Under Trump, U.S. Military Wants to Use Lethal Drone Strikes Against ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Niger

President Donald Trump went after gold star widow Myeshia Johnson on Twitter Monday, after she told "Good Morning America" that the president had made her "very upset" during a phone call regarding her husband's death in Niger.  Getty Images

President Donald Trump and his administration are making moves to arm drones that operate over Niger to attack jihadis following the ambush that killed four U.S. soldiers earlier this month.

The October 4 attack, in which around 50 militants launched a surprise assault on a joint U.S.-Niger patrol that was visiting the village of Tongo-Tongo near the Malian border, is believed to have been carried out by fighters aligned with the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

The soldiers called for support an hour after the ambush began, and a U.S. drone arrived within minutes, officials have said, but it did not fire at the militants and they would not disclose if it was armed.

The Trump administration is now accelerating the move to arm Reaper drones that can take out jihadis operating in west Africa, intelligence and military officials told NBC News, even though it had been under consideration before the assault. The decision must receive authorization from the Niger government and the Trump government is lobbying for permission, the officials said.

As a result, a more aggressive strategy under Trump, already in place in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia, could soon be witnessed in Niger.

The Sahel region that incorporates Niger and neighboring Mali is a haven for extremist groups, who can move funds, equipment and personnel around the area with relative ease. The U.S. has bases in Niger but does not have armed drones in the country. France has armed its drones in the region but does not have armed drones in Niger at present.

While Washington has authorized drone strikes elsewhere in Africa, particularly Libya and Somalia, west Africa has not been a core part of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy on the continent. But that could change soon.

Information about the ambush has remained shrouded in secrecy for weeks but new details are beginning to emerge. The patrol was initially reported to have been meeting village elders.

But officials say that it was tasked with searching for a senior militant, effectively a support team for another special forces unit of U.S. and French personnel that was operating in the region. Members of that unit were not dispatched to help the forces that came under fire, but the reason for that remains unknown.

A working theory is that the militants were tipped off by at least one accomplice who may have lived among the local population. Almou Hassane, the mayor of the village in question, Tongo Tongo, told Voice of America that "the attackers, the bandits, the terrorists have never lacked accomplices among local populations."

The affiliate of ISIS suspected of perpetrating the attack is the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS. It operates in an area that stretches across six African countries from Senegal to Chad and is overshadowed by more dominant radical Islamist groups, in this case Al-Qaeda's affiliates—Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and Al-Mourabitoun.

ISGS is a relatively new and local branch of ISIS that has conducted several small attacks in the region, particularly in Burkina Faso, which neighbors Niger. The jihadi affiliate gave its allegiance to ISIS and the group accepted its bayah, or pledge, in October 2016.

It is the second ISIS affiliate in west Africa, after Boko Haram pledged allegiance in March 2015. A splinter faction in the Nigerian militant group renamed itself the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and named a new leader, Abu Musab al-Barnawi.

It overshadowed the notorious leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, and widened the divisions in the faction that operates predominantly out of northeastern Nigeria and continues to wage a bloody insurgency against Nigerian forces and civilians.