms, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The Pentagon said they were “well-equipped and trained.”
How has the U.S. government handled the fallout from the attack?
Investigations are underway. The Defense Department is conducting a review of what went wrong, and the Pentagon's Africa Command has sent a team of investigators to Niger. (“We need to collect some basic facts,” a Defense Department official told NBC News.) The French military is also looking into it. The Senate Armed Services Committee has called on the Trump administration to lay out a fuller explanation of what went wrong.
“I think the administration has to be more clear about our role in Niger and our role in other areas in Africa and other parts of the globe,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told New York magazine. “They have to connect it to a strategy. They should do that. I think that the inattention to this issue is not acceptable.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been more blunt. When asked by a reporter whether he thought the Trump administration was being upfront about what happened in Niger, he replied, simply: “No.”