Defense officials have released the names of three elite Special Forces soldiers killed in an ambush during a reconnaissance patrol Wednesday in Niger, near the border with Mali.
On Friday, U.S. officials identified the fallen soldiers as Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash.; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29 of Lyons, Ga. All were assigned to the Army's 3rd Special Forces Group, which is based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Details about their mission are still unclear, though media reports have detailed a brief but brutal fight involving dozens of fighters in armed pickup trucks called technicals.
The Pentagon and the White House have long sought to frame the U.S. military's activities there, and elsewhere on the African continent, as providing support for American allies battling extremists throughout the region — and being removed from direct combat with those groups.
That appears to be changing, observers say.
"Training operations have picked up in recent years, and with this incident, the U.S. seems to be getting closer and closer to combat operations," said Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
U.S. forces have expanded efforts in Niger, military officials have said, as part of a growing presence in the Sahel region. The vast expanse of desert stretches across the continent, and affiliates of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have taken advantage of instability in Libya, where arms and fighters flow into a region difficult to govern.
About 800 U.S. personnel are assigned to posts in Niger, mostly at two sites focused on gathering aerial reconnaissance for Nigerien forces. That is an increase from 645 in June. About 300 to the south in Cameroon provide logistical and intelligence support.
This expansion is a potential tension point for President Trump, who has sought to facilitate the Pentagon's counterterrorism objectives while calling for scaling back the U.S. military global footprint because his political base does not see such missions as vital to the national interest.
Those impulses appear to collide in the Sahel, putting the Pentagon and the White House in the difficult position of explaining to the American public how three elite soldiers were killed on a mission that many did not previously know existed.
On Thursday, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman, Dana White, said the soldiers died, along with a "partner nation member," from enemy contact, although she was careful to avoid the word "combat."
"To the soldiers in the fight, it was combat," added Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who is director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff. He and White endured a tense exchange with reporters, who questioned the two officials over the often-fraught characterization of troops killed by gunfire, explosions and in other hostile acts in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are charged with similar missions to buttress partner forces.
But McKenzie emphasized that the overall conditions in western Niger were not characterized as combat.
If the mission was indeed training, Lebovich said, "it seems it was meant to be a realistic training mission."
The soldiers' deaths mark the first known hostile-fire casualties among U.S. forces in Niger. A soldier with the 3rd Special Forces Group, the main unconventional warfare unit in the Africa Command, was killed in a vehicle accident there in February.
The incident Wednesday occurred about 120 miles north of Niamey, the capital, near the border with Mali, officials said. White and McKenzie refused to elaborate on the nature of the mission or why U.S. forces were so close to Mali, a country rife with militant activity. They would not say whether Wednesday's operation indicates plans to expand security missions in the region or whether other hostile engagements have recently occurred there.
The United States already conducts surveillance drone flights piloted from Niamey and is finishing construction on an installation at Agadez, a central city in the Sahara, that will move flights closer to southern Libya and northern Mali, allowing surveillance aircraft to stay in the air longer.
Lebovich said Special Forces personnel have, since at least 2014, run training operations out of Ouallam, a town halfway between Niamey and the Mali border, where militants cross for incursions into Niger. Officials acknowledged activity at Ouallam but did not specify what operations were based there.
The Drive, a website that chronicles international defense activity, reported recently that the Pentagon has contracted fuel deliveries there, indicating the need to keep tactical missions self-sustainable in remote regions far from Niamey.
Deepening involvement in Africa translates to a learning curve for U.S. forces there, said Nasser Weddady, a regional security analyst. French military forces are posted across the region and have a deeper cultural understanding because France is a former colonial power in the region. France also holds business interests in uranium mines there, he said.
"The French know these places. This is their Tijuana. This is their Mexico," Weddady said of the Sahel. "The U.S. is still discovering the place."
News of the deaths appeared to Weddady as a turning point in U.S. involvement in Africa, and he thinks there may be eagerness to expand operations in what he called the logic of war, which could lead to a spiral of involvement.
"How do you strike that optimal balance of security and assistance?" Weddady said. "Until yesterday we had that balance. And then it went out of whack."