Report: Culture of risk-taking, complacency were factors in Niger ambush deaths

From left, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash.; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; Sgt. La David Johnson of Miami Gardens, Fla.; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga. All four were killed in Niger, when a joint patrol of American and Niger forces was ambushed on Oct. 4, 2017, by militants believed linked to the Islamic State group.


By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 26, 2018

STUTTGART, Germany — A culture of excessive risk-taking, poor training and complacency were factors in the deaths of four U.S. soldiers killed in an October ambush in the West African country of Niger, a Pentagon investigation has determined.

The findings in the 6,000-page report, which were described to the Wall Street Journal by military officials, include recommendations from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on steps needed to improve training and chain-of-command protocols.

The ambush in the Nigerien village of Tongo Tongo, near that country’s border with Mali, has roiled the special operations community and cast a spotlight on high-risk military operations that have occurred far from the public eye.

The Wall Street Journal reported that there were mission command failures at multiple levels. For example, one instance highlighted in the report said an officer copied and pasted orders for a separate mission into the concept of operations for the October mission to gain approval for the patrol that ended in the deaths of the four soldiers.

The report reveals that low-level commanders, eager to make their mark against local militants in Niger, “took liberties to get operations approved through the chain of command,” the Journal reported.

The report did not single out any military personnel for punishment. However, the Army or U.S. Special Operations Command could seek to impose punitive measures if deemed necessary.

The Journal reported that Mattis provided the Special Operations Command and AFRICOM with 10 “primary directives” to address problems that led to the ambush, giving the commands four months to put better guidelines in place.

Killed in the ambush were: Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson and Sgt. La David T. Johnson.

The troops were overrun and outgunned by about 50 fighters who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group. The unit was on what the military has called a joint security patrol with Nigerien soldiers, but that mission changed as troops were redirected to search for a high-value target in the region.

There are about 800 U.S. troops in Niger, which is a hub for the U.S. military in western Africa. A $110 million drone base is now under construction in the country.

While U.S. forces have been advising Nigerien troops for years, the mission has gradually expanded and intensified. After the ambush, it came to light that special operators in Niger have come under fire multiple times during the past few years and even after the ambush.

Special operators involved in missions in Africa acknowledge that the threats in Niger and elsewhere on the continent don’t pose an immediate threat to the U.S. But commanders argue that the mission is worth the risks because a major threat could develop in the region if left unchecked.

Col. Brad Moses, commander of the 3rd Special Operations Group which leads missions in western Africa, was in command at the time of the ambush. While not commenting on the ambush itself, which was still under investigation, he said threats must be dealt with now.

“If there isn’t something done to assist the countries across the Sahel region, it is going to become a very real threat,” Moses said in an interview last week. “Twenty years from now they will be an existential threat if we don’t assist our partner forces now.”

Still, Special Operations Command Africa already has made some changes to the operation in Niger, where joint patrols are now subjected to more scrutiny, military officials said. Commanders are placing more emphasis on command and control training, which is aimed at enabling Nigerien units to operate more effectively during their own operations.

Most family members of the fallen soldiers have been briefed on the investigation’s findings. Once Congress has been briefed, a version of the report will be released publicly.

Twitter: @john_vandiver


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