WASHINGTON — A top leader of the Islamic terrorist group that claimed responsibility for last fall’s deadly ambush of U.S. forces in Niger has been killed by a French air strike, French military and Pentagon officials said.
French ground troops found the body of Mohamed Ag Almouner on a battlefield after an air strike on a camp in Mali, according to a statement by the French defense ministry. Also killed were his guard and two civilians, according to the statement released Monday.
Pentagon officials confirmed the details on Wednesday.
Sunday’s mission by the French was part of Operation Barkhane, that nation’s counter-terrorism campaign in Africa. French forces there include about 3,000 ground troops, 20 helicopters and a half-dozen jet fighters.
During a Tuesday press conference, Defense Secretary James Mattis repeated earlier statements that U.S. military activities in Africa are in support of the French and host government operations.
“On the Niger situation, we are making changes on the personnel assignment policy. As you know, one of the things we uncovered was some of those troops did not train together, what we thought was for a sufficiently long — long enough time,” Mattis told reporters, referring to last October’s ambush.
“We have changed some of the training requirements as well. But as far as our — our continued operations there, we continue in support of the French-led trans-Sahel effort down there. And in building our — our partner nations’ capacity to fight this enemy,” he said.
Mattis said approximately 7,200 U.S. forces are supporting African military partners in providing for their own security and conducting counter-terrorist operations against ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates. “Our efforts include developing security forces in Somalia, countering ISIS in Libya and supporting partners in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions,” he said.
The ambush of U.S. and Niger troops last October left four U.S. and four Niger soldiers dead and others wounded. Mattis received four reports on the incident two weeks ago. According to Pentagon officials, several of the U.S. soldiers who were ambushed are being recommended for military awards — even though the operation was approved on the basis of a false set of mission papers.
The four U.S. Green Berets killed in the ambush — Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, Sgt. La David Johnson, Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Bryan Black — are among those being considered for medals. Also being considered is the commanding officer, a captain who was one of those criticized for the faulty mission planning.
One senior Pentagon official, speaking on background, said it still remains to be seen if some level of punishment wil be decided for some lower-ranking members of the operation. That official said no punishment was expected for the head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser.