Report on Niger ambush cites multiple failures


Defense Secretary James Mattis has tasked the Army and U.S. Special Operations Command with ensuring that commanders in a supervisory and oversight role are held accountable for leadership failures leading up to the ambush - including failures not mentioned in the investigation, said Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of AFRICOM.

But the mistakes that led to an outmanned and outgunned convoy of US and Nigerien forces getting overrun last October were widespread, took root before the unit ever deployed, and manifested in local commanders deciding to carry out a capture or kill mission that they never had the authority to do, a 6,300-page investigation has found.

The ambush also raised questions about whether USA forces in Saharan Africa were adequately equipped to operate in the vast areas where they were, at a time when Islamic militants had become increasingly aggressive near Niger's border with Mali. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier, chief of staff of U.S. Africa Command, and is expected to accept the conclusions, officials said. "The investigation also found the team inaccurately portrayed the concept of operations for the first of three total missions on 3 and 4 October", Waldhauser said. "All four soldiers were killed in action before French or Nigerien responding forces arrived in Tongo Tongo". The team of American and Nigerien soldiers had been searching for a suspected terrorist for almost 36 hours when they were ambushed.

Americans Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright were killed on October 4, 2017, when ambushed by ISIS-linked militants near the village of Tongo Tongo, more than 100 miles north of the country's capital.

Wright, an Army veteran, said he was told the troops tried to stand and fight, leaving their vehicles so they could use them for cover.

Leaders of the team had submitted a different mission to higher command for approval, according to the report.

Senior officers at the Africa Command headquarters and its Special Operations component in Stuttgart, Germany, and senior leaders at a Special Operations regional command in Chad were not aware of any changes to the plan, according to the report findings.

The investigation praised the heroism of the soldiers killed and wounded in the ambush, and Waldhauser predicted that "there will be awards for valor in this case". The team had not trained for this mission and did not notify higher-level commanders that it would be undertaking it.

Waldhauser said changes have already been made in the way military activities are carried out in Niger and elsewhere in Africa. The investigative team interviewed 143 people, including survivors of the attack. It was then that the USA soldiers, along with their Nigerien partners, were ambushed by 50 militants. That less-risky mission was approved, but when the Ouallam team got to the location the insurgent wasn't there.

Bad weather forced the helicopters to abort, Wright said, and his son's team went on to the site, where they destroyed motorcycles, ammunition and other equipment before heading to Tongo Tongo.

Pentagon officials also published a detailed, ten-minute reconstruction of the ambush itself, which started as the US-Nigerien eight-vehicle convoy headed out the remote village of Tongo Tongo, having stopped there for water.

Investigators credited Nigerien and French forces for responding to the scene and "likely saving the lives of the surviving members of the" USA team.

"There is insufficient evidence to determine if villagers aided the enemy or participated in the attack", the report states.

Black, Johnson and Wright were killed close to the scene of the initial location as they withstood withering enemy fire. "Two were found in the back of an enemy vehicle and one beside it".

The attack caused a public relations furor for the White House after President Donald Trump took several days to reach out to the soldiers' families and then was accused of making insensitive remarks to Johnson's widow by a Democratic congresswoman from Florida who is a friend of the Johnson family and claimed to have overheard his remarks.