Pentagon: Systemic problems led to deadly Niger ambush
(Read the transcript of the Pentagon press briefing at the end of this story)
WASHINGTON — No single failure was to blame for a botched Special Forces mission in Niger that led to the deaths of four U.S. troops at the hands of Islamic State-aligned militants, according to a Pentagon investigation.
“Systemic issues” ultimately contributed to the deaths on Oct. 4 of Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright – both Green Berets – and Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Sgt. La David Johnson when their team was ambushed by a much larger and better-gunned enemy force just outside the village of Tongo Tongo in southwestern Niger, according to an eight-page summary of the investigation into the attack officially released Thursday at the Pentagon. Their deaths sparked questions and debate about the U.S. military’s missions in Africa, where troop numbers have quietly grown in recent years.
Though the summary of the report does not explicitly place blame on any single soldier or recommend specific punishments, it does call on Pentagon officials to consider disciplinary measures. It also calls for a review of Special Forces’ training and operations policies for working with foreign partners.
Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, the U.S. Africa Command chief of staff who led the investigation, said Thursday that “three cases” were referred to U.S. Special Operations Command for action, potentially including punishment. He did not provide specifics details about the cases.
The team – only on its third mission since arriving in Niger a month earlier – was sloppy in its preparations for its mission, Cloutier said. He determined they were not prepared to face a well-trained force of ISIS fighters that outnumbered them three-to-one.
The full report, which includes some 6,300 pages of evidence collected over six months, is not expected to be released for several more months as officials determine what elements of it can be distributed publicly, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The investigation found the members of the Special Forces team – in Niger to train and assist that nation’s forces to fight terrorism – had spent insufficient time training together before deployment, did not properly train with their Nigerien partners, misled higher-ups about the intention of their initial mission, were twice re-tasked to other missions and failed to report they needed aid to push back the enemy until nearly an hour after the ambush started.
The report summary reveals the team of soldiers – including the men who died – fought bravely alongside their Nigerien counterparts, fending off the attack, which lasted nearly six hours, and recommends officials consider recognition for valorous acts during the engagement. Two additional Americans were wounded in the encounter and four Nigerien troops died.
“I cannot overstate the courage with which our forces fought on the fourth of October,” Cloutier said. Adding later, “There will be awards for valorous actions.”
The general also determined each of the four Americans killed in action died shortly after receiving wounds from small arms fire and none were ever captured alive by enemy fighters, including Sgt. La David Johnson, whose body was not discovered for nearly two days following the skirmish after he and two Nigerien soldiers were separated from the team and killed nearly a half mile from the location where they were ambushed.
However, ISIS forces stripped all four dead American soldiers of their gear, and appear to have attempted to take at least two of their bodies from the battlefield before they fled the area, Cloutier told reporters.
Cloutier’s investigation included examinations of photographs and video of the ambush, visits to the battlefield and interviews with 143 witnesses, including attack survivors who returned to the site with investigators.
On Oct. 3, the American team from Fort Bragg, N.C.’s 3rd Special Forces Group, which would eventually be ambushed, set out on an operation targeting a senior member of ISIS’s affiliate in Niger known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. AFRICOM officials were not aware the team intended to find the ISIS leader, a mission that should have included a rehearsal of the operation, further planning and high-level approval, according to the investigation.
Instead, the team commander and his commanding officer, an unnamed captain, “inaccurately characterized the nature of the mission” as a patrol to meet with a key leader in a village, according to the report summary.
Cloutier told reporters that he concluded the team leadership did not intentionally lie to their superiors to go out on the high-value target mission, instead he blamed a lack of attention to detail. The team had never conducted such a mission, he added.
The American-Nigerien team did not locate the ISIS leader, but they were re-tasked twice to support an intelligence-gathering mission, which they completed, before stopping in Tongo Tongo on their way back to their base to resupply the Nigerien troops and participate in an impromptu meeting with a village elder.
The team was hit by small arms fire just before midnight, within minutes of leaving the village, according to investigators. The ambush started as a small engagement before the team was eventually overrun by a larger enemy force, they said.
Investigators could not determine whether Tongo Tongo villagers were involved in the attack, the report summary concluded.
Black and Wright, the Green Berets, and Jeremiah Johnson, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist attached to the unit, were fatally wounded about an hour into the fight as they attempted to provide cover fire while other members of the team moved south to avoid being flanked, according to the report and a timeline of the engagement constructed by investigators.
