Mattis: Soldiers killed in Niger not part of anti-terror authorization

Mattis: Soldiers killed in Niger not part of anti-terror authorization
© Greg Nash

The U.S. soldiers killed in Niger earlier this month were not operating under the war authorization passed in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisPentagon put in bind after Trump-Putin summit The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump eyes second Putin summit The Hill's Morning Report — Russia furor grips Washington MORE told Congress on Monday.

Rather, he said, they were operating under so-called Title 10 authority, referring to the section of U.S. Code that outlines the role of the Armed Forces. That authority covers train-and-advise missions around the world, Mattis said. 

“The troops are there under Title 10 in a train-and-advise role,” Mattis told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The mission of those troops on that patrol was a combined patrol, which means they were with Niger troops, and they were on a patrol where they’re teaching them to do what’s called key-leader engagement. I’d have to wait until I get the full investigation to get you a more complete answer.”

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Mattis was testifying alongside Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Memo: Putin furor sparks new questions on Kelly’s future US steps up its game in Africa, a continent open for business Matt Drudge shares mock ‘Survivor’ cover suggesting more White House officials will leave this summer MORE on the issue of authorization for the use of military force (AUMF).

The hearing comes after four Green Berets were killed earlier this month during an ambush in Niger by militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The Pentagon has launched an investigation, which lawmakers have said is expected to take 30 to 60 days.

Some lawmakers have said they were unaware of the extent of U.S. operations in Niger prior to the attack, which they say demonstrates the need for updating the 2001 AUMF.

The United States has about 1,000 troops in Niger and surrounding countries, and about 6,000 troops in all of Africa.

On Monday, Mattis said most troops in Niger are there for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as logistics such as refueling. But some, like those killed in the ambush, are on the train-and-advise mission.

Mattis said U.S. troops are trying to prepare Nigerien forces for when ISIS moves into their area as the caliphate in Iraq and Syria falls.

Pressed by Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDem senator ties Kavanaugh confirmation vote to Trump-Putin controversy Full interview: Chris Murphy speaks out on the Trump-Putin meeting and what it means Dem senator: NATO has become 'functionally obsolete' under Trump MORE (D-Conn.) on how to distinguish between train-and-advise missions and combat ones, Mattis said that the soldiers in Niger had gone on more than two dozen similar patrols since April without contact with enemy fighters.

“I think it was reasonable to think they could go out there and train these troops without the idea they’re going into direct combat,” he said. “But that’s not a complete answer. I need to wait until I get the investigation to fully appraise it.”

Asked for clarification by committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains GOP to White House: End summit mystery The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia MORE (R-Tenn.) on whether Title 10 authority applies to anywhere in the world, Mattis said it does.

“If the president directs it, yes sir,” Mattis replied.

Despite the Niger troops being deployed on Title 10 authority, Mattis said he believes the 2001 AUMF gives the administration legal authority to deploy troops to Africa fight groups such as Boko Haram.

“I don’t want to speculate about that because that’s not what they’re doing right now. I’d have to go back and study it,” Mattis told committee ranking member Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinSenate panel advances Trump IRS nominee Juan Williams: Putin wins as GOP spins Senate passes resolution honoring victims of Capital Gazette shooting MORE (D-Md.). “But I believe that a group that declares its allegiance to al Qaeda or ISIS would then be part of al Qaeda or ISIS.”