Forces in Mali are claiming to have killed a leader with the Islamic State Group who was known in recent years to show off an American rifle he said was taken from dead Green Berets after a 2017 ambush in Niger.

Malian armed forces said they killed Abu Huzeifa, who the U.S. has said played a role in the Oct. 4, 2017 ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers.

Army Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, and Sgt. La David T. Johnson fought to the death after their convoy of Green Berets, support troops and local soldiers was ambushed by more than 100 ISIS fighters near the village Tongo Tongo in Niger. The four soldiers posthumously received valor awards. Black and Wright were both Special Forces soldiers and both Jeremiah Johnson and La David Johnson were named honorary Green Berets in tribute.

On Monday, Mali’s armed forces posted a message on X that they had “neutralized a major terrorist leader of foreign nationality” who was identified as Abu Huzeifa. The message noted that the United States had placed a $5 million reward for information on Abu Huzeifa’s whereabouts in connection with the 2017 Niger ambush.

A picture circulating on a pro-Russian Telegram channel appears to show the body of a man who looks like Abu Huzeifa, although it is not possible to independently confirm the man’s identity.

A spokesperson for U.S. Africa Command told Task & Purpose that U.S. military officials are aware of reports that Abu Huzeifa had been killed in Mali, but the command does not have any information to independently confirm his death.

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Abu Huzeifa was one of the ISIS commanders directly involved in the 2017 ambush, said Caleb Weiss, an expert on jihadism in Africa and the Middle East.

“In fact, in most public photos that we have of him, he often prominently displayed one of the rifles captured from one of the killed US servicemen as a trophy weapon.” said Weiss, a senior analyst with the Bridgeway Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to end genocide.

ISIS has not issued a public statement confirming Abu Huzeifa’s death yet, but they do not comment on the deaths of all their commanders, Weiss told Task & Purpose.

“Some commanders or prominent fighters sometimes get eulogies in the weekly Al Naba newsletter, but again not always,” Weiss said. “So even if IS [Islamic State] doesn’t say anything that doesn’t mean he’s still alive, it’s just more in line with their normal procedures with this.”

Until the 2017 ambush, most Americans were unaware that any U.S. troops were deployed to Niger. The U.S. and Nigerien forces had been denied permission to return to base before being attacked by the much larger force of ISIS fighters.

The team fought for about 20 minutes at the ambush site and then tried to break contact, but the convoy lost sight of one of the vehicles with Wright, Black and Jeremiah Johnson, an investigation into the incident found.

Black was killed while providing suppressing fire. Wright and Jeremiah Johnson stayed with him until they were forced to relocate. After Jeremiah Johnson was shot and severely wounded, Wright ran over to him and the two continued to fight until they were overwhelmed by the enemy.

La David Johnson was with the rest of the convoy when it stopped about 700 meters from the ambush site and was attacked again. He ran out of ammunition for his M-240B machine gun, so he switched to an M2010 sniper rifle.

When the convoy drove away, he was unable to get into a vehicle due to the intense enemy fire. La David Johnson and two Nigerien soldiers kept fighting. After the Nigeriens were killed, he took cover under a thorny tree, where he died fighting.

Abu Huzeifa was not the only ISIS commander involved in the ambush. Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi claimed responsibility for the attack one year later. France announced in 2021 that it had killed al-Sahrawi.

Doundoun Cheffou, the ISIS leader whom U.S. and Nigerien forces were pursuing at the time of the ambush, is believed to still be alive, according to the New York Times. 

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