La David Johnson, a mechanic and driver attached to the special operations team, was among the troops who moved south. From the rear of a vehicle, he engaged enemy fighters with M240 machine gun fire until running out of ammunition. He then switched to an M2010 sniper rifle. La David Johnson was last seen by American forces about 12:30 p.m., attempting to move into the vehicle’s driver seat, according to the report summary.
Evidence gathered by investigators at the scene, indicates La David Johnson and two Nigerien soldiers eventually fled on foot under fire and were pursued by enemy fighters. Some 450 yards from the vehicle, the two Nigerien troops were killed. Johnson made it nearly 500 yards further, taking cover behind a single “thorny tree” before he was killed, according to the Pentagon’s timeline.
“He made his last stand, and he fought to the end,” Cloutier said.
Headquarters first received word their troops needed help 53 minutes into the fight. About 47 minutes later, two French Mirage fighter jets conducted four shows of force, flying at tree level to intimidate the ISIS fighters, eventually convincing the enemy to retreat, the report stated. The fighter jets did not release ammunition, because they were not certain where American forces were on the battlefield and could not contact them, according to the report.
The attacks in Niger have resulted in added scrutiny on the U.S. mission in the country, where troop deployments have surged during the past year. There are some 800 servicemembers deployed to the country, several hundred more than in years past. A $100 million drone base in the central Niger city of Agadez also is nearly complete and will host drones capable of reaching into neighboring Mali and Libya.
Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the chief of U.S. Africa Command, on Thursday told reporters that he was responsible for the problems revealed by the ambush in October.
The general said he had made adjustments to how special operators work on the continent since the deadly engagement, including add armored vehicles to some units, increasing the amount of firepower forces carry with them, increasing the use of drones to conduct surveillance and bettering response time for aid troops who are attacked.
“We have beefed up a lot posture-wise,” Waldhauser said.
Still, the deaths of the four Americans in a remote part of the Sahara Desert took many lawmakers in Washington by surprise, with some lawmakers expressing shock at the size of the U.S. mission in the country.
After Congress was briefed on the report, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., this week called for people to be held accountable for the widespread failures of the mission and operations that he said the Pentagon does not have authority to conduct.
"I believe that the troops who were sadly killed in Niger in October of 2017 were engaged in a mission that they were not authorized by law to participate in and that they were not trained to participate in. And that is a significant reason that they tragically lost their lives," Kaine told CNN on Wednesday.
In the wake of the October ambush, U.S. troops have continued to conduct joint patrols with Nigerien forces, but those missions are now subjected to deeper analysis by commanders before patrols are given approval to commence, according to the commander of special operations units in Africa.
“The threat has been increasing since last fall and Tongo Tongo was simply an indicator of that, and we have adjusted our activities accordingly,” Special Operations Command Africa commander Major Gen. Marcus Hicks said during a visit to Niger in April. “We mitigate risk as we always do.”
Commanders also have shifted the focus of the Niger mission with training efforts now dealing more with developing command and control capabilities of local militaries so they can operate more independently.
Military leaders have acknowledged the militants in and around Niger don’t pose a direct threat to the United States now. But American forces are needed to prevent fragile states such as Niger from becoming future hubs for terrorists, according to Col. Brad Moses, who commanded the 3rd Special Operations Group at the time of the ambush.
“If there isn’t something done to assist the countries across the Sahel region, it is going to become a very real threat,” Moses told Stars and Stripes in April in Niger. “Twenty years from now they will be an existential threat if we don’t assist our partner forces now.”
Still, Moses’ unit has been faulted for a culture of excessive risk-taking as well as poor training and complacency, which the report cited as factors in the deaths of the U.S. soldiers.
The findings in the report include recommendations from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on steps needed to improve training and chain-of-command protocols. The report did not provide specifics on the secretary’s recommendations.
“Secretary Mattis concluded there are institutional and organizational issues, not isolated to this event, that must be addressed immediately by the Department of Defense,” said Dana White, the top Pentagon spokeswoman. “… This report documents critical lessons learned for the continuing fight against violent extremist organizations around the world. As painful as the loss of our soldiers is, it is our duty to honor their sacrifice and learn from this operation in our constant effort to improve our training, tactics, techniques, procedures and operations.”