Oct. 27 (UPI) -- A second special operations team was on a mission to kill or capture an Islamic State leader before the Oct. 4 attack on a Green Beret unit in Niger, U.S. intelligence officials told UPI.
The ambush, in which four Americans and five Nigerian soldiers were killed, may have been orchestrated by the leader of IS in the Greater Sahara, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi.
Sahrawi, code-named "Naylor Road," was the target of a second clandestine operation, launched the evening of Oct. 3 by a force made up of American, French and Nigerian soldiers headed to the rural southwest region of Niger.
Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. confirmed to reporters at a briefing Thursday that a second team was in the area when the attack occurred on a 12-man team of U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha members and support soldiers -- what is known as a Green Beret ODA -- and their Nigerian Army counterparts, who were on a separate reconnaissance patrol.
The mission to kill or capture Sahrawi was scrubbed as bad weather emerged and he crossed the border into Mali, officials told UPI. The Green Beret ODA remained in the region after being directed by commanders to gather intelligence on Sahrawi.
U.S. intelligence officials told UPI they believe Sahrawi, also known as Adnan al-Sahrawi, was behind the unit's ambush.
Sahrawi, a pseudonym that means, "Adnan of the Desert," is a jihadist and a former senior spokesman and self-proclaimed emir for al-Mourabitoun, an al-Qaida-linked terrorist organization that operates out of West Africa. Sahrawi took an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State in May 2015, according to the Counter Extremism Project, a not-for-profit, non-partisan, international policy organization that combats the growing threat from extremist ideologies.
The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara formed after Sahrawi split from al-Mourabitoun. The group is believed to operate near Mali, according to a October 2016 post in Arabic on the encrypted app service, Telegram. The post was distributed by IS's Amaq news agency.
At some point on the morning of Oct. 4, the Special Forces team from 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group from Fort Bragg, N.C., was attacked while returning to their forward operating base, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford told reporters Monday.
The complex attack, near a village in Tongo Tongo, in the southwestern region of Niger near the Mali border, involved an array of small arms weapons and rocket-propelled grenades and a force of about 50 militants.
Army officials told UPI that the special forces team was delayed as they left a meeting with local leaders, which may have been part of the plan to attack them.
Officials suspect that some people in the Oct. 4 Tongo Tongo meeting may have been working with the Islamic State. Some of the residents from the village have reportedly have been arrested.
McKenzie told reporters Thursday that contact with the enemy was unlikely before the attack, and that it is unknown if that assessment changed at some point during the operation. Before the attack, 26 previous operations had been completed during the previous six to seven months, he said.
Once the firefight started, an overhead drone provided real-time full motion video images of the attack, Dunford said.
Staff Sgts. Dustin M. Wright and Bryan C. Black were killed in the ambush, along with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson. Sgt. La David Johnson's body was recovered 48 hours later by Nigerien forces in a remote, northwestern region of Niger. Green Berets Michael Perezoni and Brent Bartels were wounded in the ambush and were medically evacuated to Landstuhl Regional U.S. Army Medical Center in Germany.
French Mirage jets arrived on the scene about one hour later in a "show of force" in an attempt to drive out the militants. By the time French air support arrived, troops had been in contact with enemy forces for two hours.
It remains unclear when Johnson was separated from the other members of his unit, but a search was mounted after a DUSTWUN was declared, a military abbreviation for duty status, whereabouts unknown. McKenzie said a joint effort made up of U.S., French and Nigerien forces were involved in trying to recover Johnson.
A team of investigators led by a one-star general has been sent to West Africa on a fact-finding mission, with congressional committees launching their own inquiries into the circumstances of the attack.