ISIS Affiliate Claims October Attack on U.S. Troops in Niger

Details of the attack remain murky, and members of the patrol have given conflicting accounts of it. It is unclear whether the patrol was simply ambushed, or whether it was attacked after the troops were reassigned to support a separate, clandestine counterterrorism mission against Islamist militants in the area.

Aid workers and tourists have long been urged to avoid the area where the attack occurred, near Niger’s border with Mali, because of the presence of both Al Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated groups.

The extent of Mr. Sahraoui’s ties with the Islamic State is unclear. The website in Mauritania that carried the group’s statement on Friday is an outlet favored by Mr. Sahraoui’s former colleagues in Al Qaeda, not by the Islamic State. The area in which Mr. Sahraoui’s group operates contains some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet, a landscape of undulating dunes where cellphone towers are few and far between.

“There is a lot we don’t know about how his operation connects back to the mother ship — what’s the connective tissue?” said Thomas Joscelyn, an analyst who has tracked the group for years as a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “There are a lot of possibilities and many factors in play.”

The remoteness of the area in which Mr. Sahraoui’s group operates, and the difficulty of getting reliable cellphone signals or internet access, could be one factor to explain the delay in releasing the statement. Another possibility is that the Islamic State’s media apparatus was disrupted after the group lost nearly 98 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria.

Additionally, there have been reports of unrest among from Al Qaeda loyalists after Mr. Sahraoui made his pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. “There were even reports at one point that he was injured in a shootout with Al Qaeda,” Mr. Joscelyn said.

Mr. Sahraoui cut his teeth in Al Qaeda’s branch in the region, which reported to Osama bin Laden through letters that were carried across the desert by couriers. He joined the Qaeda branch sometime in 2010, according to one account, and became a deputy to Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, one of Al Qaeda’s most notorious commanders in the area and among the first to discover that foreigners were lucrative bargaining chips. He bankrolled his operations through kidnappings for ransom, pioneering a business model that was later adopted by the terrorist group in Yemen,…

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