A local official and an analyst say residents of the Niger village where four U.S. soldiers were killed this month may have delayed the soldiers while an ambush was set up and helped to lead the victims into a deadly trap.
"The attackers, the bandits, the terrorists have never lacked accomplices among local populations," said Almou Hassane, mayor of Tongo-Tongo where the attack took place, in what is believed to be his first interview with a Western news organization.
The village chief in Tongo-Tongo, Mounkaila Alassane, has been arrested since the attack, Hassane said, lending credibility to the suspicion of local involvement. He is in government custody, according to several officials.
His arrest was also confirmed by Karimou Soumana, a representative of the Tillaberi region, during a National Assembly debate to extend the state of emergency in that part of Niger.
Speaking by telephone to VOA's French-to-Africa service, Mayor Hassane said the dead Americans were part of a patrol made up of eight U.S. and about 20 Nigerien special forces, which arrived in pickup trucks at the village near the Mali border the evening before the attack.
"They must have spent the night in the northwest of Tongo-Tongo," Hassane said.
Moussa Askar, director of the newspaper l'Evènement in the capital, Niamey, said the soldiers were in the area to track down an accomplice of Abu Adnan al-Sahraoui, a former member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), who joined the Islamic State terror group in the Sahara Desert.
Aksar, a specialist on terrorism in the Sahel region of Africa, told VOA that members of the patrol questioned residents of the village, who dragged out the discussions, possibly giving the attackers time to organize an ambush.
"It turns out that this village was a little contaminated by hostile forces," said Aksar, who said he received the details from Defense Minister Kalla Moutari. "The unit stayed a little longer than expected because, apparently, people were aware that something was going on."
While the soldiers were still in the village, a fake terror attack was staged nearby, according to Aksar and local sources. The soldiers rushed to the scene, where about 50 or more assailants with vehicles and motorcycles opened fire with Kalashnikovs and heavy weapons.
Four Nigerien soldiers and three Americans were killed on the spot. The body of the fourth American soldier was found 48 hours later, about a mile away from the initial site, CNN reported.
Rhissa Ag Boula, a high-ranking government official and a former Tuareg rebel chief in Niger, told VOA that the fourth soldier, La David Johnson, had remained at the front line while the others retreated under heavy fire.
The attack has raised questions in Niger, especially since the U.S. Army operates drone bases in the country and has significant intelligence resources there.
"That's what really shocked us: how, at their level, with all the resources they have, they could not have strong intelligence to avoid what happened there," said Hassane.
Responsibility for attack
No group has officially taken responsibility for the attack. According to sources in the region, however, it is the work of Abu Adnan al-Saharaoui, who calls himself the Islamic Emir of the Great Sahara, affiliated with the Islamic State group.
According to a Tuareg from the region, al-Saharaoui is believed to be involved in arms and fuel trafficking. He is a former member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which occupied and imposed sharia law in northern Mali in 2012 before being dislodged by French forces.
Al-Saharaoui, a former acquaintance of Algerian extremist and trafficker Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar, had led the kidnapping of the nine-person staff of the Algerian consulate in Gao in 2012. Originally from Western Sahara, he wants to control the band on the common border of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
"He wants to take control of all these communities facing poverty and governance issues so that they can join his cause," said Aksar.
The group is the latest of several jihadist organizations in the Sahel region, including the Defenders of Islam group linked to militant Iyad Ag Ghali in northern Mali. The movement for the Liberation of Macina, led by Hamadoun Koufa, remained very active in central Mali.
Ansarul Islam, on the other side of the border, is increasing its attacks in northern Burkina Faso, while Boko Haram continues to launch attacks in the countries in Africa's Lake Chad Basin.
The al-Mourabitoun group, which is led by Moktar Belmokhtar — declared dead several times — has perpetrated several terror actions in the vast Sahel region, including the 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria that left 67 people dead.