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iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Facing a tense security situation at home and few apparent repercussions in the U.S., dozens of Afghan soldiers and security personnel who came to the U.S. for training have gone AWOL -- and the number is increasing, according to the latest report from government's oversight group for Afghanistan.

Hundreds of Afghan troops helping to fight the Taliban in their country train in the U.S. each year, and last year 13 percent of them went missing, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.

That's double the historical average of 6 percent for Afghan troops over the last 12 years, and far higher than the average desertion rate of 0.07 percent for all foreign troops training in the U.S.

U.S. officials expect that the number of Afghan troops going missing to continue to climb.

"Given the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the fact that Afghan trainees who violate the terms of their visas suffer virtually no consequences for going AWOL (except for the possible return to Afghanistan)... the AWOL rate is likely to either remain steady or increase," says the inspector general's report published Friday.

The last few days have been a grim reminder of what Afghan soldiers may be seeking to escape after a series of attacks on Afghan security units in Kabul killed more than 70 people on Monday and Tuesday. On Friday, a suicide bombing in a mosque in the city killed at least 30 people.

Afghans interviewed by the inspector general for the report shared stories of Taliban fighters threatening their families or claimed that their lives were in danger if they returned home.

U.S. immigration officials meanwhile have some concerns about AWOL trainees posing a danger in this country. The Afghan soldiers who have gone missing in the U.S. are considered "high risk" by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) counterterrorism unit because they came into the country with more limited vetting than other visitors and they are military-trained individuals of a fighting age. Moreover, the trainees by going AWOL have demonstrated a "flight risk" and shown little or no concern about possible arrest and detention.

The special inspector general's report notes, though, "We are not aware of any acts of terrorism or similarly serious acts involving Afghan trainees who have gone AWOL."

Finding the missing trainees can be complicated by the fact that they may have been exempted from certain registration requirements when they came to the U.S., and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement cannot work to track them down until the State Department and Pentagon have revoked their official trainee status.

Moreover, if any of the individuals applies for asylum in the U.S., that is done through United States Citizenship and Immigration Services which often doesn't communicate with ICE, according to ICE. Since 2005, 152 Afghan trainees have gone AWOL, and 83 of them either fled the country successfully, often traveling to Canada, or remain missing. Only 27 have been arrested or removed by law enforcement.

Several disappearances of Afghan military personnel have generated major media coverage.

In Washington D.C. in 2014, two Afghan Army officers disappeared during a visit to Washington's Georgetown neighborhood and were found days later.

Later that same month, three officers went missing from a base in Massachusetts only to be found days later as they attempted to cross into Canada. The soldiers had disappeared after a chaperoned visit to a shopping mall.

In December 2015, two Afghan trainee pilots disappeared from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia just days before they were to return to Afghanistan. One of the two airmen was later found in Virginia. Beyond any concerns about dangers the AWOL trainees may pose in the U.S., the desertions have other negative consequences, particularly for the strength of Afghanistan's armed forces and the continuation of training opportunities in the U.S.

"If a student absconds, it affects his unit and the commander will not allow his soldiers to get into future trainings. Scholarship and other training would be restricted for soldiers," one Afghan captain told the special inspector general's office.

More desertions mean a reduction in the number of courses offered to Afghan security personnel, which in turn reduces their operational readiness -- and drags down morale.

"Trainees we spoke with indicated that recent AWOL cases had a negative impact on morale, and the negative publicity that resulted from these incidents was generally seen as bringing shame to Afghanistan," the report said.

Afghan policies could be contributing to the lack of incentive for trainees to return home. Many soldiers are not even guaranteed a job when they go back after training in the U.S. Afghan policy does not require units to return trainees to their previous positions or provide them roles that use the training they just received, according to the inspector general's report.

And, soldiers who have been gone for training more than a year are switched to reserve status, meaning they may have to wait to go back to active duty and have less incentive to stay in the armed forces.

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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- U.S.-backed Syrian forces declared victory over ISIS in the terror group's former de facto capital of Raqqa.

“We proudly announce today from the heart of the city of Raqqa the victory of our forces in the major battle to defeat the ISIS terror organization, which we defeated in the capital of its alleged caliphate," the Syrian Democratic Forces said in a statement in Arabic on Friday.

Raqqa, nestled on the northern bank of the Euphrates River in Syria, fell into the hands of ISIS militants in 2014 and became the heart of their self-declared Islamic caliphate.

Friday's proclaimed victory comes after weeks of fighting between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States, with entire neighborhoods of the backwater city now in ruin.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS also issued a statement Friday that congratulated the Syrian force on its victory in Raqqa. The coalition called the liberation of Raqqa and an earlier victory over ISIS in Mosul, Iraq, in July, "turning points for the terrorist organization whose leaders grow ever more distant from a dwindling number of terrorist adherents."

However, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, cautioned that "a tough fight still lies ahead."

"The military defeat of Daesh is essential, but not sufficient," Funk said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. "We are still fighting the remnants of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and will continue to facilitate humanitarian efforts assisting citizens adversely affected by a brutal occupation, who face a long battle to gain their freedom."

The destruction in Raqqa adds to the wider damage from the Syrian civil war that is now in its seventh year. Half of Syria's population is displaced either within the country's borders or abroad. Meanwhile, more than 5 million Syrians lack access to basic supplies and services, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

ABC News' Lena Masri and Elizabeth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Though victory has been declared in the battle against ISIS in the Syrian city of Raqqa, drone footage and photos show a city decimated by a months-long siege and years of civil war.

Syrian Democratic Forces celebrated their hard-won victory around Naim Square, which was where ISIS fighters once carried out public beheadings and executions during their occupation of the city. Also known as "Paradise Square," it had been a symbol of brutality when Raqqa was the "capital" of ISIS's self-declared caliphate.

