TAMPA, Fla. – The Islamic extremists that ambushed and killed U.S. Army commandoes in Niger last week hadn't operated in that area before, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday, referring to what officials believe was a relatively new offshoot of the Islamic State group there.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him to Tampa, Mattis said he rejected suggestions that rescue forces were slow to respond to the assault, noting that French aircraft were overhead within 30 minutes. But he said the U.S. military is reviewing whether changes should be made to these types of training missions in Africa.
"We will look at this and say was there something we have to adapt to now, should we have been in a better stance," said Mattis. "We need to always look at this. We're not complacent, we're going to be better."
U.S. Africa Command has launched an investigation into the attack that will review what went wrong and whether additional security or overhead armed support may be needed for some of these missions.
American officials have said they believe the militants belonged to a tribal group that previously may have been tied to al-Qaida or other extremists, but more recently re-branded themselves as IS. The officials said they do not believe the militants were fighters who came to Niger from outside the region. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Three Army commandoes and a soldier were killed a week ago when dozens of militants ambushed them during a joint patrol with Niger troops. The U.S. and Niger troops were in unarmored trucks.
Mattis and other officials haven't said how long it took to evacuate the troops, including several U.S. and Niger forces who were wounded. One U.S. Army soldier was missing for nearly two days before he was finally found by Niger troops around the area where the attack happened.
According to U.S. officials, details about the exact timeline for the rescue effort are still unfolding. The troops were evacuated by French aircraft.
Army special forces have been working with Niger troops for some time, and that training effort has been increasing in recent years.
They are often working in remote locations well beyond what the U.S. military likes to call the "golden hour." That one-hour standard for medical evacuation was set during the peak war years in Iraq and Afghanistan and was aimed at getting wounded troops out within an hour of their injury, making it more likely they will get the treatment needed to survive.
Mattis praised the quick response of the French and Niger support forces.
"The French pilots were overhead with fast movers with bombs on them ready to help, and helicopters were coming in behind," he said adding that Niger forces with French advisers also responded to the attack, which took place attack about 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Niger's capital, Niamey.
The U.S. and Niger forces were leaving a meeting with tribal leaders when they were ambushed. There were about a dozen U.S. troops and a company of Niger forces, for a total of about 40 service members in the joint mission.
U.S. officials have described a chaotic assault in a densely wooded area, as 40-50 extremists in vehicles and on motorcycles fired rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns at the patrol, setting off explosions and shattering windows. The soldiers got out of their trucks, returning fire and calling in support from the French aircraft.