WASHINGTON (CN) — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford on Monday addressed the ambush that killed four U.S. servicemen in Niger this month, saying French and American troops have trained 5,000 West African forces since 2011 to fight extremist groups such as Boko Haram, al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
Dunford said 800 U.S. troops are based in the region now, and have been in Niger off and on for 20 years. In all, the United States has 6,000 troops serving in 53 of the 54 UN-recognized African countries, he said.
Citing the recent fall of ISIS strongholds in Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq, Dunford said “we’re at an inflection point” in the global campaign against extremist groups — not an endpoint.
As ISIS fighters scatter from the fallen territory, Dunford said, military officials will watch carefully what the group does next.
“One of the places that we know that ISIS has aspirations for establishing a larger presence is in Africa,” he said.
ISIS and al-Qaida both try to leverage local insurgencies and connect them globally, Dunford said.
He said a U.S. Special Operations Task Force accompanied Nigerien forces on Oct. 3 for an overnight reconnaissance mission in the Tongo Tongo region. Although military commanders had assessed that contact with militants was unlikely — a requirement for U.S. military personnel to accompany local troops — Dunford said they took fire from about 50 fighters using small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and technical vehicles on the morning of Oct. 4.
“This area is inherently dangerous,” he said. “The judgment of contact with the enemy was made about a particular operation at a particular location at a particular time.”
Dunford said the initial assessment is that the militants were local, tribal fighters affiliated with ISIS.
“We’re there because ISIS and al-Qaida are operating in that area; that’s why our forces are providing advise-and-assist to local forces, is to help them deal with that particular challenge.”
The attack, as they headed south back to their operating base, left two soldiers wounded and killed Army Sgt. La David Johnson, and Staff Sgts. Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson and Dustin Wright.
Five Nigerien troops also died in the attack.
The wounded, along with Black, Johnson and Wright, were evacuated that evening, but Johnson’s body was not found until the night of Oct. 6.
Johnson’s pregnant widow Myeshia Johnson is still looking for answers, she said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“I want to know why it took them 48 hours to find my husband,” she said. “I don’t know how he got killed, where he got killed or anything.”
Dunford had no ready answers regarding on Johnson became separated from the group or how far away from the firefight his body was found.
He said an investigation should answer those questions, after which military officials will visit the victims’ families at home, explain what happened, and hear their questions.
Mrs. Johnson said she has not been allowed to see her husband’s body.
“Every time I asked to see my husband they wouldn’t let me,” she said.
Dunford said at times the military will suggest that the family may not want to see the remains, but typically defers to the family’s wishes.
The chairman presented a timeline for the attack, saying the patrol requested support an hour after the firefight started. Minutes later a remotely piloted drone appeared; and French Mirage jets arrived an hour later, and French attack helicopters followed in the afternoon. Dunford could not say why the troops waited for an hour to call for help.
“I make no judgment about how long it took them to ask for support. I don’t know that they thought they needed support prior to that time,” Dunford said. “I don’t know how this attack unfolded. I don’t know what their initial assessment was of what they were confronted with.”
The revelation that the United States has hundreds of troops in Africa has raised questions from lawmakers.
On “The View” Monday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he’s not getting enough information about the military engagement in Niger.
“One of the fights I’m having right now with the administration is that [the Senate] Armed Services Committee is not getting enough information,” McCain said.
Dunford said he and Defense Secretary James Mattis will see that Congress gets the information it needs to provide oversight.
“We’re looking in the mirror and saying ‘OK, we thought we were doing all right,’” he said. “What’s most important is how the Congress feels about that, and so we need to double our communication efforts, and we’ll do that.”