Now, the once-vibrant metropolis of 200,000 people has been left in ruins following fighting that began during the Syrian uprising and escalated with the arrival of ISIS in late 2013. The battle to retake Raqqa began on June 6, following heavy airstrikes by U.S. forces.

In the past few days, journalists were able to enter the war-torn city. Images show streets piled with debris and nearly every building appears to have suffered heavy damage.

Raqqa will have to be cleared of landmines, explosives and other hazards before the long road to recovery can begin and residents can return.

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mikdam/iStock/Thinkstock(DUSSELDORF, Germany) -- The pilots who were flying the Air Berlin plane that buzzed a control tower in Dusseldorf, Germany, have been suspended, according to the airline.

Air Berlin said the pilots, who have not been identified, were "not working in air service" while an investigation continued into the incident. The airline said the suspensions were standard procedure during a probe.

In a statement, the airline said that before landing the plane, the pilots had engaged in a "fly-around maneuver."

"In aviation, safety comes first. We take the incident very seriously," Air Berlin said in a statement. "Statements from passengers as well as numerous YouTube videos have led to questions and speculations, which must be answered by the pilots and the control tower staff during the ongoing investigations. The incident is jointly examined by Air Berlin and relevant authorities. It is normal procedure that all relevant crew members are exempted from the air service until the conclusion of such an investigation."

The bankrupt European airline flew its last long-haul flight this week from Miami, Florida, to Dusseldorf. The Airbus A330 farewell flight left Miami Sunday around 5 p.m. and arrived to Dusseldorf a little after 8 a.m. local time.

Air Berlin did not confirm how many passengers and crew were onboard the aircraft at the time. However, the Air Berlin A330 seats a maximum of 290 passengers.

Max Siegmayer, a passenger aboard the flight, told ABC News Thursday that the pilot had told passengers about his plan to fly around the control tower about 10 minutes prior to doing so. Siegmayer said that the atmosphere onboard the plane was one of amazement.

"When he did this maneuver, I think nobody was scared because everybody [knew] what happened," Siegmayer said, adding that as a passenger, "I also liked it."

"I think everybody looked out of the window and everybody was excited," he added. "It's not normal that you make such a maneuver at a landing. It feels great that I was on this flight, the last Air Berlin flight."

German's Federal Aviation Office also confirmed to ABC News that the airline had been asked for more information regarding the incident.

"A fly-around maneuver is a normal operating procedure, which must be mastered by the pilots and is applied as required. In this case, the Luftfahrt-Bundesamt [Germany's federal aviation office] asked Air Berlin to comment on the A330's fly-around maneuver in Dusseldorf, since it differs from the usual start-up maneuvers and therefore requires clarification. The result of the internal investigations done by Air Berlin remains to be seen," the agency said.



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donfiore/iStock/Thinkstock(MADRID) -- Catalonia's leader Carles Puigdemont has missed the deadline to offer a final answer on whether the region is declaring independence. Now, Spain is deciding whether it will enact a rule that would allow it to directly control the currently autonomous Catalonia.

Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister of Spain, gave Puigdemont until 10 a.m. local time Thursday to clarify whether Catalonia is moving forward with separating from Spain, after the region voted for independence in a referendum this month.

Puigdemont responded to the request with a letter to Mariano Rajoy, warning Madrid he would ask the Parliament to vote on the independence question if Spain chooses to act on article 155 of the 1978 constitution, which allows Spain to take administrative control of any of its 17 autonomous regions. The article has never been invoked in the history of post-dictatorship Spain.

"If the government keeps preventing dialogue and maintaining repression, the Parliament of Catalonia could go further, in due course, and formally vote the declaration of independence that was not voted on October 10th," Puigdemont wrote in the letter.

The Catalan leader is attempting to show the world he is prepared to talk with Spain before moving forward with separation, according to an expert in Catalan history at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs.

"Carles Puigdemont wants to show internationally how pacifist and open to dialogue Catalonia is," Marc Gafarot told ABC News. "Spain refused to meet him in person despite the ongoing conflict."

After Spain arrested independence activists Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart this week, many in Catalonia fear that Spain enacting article 155 will result in new repression and violence in the region.

Around 200,000 protesters took to the streets of Barcelona after the arrests, demanding that Madrid release its "political prisoners," as Puigdemont called them in a tweet last Tuesday.

A special extraordinary cabinet meeting hosted by Rajoy is scheduled for Saturday in Madrid to discuss what measures Spain will take.

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Photo by Gennadiy Gulyaev/Kommersant via Getty Images(MOSCOW) -- Ksenia Sobchak, a liberal TV journalist and the daughter of a political mentor to Russian president Vladimir Putin, has announced she will run against him in the country’s presidential elections next spring. The move has changed a race that was expected to be a perfunctory coronation of Putin and generated controversy among the opposition, some of whom have criticized her candidacy as another Kremlin ploy.

Sobchak is the daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, who, as a reformist mayor of Saint Petersburg, helped first bring Putin into politics in the early 1990s and played a key role in paving the ex-KGB spy’s path to the Kremlin. The two men were so close that Ksenia is rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter.

She announced her candidacy in a video posted on Youtube and with an open letter published in a leading business newspaper, Vedomosti.

"I am going into the elections not just as a candidate but as a megaphone for all those who cannot become a candidate. I invite all political forces ready to use my run as a platform to convey their complaints against the present situation and to the authorities," she wrote in Vedomosti.

Russia is due to hold its presidential elections in March. Although he has yet to formally announce his candidacy, Putin is expected to run and to win without difficulty. His list of potential opponents is a familiar cast of authorized opposition, three of whom have run (and lost) against him over the past nearly two decades.

Sobchak’s entry shakes up that scenario, without changing its likely outcome.

One of Russia’s best-known media personalities, she first made her name in reality television, cultivating the role of an on-camera socialite. She has sometimes been described as "Russia’s Paris Hilton," and she previously posed for Playboy and had her own MTV show. Then, half a decade ago, she abruptly remade herself into a leading liberal voice, becoming a top host at Russia’s only opposition TV station, TV Rain.

Sobchak said she was running because she believed her bid could help amplify the voices of Russians who are dissatisfied with Putin's leadership and what she called the country's massive official corruption.

"I think that my participation in the elections really can be a step on the path towards the transformations that are so much needed by our country,” she wrote in Vedomosti.

Sobchak’s run throws a curve ball into the election, but many believe it was thrown by the Kremlin. Her announcement was immediately criticised as a government ploy, intended to divide the anti-Putin opposition that recently had seemed to be gaining steam under another liberal figure, Aleksey Navalny.

Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption campaigner, has become Russia’s most influential opposition figure, building a grassroots campaign with thousands of young volunteers. Demonstrations in dozens of cities called by Navalny in March and June were the largest in years and have resulted in a backlash from authorities, who have sought to disrupt his rallies and have arrested his supporters.

Despite being barred from running for office by a fraud conviction, Navalny has been organizing what he calls a presidential campaign. He is demanding he be allowed to participate, arguing that the conviction was designed to keep him off the ballot.

Whether the Kremlin would allow Navalny to participate had emerged as the central conflict of the coming election, with his supporters expected to protest if his candidacy is blocked.

But Sobchak’s entry now is seen by some as having the potential to derail that contest. An op-ed written by a political commentator Kirill Rogov on the website of liberal radio station Echo Moskvy declared Sobchak “a spoiler,” adding "Not for Vladimir Putin, but for Aleksey Navalny."

Sergey Uldaltsov, a radical left-wing opposition leader, wrote on Twitter: “The Sobchak thing is too obvious. The Kremlin’s ears stick out for a kilometer.”

Those suspicions may have a basis in reality. Sobchak’s announcement was preceded by a series of leaks that the Kremlin was seeking a female candidate to run against Putin to add spice to a race that was in danger of looking overly controlled. In September, Vedomosti quoted sources in Putin’s presidential administration that the Kremlin considered Sobchak an "ideal candidate."

At the time, Sobchak criticised the reports, calling them an attempt to discredit her. Rumors, however, had continued to circulate that she was planning a campaign.

On Thursday, Andrey Movchan, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, wrote in Vedomosti that Sobchak’s announcement was “one of the most expected events of recent times.”

Sobchak’s entrance into politics began in the winter of 2011 and 2012 when mass protests broke out against Putin after parliamentary elections were found to have been widely rigged. She appeared before a crowd in Moscow on Christmas Eve, telling the crowd, “I am Ksenia Sobchak and I have something to lose, but I am here with you.” The crowd booed her, The Guardian reported.

Sobchak has known Putin since she was a child when he served under her father as a deputy mayor. When her father, beset with investigations into alleged corruption, apparently suffered a heart attack, Putin is credited with flying him to Europe for treatment. That act of loyalty was said to have been noticed at a time in the Kremlin and has been credited frequently as a reason for Putin’s eventual anointment as president.

Sobchak has said she had already privately told both Navalny and Putin about her intention to run before making her formal announcement. In an interview on TV Rain, she said believed Putin “had not liked” the idea. A Kremlin spokesman on Wednesday denied that.

Putin himself commented on a possible run by Sobchak at a press conference on Sept. 5, saying everyone, including Sobchak, "had the right to run."

"I regarded and regard her father with respect,” Putin said. “He played a big role in my fate."

But when it comes to a presidential run, "things of a personal nature can’t play any kind of role," Putin said. "It depends on the program she proposes, if she really will run, how she will organise her campaign.”

Many in the opposition are skeptical the Kremlin is displeased, however, arguing that Sobchak’s bid will de-fang Navalny’s run, allowing the Kremlin to block him while allowing it still to argue it has permitted a real contest.

"Sobchak cannot help but understand that they will register her for the elections only if she will play by the Kremlin’s rules,” Zoya Svetova, a well-known political analyst and critic of Putin, wrote in a blog post on the opposition website Open Russia. “Is she not ashamed to say that if they register Navalny, she will withdraw her candidacy, knowing full well that they won’t register Navalny?”

In her letter announcing her bid, Sobchak called for Navalny, who is currently serving a 20-day jail sentence for calling for unauthorized protests, to be allowed onto the ballot and suggested that she could still withdraw her candidacy if he is permitted to run.

Navalny has previously warned Sobchak against running, telling her when the reports emerged that the Kremlin was enthusiastic about a potential candidacy, not to play the “quite disgusting Kremlin game.”

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fotonio/iStock/Thinkstock(FLORENCE, Italy) -- A small part of the ceiling inside the famous Basilica of the Holy Cross in Florence, Italy, suddenly broke off Thursday, hitting and killing a tourist who was visiting the church with his wife, Italian media reported.

The stone piece, about 6 inches by 6 inches, fell nearly 60 feet after it broke off near the right nave of the church where it had been supporting a beam, according to reports. The man was 52 years old and was from Spain.

The Basilica of the Holy Cross, also known as the Basilica of Santa Croce, is the burial site of Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli and Galileo.

The church was immediately closed as police and firefighters fought to save the man’s life, but he died on the scene, according to local media. Italian reports said the tourist’s wife was near him at the time and witnessed the crash.

“Deeply sorry for the incident at the Basilica of the Holy Cross where a Spanish tourist was killed,” Florence’s mayor, Dario Nardella, tweeted. “Engineers from the ministry are already on site."

 

Profondo dispiacere per l’incidente nella Basilica di S.Croce dove ha perso la vita il turista spagnolo. Tecnici del ministero già sul posto

— Dario Nardella (@DarioNardella) October 19, 2017



Tourists continued to line up outside even as the church remained closed and an investigation was taking place, Italian media reported.

A tour guide who was in the church at the time told Italian media that the piece fell near the third chapel on the right side of the transept. He said he did not see the stone hit the man but did see it fall and heard the man’s wife cry out.

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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Confusion over what happened during an ambush of U.S. Special Forces in Niger earlier this month apparently sparked a full Pentagon probe of the incident announced Thursday, which some officials say could have had even worse casualties than four American soldiers killed from the small, "out-matched" team.

Officials have described a harrowing burst of violence in or near a village close to Niger's border with Mali on Oct. 4, which led to the first U.S. combat deaths in the small African nation battling Islamist extremists.

The gunfight may have split the team of a dozen or fewer American commandos in half, according to one counterterrorism official. It was so chaotic that one soldier remained missing for up to 36 hours before his remains were recovered.

"They met an overwhelming force,” the counterterrorism official who was familiar with the mission and its aftermath, told ABC News. “They were out-gunned and out-matched. The enemy had relative superiority in numbers and fully enveloped and out-flanked the team. I think they got cut in half with suppressive fire.”

Four U.S. special operations soldiers were killed in action, along with 1 Nigerien soldier killed and two Americans wounded.

Another U.S. official said that the Defense Intelligence Agency has assessed it "highly likely" that the group of 50 or more attackers behind the ambush in Niger were from ISIS in the Greater Sahara, referred to as ISGS. But the counterterrorism official said the attackers may have included current or former members of al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist extremist group Ansar Dine from neighboring Mali.

Reports that day quickly came back to Fort Bragg, N.C., where the U.S. team of "Bush Hogs" from 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group is based, that one soldier was missing and unaccounted for. "Accountability," meaning ascertaining the whereabouts of all soldiers in a team when when they are in contact with an adversary, is a critical matter. The Army's Warrior Ethos includes the pledge to "never leave a fallen comrade."

But multiple sources said Sgt. La David Johnson, a support trooper in 3rd Special Forces Group, was missing for as long as 36 hours before his remains were found. Once he was recovered, it did not appear that he had been captured by the insurgents but it is believed he died in the initial fighting, several officials said.

It is very rare for a Green Beret team to make a "tactical withdrawal" under fire without having full accountability of its teammates -- but the gunfight in Niger was extraordinary.

"They had critical casualties. They had zero air support on station," the counterterrorism official said. "If they had stayed, everyone would have died."

Since Niger is a low-intensity conflict, there are not many U.S. bases nearby with medevac helicopters and combat air support. French forces in the region often partner with the American forces and provide air support.

Leaving a man behind under fire may have been their only choice given three Americans were known to have been killed, as well as one Nigerien soldier, and several other soldiers wounded, said an experienced Special Forces commander.

"In reality, when you're in a firefight, you may not have the luxury of having immediate accountability. When you get ambushed, your forces are trying to get out of the kill zone alive. Three guys may go left and one guy goes right, and the guy who goes right gets killed," said retired Green Beret, Lt. Col. James Gavrilis. "If you're on the losing end of an ambush, it's not realistic to expect those guys to have full accountability of every man on the team right away."

It remains unexplained by the Pentagon what the team's specific approved mission was that day beyond "train, advise and assist" Nigerien partner forces, or even how many were Americans were in the team on the mission that day. Some missions such as tribal engagement may require lighter combat loads while night raids and long vehicle patrols may necessitate bringing heavier weapons and much more ammunition piled in their vehicles.

"'Train and assist' is not a classroom exercise. It's typically out in the field, learning tactics and improving capabilities of indigenous forces like the Nigeriens," said Matthew Olsen, former National Counterterrorism Center director and an ABC News contributor. "Just because it's called 'train and assist' doesn't mean that it's not dangerous."

"It’s Special Forces doing what they're supposed to do -- working alone and unafraid," said the counterterrorism official.

Officials have said between eight and a dozen American troops were involved, a mix of operators and support troopers. Two of those killed were operators who wore the coveted Green Beret and the other two were support soldiers in the unit.

The counterterrorism official said the U.S. team's downfall may have been a combination of not having enough, or not accurate enough, "ISR" -- intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance scans -- of the patrol area before commencing the mission; that it was a team of special operations soldiers with few prior combat deployments among them; the possibility of a compromised mission plan leaked by Nigerien troops to the enemy; or just simply very bad luck, officials said.

"They were set up for failure," said one 3rd Group veteran, who monitored the incident and its aftermath.

The overarching mission in Africa of 3rd Special Forces Group, known as "The Tribe," is "foreign internal defense" and counterterrorism operations in a low-intensity conflict around the Sahel region in which partnering with indigenous forces in remote areas is intended to build relationships in order to defeat violent extremists in at-risk countries such as Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Nigeria.

In one version of events provided by a U.S. official, the Green Beret-led team had driven to a village near the border with Mali and were walking to or from the meeting when they were ambushed by about 50 fighters from an ISIS group. But two different officials said that it appears only some of the American soldiers went into the village to meet with elders and that's when they were attacked, meaning the Americans were separated at the outset of the gunfight.

There was a Nigerien platoon in the general vicinity but they were not part of the mission to the village and they did not participate in the firefight that followed the ambush, one official said.

Once Sgt. Johnson went missing, U.S. Joint Special Operations Command moved vast resources immediately to the area including intelligence assets and "tier one" operators, the most elite commandos, to assist in finding the missing soldier, who many feared at the time could have been taken prisoner. But by late morning (EST) on Oct. 5, the Sgt. Johnson had been found deceased.

Officials have said that the missing remains were found by Nigerien troops in the vicinity of the firefight. It was apparently a fluid battle scene that extended over a large area and wasn’t localized in one area, which may be why he wasn't immediately located.

"There are inevitably going to be questions about this mission and whether or not it was handled appropriately,” Olsen said. “The reality is that it's important for us to have elements like this 'train and assist' mission in these countries to help stem the flow of foreign fighters.”

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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- U.S. Africa Command has launched a formal investigation into the circumstances surrounding an ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers and wounded two others.

The investigation comes as the Pentagon said Thursday that the fourth soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson, was "separated" from his fellow soldiers but never left behind.

"We don't leave anyone behind.... He was separated," chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said of Johnson, whose body wasn't recovered until more than 24 hours after the Oct. 4 firefight.

Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters during a Pentagon briefing that U.S., French and Nigerien forces never left the battlespace until Johnson's body was found by local Nigerien soldiers.

Until today, U.S. Africa Command had been conducting an informal review to gather facts about the ambush, but two weeks later, the details of the deadly incident remain unclear.

Since the attack, U.S. Africa Command has been gathering facts about the ambush and the circumstances that led to it, but now a general officer will lead the new investigation.

In addition to gathering details about the incident, the larger investigation could make recommendations about how to prevent similar attacks from occurring in the future.

Many questions remain about the deadly ambush.

Were the American and Nigerien soldiers too exposed to a potential attack? Why did it take so long to locate the American soldier who was missing following the attack? Why was there was no overhead surveillance above the unit's visit to a remote village along the border with Mali?

Meeting with the Israeli defense minister at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was asked if the Niger ambush was a U.S. intelligence failure and what more could have been done to save lives. He went on to speak about the deadly incident for more than five minutes.

“One comment, having seen news reports, the U.S. military does not leave its troops behind and I’d just ask not question the action of the troops that were put in the firefight and question," Mattis said. "Don't question if they did everything they could in order to bring everyone else out at once and don’t confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it immediately in a situation like this."

Mattis did clarify that French armed fighter aircraft, armed helicopter gunships and a medevac helicopter responded to the scene, evacuating the wounded Americans. A U.S.-contracted aircraft evacuated the dead, he said.

There are 800 American military personnel in Niger, most in support of a drone surveillance mission for West Africa that operates from Niger's capital of Niamey. The mission is designed to help West African countries counter various Islamic extremist groups that operate in the region.

The bulk of the American forces are involved in the construction of a second drone base in Niger's northern desert region.

A smaller part of the U.S. military mission in Niger involves U.S. Army Special Forces "Green Berets," who advise and assist Niger's ground forces in combating the extremist groups.

The American and Nigerien troops that were ambushed two weeks ago were on a joint mission to meet with leaders in a village located on Niger's border with Mali.

U.S. officials have provided varying accounts of what happened on Oct. 4 and said there is still a lot of confusion about the incident.

An initial narrative described a team of about 12 soldiers from a Green Beret unit accompanying 40 Nigerien soldiers to meet with locals at a village close to Niger’s border with Mali. They were ambushed by 50 fighters believed to be from ISIS in the Greater Sahara.

A more recent narrative indicates it was a small team of eight to 12 American and Nigerien forces who came under attack during the mission to the village. The Nigerien platoon was nearby but was not a part of the mission to the village nor was it involved in the firefight. Pentagon officials have said Army Special Forces have carried out 29 previous missions like this one over the past six months without encountering any problems.

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gorodenkoff/iStock/Thinkstock(ST. PETERSBURG, Russia) -- From their desks in St. Petersburg, Russian Internet trolls at a company with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to co-opt American civil rights activists and use them to stoke racial tensions and stir political unrest, authorities said.

Congressional investigators tell ABC News that two online groups — BlackMattersUS and BlackFist — were among those used by Russian operators to reach out directly to unwitting individual Americans engaged in political activism and, in this case, encourage them to help organize rallies, train in self-defense and create music videos. In some cases, those activists even received financial support.

This effort, according to authorities, was the brainchild of the Internet Research Agency, the same St. Petersburg-based company identified by members of Congress as a key arm of the larger Russian operation aimed at influencing U.S. elections. That effort, as first reported by the the Russian publication RBC, now appears to be much broader than previously known, moving beyond the virtual world.

The Facebook and Twitter accounts associated with both groups have since been suspended, and ABC News could not reach any of the people identified online as being members of either group. Executives from both social media giants are expected to appear before Congress early next month to discuss steps they are taking to confront Russian efforts to infiltrate their platform, the scope of which is still not fully understood.

“The strategy appears to be a mix of suppressing votes, stoking fear and doing all they can to help their preferred candidate in Donald Trump and tear down Hillary Clinton,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee who has seen Russian social media posts turned over to Congress by Facebook and Twitter.

By piggybacking on the themes of the Black Lives Matter movement, Russian agitators succeeded in convincing people interested in those same social justice causes that this stealthy foreign-backed effort was legitimate.

Ronnie Houston, a hip-hop artist in Ferguson, Missouri, who goes by the name Rough the Ruler, told ABC News that someone claiming to be from BlackMattersUS contacted him on the Facebook-owned photo-sharing platform Instagram in March of 2016 and asked him to record a song for them “about the social issues that were going on.” He produced a short music video featuring video clips from marches, graphics touting the BlackMattersUS website, and lyrics describing police as “assassins” and protesters as “avengers.”

If he had known the group was not rooted in the Black Lives Matter movement, he said, he would not have agreed to record the song.

“No man I wouldn't have done it,” he said. “Wouldn't have done it at all.”

Conrad James, an activist in Raleigh, North Carolina, says he was approached in September 2016 by a woman who claimed to represent BlackMattersUS and asked him to speak at a rally they were hosting in Charlotte. James said more than 600 people turned up.

“They definitely were trying to stir-up trouble,” James said of BlackMattersUS. “Their intent was obviously to have some type of emotionally filled rally where people are adding fuel to the fire that was already happening around Charlotte.”

Nolan Hack, an activist from Los Angeles, said BlackMattersUS asked for his help organizing civil rights rallies last year and he was reimbursed for some of his travel expenses.

He said the notion of a Russia connection “never entered my mind.”

A pair of bloggers whose social media posts and YouTube videos were pushed out from the St. Petersburg troll farm carried the most pointed political messages.

“We, the black people, we stand in one unity” said one post, by a pair of bloggers purporting to be from Atlanta named Williams and Kalvin. “We stand in one to say that Hillary Clinton is not our candidate.”

Federal officials and Facebook executives confirmed to ABC News that the William and Kalvin videos, first reported on by The Daily Beast, originated not in Atlanta, but in Russia. The men in the video appear to speak with a British accent and some investigators believe they may actually be somewhere in Africa, not Atlanta.

This effort doesn’t appear to have stopped after the election. At least six American trainers paid this year by a group called BlackFist to offer free self-defense classes around the country, urging people to ““be ready to protect your rights” and to “let them know that Black Power Matters.”

Omewale Adewale, a fitness trainer in Brooklyn, New York, says he was paid $320 via TK to conduct four classes in a month.

“It’s very sneaky,” Adewale told ABC News. “It’s very underhanded.”

Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook, says this effort is evidence of the Russian strategy “to anger both sides of the equation.”

“Classic Russian intelligence techniques of taking the most extreme voices and amplifying them,” he said. “It was the perfect petri dish for this kind of campaign.”

Swalwell said he wants Congress to find a way to address this type of interference without infringing on peoples’ rights.

“Russia was able to use our greatest strength, freedom of speech, and turn it into a weakness,” Swalwell said. “I think we have to find what is that fine line between making sure my mom can post any political opinion that she wants but an organized intelligence service of a foreign country isn't able to weaponize social media.”

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dikobraziy/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Defense Intelligence Agency assesses it is "highly likely" that the group behind the ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. service members was ISIS in the Greater Sahara, a U.S. official confirmed to ABC News.

Other terror groups operate in that region, but none have claimed the Oct. 4 attack, the official said.

Why US troops are in Niger

The recent death of four U.S. troops in Niger has highlighted the American military presence in West Africa.

U.S. Army Green Berets are in Niger as part of a counterterrorism mission to train that country's military to help fight Islamic extremist groups, including ISIS in the Greater Sahara, in neighboring countries like Mali.

What is ISIS in the Greater Sahara?

ISIS in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) was established in 2015 after the group's current leader, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, broke from an al-Qaeda group and pledged allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

According to the Pentagon, ISIS leaders in Syria have acknowledged al-Sahrawi's allegiance through their Amaq news agency, but ISGS "has not been formally recognized as an official branch of ISIS."

The group's first confirmed terror attack occurred in September of last year when fighters targeted a customs post in Burkina Faso.

Since then, the group has continued to carry out attacks against regional security forces in Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as in Mali, where ISGS targets pro-government militias that support the French and United Nations forces in that area.

The Pentagon said ISGS typically uses "small arms and mortars to conduct ambushes and complex attacks."

What other terrorist groups operate in the area?

Since 2015, the al-Qaeda-aligned Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) has conducted attacks killing Westerners at hotels in Bamako, Mali, Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, and Grand Bassam, Cote d'Ivoire.

The Pentagon said there is a high risk of kidnapping in the region due to the operation of extremists groups like ISGS and JNIM.

In October 2016, JNIM abducted an American aid worker from his home in Abalak, Niger. He is one of six hostages believed to be currently held by JNIM.

The others are from Australia, Romania, Switzerland, Colombia, and France. All were abducted in Burkina Faso, Niger or Mali.

"JNIM recently released two Western hostages held for over five years, and received multi-million dollar ransoms for each," the Pentagon said.

Another terror group in the region is Boko Haram, a pledged ISIS affiliate, which operates in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

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PeterHermesFurian/iStock/Thinkstock(SANA'A, Yemen) -- A new school year is underway for children in the U.S., but for children in Yemen, where air strikes have been routine since March 2015, a new school year means trying to find a school.

The fighting between the Saudi-led military coalition and the Houthi rebels has left many colleges and schools damaged or destroyed, with others closed out of fear.

According to Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and Africa, 1,600 schools have been damaged or destroyed, and 170 are being used for military purposes or as a shelter for displaced families.

“For those children who can attend school, malnutrition and the trauma of displacement and violence have seriously affected their ability to learn,” Cappelaere said.

Officials fear that without schools, which can provide a safe haven for the vulnerable, children could be susceptible to recruitment for fighting or early marriage.

Yemen plunged into civil war when the Houthis seized the capital Sana'a in September 2014, forcing Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee and leading a Saudi Arabia-led coalition to launch a military campaign on his behalf.

Yemen's instability has created fertile ground for militant groups, such as al Qaeda and ISIS, who have launched attacks on both sides of the crisis.

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ABC News (NEW YORK) -- Verlyn Peter picked her way through the wreckage of her home, searching for anything she and her family could save.

“This used to be what we call our living room,” she said, then gestured to another area she said used to be her daughter's bedroom.

“It’s all gone,” Peter said. “We tried to salvage some of the school books.”

The wooden frame and scattered belongings were all that remained of their home of 20 years on Dominica, which was ravaged by Hurricane Maria last month. Without warning, the storm rapidly accelerated from a Category 3 to a Category 5, and residents said they could do little to prepare.

In one night, life on this tiny island was turned upside down.

"There was lightning, there was heavy rain...[it was like] the hurricane was in the house," said Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit. “We have lost everything that money can buy, and that is a fact.”

Another now displaced resident named Emmanuel Peter said he can still remember the roar of the hurricane-force winds.

"It was just whistling, whistling,” he said. “I thought it would burst my eardrums.”

Many countries, including the United States, have suffered from this year’s brutal hurricane season. But the one with the highest death toll per capita was Dominica -- a close-knit, mostly Christian nation that was left at the mercy of a hurricane that shared a name with the mother of Christ: Maria.

To date, 26 people are confirmed dead, 31 are still missing, and more than 50,000 people are displaced on an this island that has a total population of roughly 74,000.

When ABC's "Nightline" visited Dominica six days after the storm, the only way to reach its interior was with the U.S. military. Upon arrival, many who had the option to evacuate the island were in the process of departing -- including 1,300 students at Ross University Medical School, an American college based in Dominica.

“I do feel sadness for the people of Dominica,” said Carey James, the college’s associate dean of operations, analysis and admissions. “My wife’s family is from Dominica … and it’s hard to see a place that you love go through that kind of a storm.”

Others who were evacuating from the island faced the difficult decision of separating their family. Gervan Honore put his girlfriend and their infant son on a ferry while he stayed back, determined, he said, to rebuild his country.

“It is hard to let him go, but as a father, you just have to do what you have to do,” Honore said. “Right now, I don’t think it is pretty safe for them.”

No one on the island has access to running, drinkable water, and with sewage systems destroyed, residents are contending with fears of diarrhea and dysentery. Much of the island remains without power, too.

For the vast majority of Dominicans, the choice to leave their home country isn’t available. More than 85 percent of houses have been damaged, and of those, more than a quarter simply do not exist anymore, leaving many homeless.

Not even the country’s prime minister was spared – the roof of Roosevelt Skerrit’s house was blown away and its floors flooded. On the night Hurricane Maria hit, Skerrit took to Facebook to post updates including one that said, “I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding” and another that said, "The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God!" Later he posted, “I have been rescued.”

“You can still see the shock, the anxiety, the fear the trauma in the eyes and the expressions of people every day,” he told "Nightline." “Their entire life investments, life's savings, blown away.”

While on the island, "Nightline" also met with resident Robert Benjamin, who stayed behind with his 83-year-old mother. Benjamin showed “Nightline” their family home, which remained standing with the roof intact, but their basement had been flooded and their furniture and belongings caked in a thick layer of mud. The flood waters rose so high that they covered the counter tops in a basement kitchen.

“But we have our life and we can at least house people down here once it’s cleared,” he said. “Like I said, there’s a lot of homeless.”

A few of the rooms in the house are still habitable, and Benjamin and his mother opened their home to three other families forced out by the storm.

“They are very, very good to us,” said Ursula Peter, one of people the Benjamin family took in. “If it wasn’t for Mrs. Benjamin and her son, we would not know what would have happened to us. We all live together as one family.”

All of the island’s agriculture was wiped out, and entire forests were flattened in Maria’s wake. Tourism, a driving force in its economy, will be scarce in the months to come.

As one ferocious storm followed another this hurricane season, Skerrit told “Nightline” that his country was on the front line of climate change and that its very survival was in question. Its future could serve as a warning to the world on the destruction global warming could bring.

“To deny climate change … is to deny a truth we have just lived,” he told the United Nations five days after the storm, telling the world body that island nations like Dominica are paying the heaviest price for a phenomenon they had little to do with.

“No generation has seen more than one Category 5 hurricane. We’ve seen two in two weeks,” Skerrit told Pannell. “So if you want to have information that … climate change is a real phenomenon,

For those still on the island, trying to reclaim their lives is now the task at hand.

“How we’re going to build up again, we don’t know,” Verlyn Peter said. “But we try to keep our spirits high, because if we break down, we break down.”

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iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The back and forth about President Donald Trump's condolence calls to the families of four fallen American soldiers in Niger has raised questions about the U.S. military presence in the West African country.

Here are some answers to questions you might have about the U.S. military presence in Niger, West Africa, and the circumstances about the incident that killed the four US soldiers and wounded two others.

Wondering why there are Army Green Berets in Niger? They are there as part of a counter terrorism mission to train Niger’s military to help fight Islamic extremists in neighboring countries, namely Mali.

When did US forces arrive in Niger?
In early 2013 to help the French military that had intervened in neighboring Mali the year before. The French had moved into Mali after an Al Qaeda affiliated group and tribal groups took over the vast northern part of the country and were moving towards the capital of Mali. As part of the U.S. effort to assist that mission President Barack Obama ordered 150 U.S. military personnel to set up a surveillance drone operation over Mali that would fly from Niger's capital of Niamey.

How many US troops are there in Niger? About 800, but the vast majority of them are construction crews working to build up a second drone base in Niger’s northern desert. The rest run a surveillance drone mission from Niger’s capital of Niamey that helps out the French in Mali and other regional countries in the fight against Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and now ISIS. A smaller component, less than a hundred, are Army Green Beret units advising and assisting Niger’s military to build up their fighting capability to counter Al Qaeda and ISIS. There are an additional 300 U.S. military personnel in neighboring Burkina Faso and Cameroon doing the same thing. They are there as part of what’s known as the mission in the Lake Chad Basin.

What does that Green Beret mission mean? Green Berets are elite Army soldiers who are highly skilled and trained to operate on their own with few resources in remote areas. One of their primary missions is to train foreign militaries in fighting skills, that’s a worldwide mission. Iraq and Afghanistan have been the exception where large-scale training of the local militaries has been carried out by regular US Army and Marine troops.

What was their mission/patrol when attacked two weeks ago? There is still a lot of confusion about what happened on October 4. One narrative describes a team of about 12 soldiers from a Green Beret unit accompanying 40 Nigerien soldiers to meet with locals at a village close to Niger’s border with Mali. They had driven to a local village and were walking to or from the meeting when they were ambushed by about 50 fighters from ISIS in the Greater Sahara. Another version of events indicates a team of eight to 12 American and Nigerien forces conducted the meeting in the village and were the ones that came under attack. The Nigerien platoon was nearby but not a direct part of the mission to the village nor was it involved in the firefight. Pentagon officials have said Army Special Forces have carried out 29 previous missions like this one over the past six months without encountering any problems.

Why were there so few Green Berets on patrol with Niger soldiers when they came under attack? Green Berets typically operate in 12 man teams known as ODA’s (Operational Detachment Alpha). Not all of the soldiers on this patrol were actual Green Berets, they were a mix of Green Berets and support staff attached to the Green Beret unit.

Why was a soldier missing for more than a day following the firefight? The ambush occurred in a remote area along Niger’s border with Mali. Nigerien troops had the lead on the ground and a day later found the remains of Sergeant La David Johnson, 25, in the vicinity of the firefight. Sergeant Johnson had gone missing in the immediate aftermath of the firefight. A large scale effort was conducted by U.S., French and Nigerien forces to find him. The firefight was apparently a fluid battle scene that extended over a large area and wasn’t localized in one area. That is why the remains were found at the scene of the battle but possibly not at the site where the ambush initially happened.

Why didn’t the Green Berets have overhead drone surveillance for their patrol?
A question that’s been asked is why there the mission did not have a drone overhead to provide reconnaissance. A U.S. Africa Command spokesman said last week that the ambush was not expected and if it had been anticipated “more resources would have been dedicated to it to reduce risk.” French military aircraft arrived a half hour after the ambush ambush began and provided combat air support though it did not drop bombs or missiles.

What about the Golden Hour to evacuate combat wounded to medical treatment? The different branches of the U.S. military operate all over the world either in joint training missions, unilateral combat operations or military exchanges. The Pentagon takes the Golden Hour seriously and strive to meet what is essentially a a goal, but not a requirement. Given there are U.S.troops worldwide, American helicopters and planes can’t be everywhere. On this patrol, French military helicopters responded shortly after the attack and a U.S. reconnaissance drone was overhead a half hour after the attack. It’s likely that French helicopters medevac’d the wounded to Niamey and a U.S. military aircraft that flew the wounded to a military medical facility in Germany.

When did the remains of the U.S. soldiers return to the US following the attack on October 4? The remains of Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29, were returned to the U.S. on the night of Oct. 5. Sergeants La David Johnson's remains, located two days after the attack, returned to the U.S. in the early morning hours of Oct.7.

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iStock/Thinkstock(BAGHDAD) -- In ongoing standoff following a referendum for an independent state separate from Iraq, Kurds in northwestern Iraq have suffered significant losses, including areas that supply much of the region's revenue.

Iraqi Kurds lost another major territory on Tuesday to Baghdad, surrendering the town of Sinjar -- one day after losing the oil-rich Kirkuk.

Kurdish troops, known as the Peshmerga, abandoned the town to the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iran-backed and predominantly Shia militia coalition that operates as part of the Iraqi security apparatus.

Iraqi forces have continued their advance on Peshmerga positions in disputed territories, exactly one year after the now-warring sides jointly launched the battle to retake Mosul from ISIS, backed by the United States.

The current confrontation between Iraqis and Kurds was spurred on by an independence referendum that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held in defiance of the government in Baghdad and against the advice of the international community.

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and his ruling KDP party were determined to begin movement toward the long hoped-for Kurdish independence.

Instead, “KDP hubris has generated the greatest Kurdish setback since 2003” according to Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, Colonel Dillon, told reporters on Tuesday that the current standoff is “distracting” from the war against ISIS.

But the losses for the Kurds, who have been reliable U.S. partners in the fight against ISIS, in these days of conflict have been substantial. Losing Kirkuk, which is responsible for 13 percent of Iraq’s oil production, is existential for Kurds; the KRG has barely any revenue without it.

Late Iraqi President and leading Kurdish politician Jalal Tabalani once referred to Kirkuk as their "Jerusalem." Yet military forces loyal to Tabalani's son and heir cut a deal with Baghdad and withdrew from their positions in the disputed city and nearby oilfields and airbase, facilitating an almost bloodless Iraqi takeover.

The United States has made brief statements calling for restraint, after it downplayed Kurdish warnings last week of an imminent attack by Iraqi forces. At a press conference on Monday, President Trump said, "The United States won’t take sides."

“Essentially, the United States has decided that supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi and safeguarding him against more pro-Iran competitors in the upcoming Iraqi election is more important than the Kurds right now,” according to Dr. Renad Mansour, an Iraq research fellow at The Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, an independent think tank also known as Chatham House.

The General Command of Peshmerga Forces accused a special force unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of being part of the military operation in Kirkuk. President Trump had announced on October 13 that the United States was imposing new sanctions on the IRGC.

Forces loyal to Barzani surrendered Sinjar Tuesday, a town in north-western Iraq the Peshmerga took control of in 2014 after ISIS attacked and sexually enslaved its population, a minority known as the Yazidis. At the time, Barzani vowed never to leave.

They also retreated from the Bai Hasan and Avana oilfields north-west of Kirkuk, two crucial revenue sources for the KRG.

Two days after the Kurdish independence referendum was held, one of the demands made by the Iraqi Parliament to avoid a military escalation was that those oilfields and disputed territories be surrendered. At the time, Barzani's only public compromise was to call for dialogue.

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