Military investigation of Niger disaster finds numerous failures in planning


A months-long military investigation of a disastrous mission in Niger last year found multiple individual and institutional failures contributed to a chain of events culminating in the death of four Americans in an operation that touched off a political firestorm and shed light on the Pentagon’s often murky counterterrorism efforts overseas.

Senior officials, unveiling public findings of their long-awaited investigation, cited lower-level officers for improper planning of operations alongside Nigerien forces but did not recommend disciplinary action. A separate, ongoing review will make that determination.

Marine Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the chief of U.S. Africa Command, said a team of 11 Americans was inadequately trained and prepared even before it stepped off its base in western Niger on Oct. 3, 2017, heading off on the first of a series of missions that would end with a militant ambush outside the village of Tongo Tongo.

The four Americans killed in the dramatic firefight that followed were Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35; Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29; and Sgt. La David T. Johnson, 25. Black and Wright were Special Forces soldiers, while both Johnsons were conventional soldiers assigned to the same 3rd Special Forces Group team.

The report follows months of conflicting accounts about what happened that day, particularly surrounding the fate of La David Johnson, who remained missing for about 36 hours before his bullet-ridden body was recovered by villagers.

Missing from the report’s presentation was mention of the political controversy generated by the incident, which in an unusual turn pitted President Trump and his top adviser against one of the fallen men’s widows and a Democratic congresswoman, both of whom accused the president of insensitivity as he offered condolences to the family.

Addressing the worst U.S. military episode in Africa since the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” fiasco, Waldhauser said he had taken steps to better ensure servicemembers’ safety, including increased force protection firepower and clarified systems for mission approval.

“We are now far more prudent,” Waldhauser told reporters at the Pentagon. “The missions we actually accompany on have to have some type of strategic value in terms of the enemy we’re going against. Do they have a strategic threat to the United States?”

The general stressed that U.S. forces would remain in an advisory role as they support local forces – who are often poorly equipped and trained – in their battle against an array of militant groups. But the events of Oct. 4 made clear, the line between support and kinetic missions is often blurry.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, after reviewing the report, concluded that systemic problems like those identified in the Niger investigation are “not isolated to this event” and “must be addressed immediately,” said Dana White, a Pentagon spokeswoman, suggesting that more far-reaching changes will be made to the way U.S. forces train and operate.

In releasing an eight-page summary report Thursday, the Pentagon withheld thousands of pages of witness statements, maps and other documents and a longer report of about 180 pages. The U.S. military often releases those materials at the conclusion of an investigation, but said it is still working to declassify additional information.

Waldhauser said a review of any potential discipline or award for valor will be carried out by U.S. Special Operations Command, which recently received the report. Navy Capt. Jason Salata, a SOCOM spokesman, said after the news briefing that SOCOM has received the report and “initiated a line-by-line review.” No disciplinary actions have been taken to date.

Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, said the decision to publicly assign blame to junior officers for planning failures – actions which the chief investigator Army Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr. said had no bearing on the ambush or its results – rather than senior officers was noteworthy.

In addition to citing the two captains, one the team leader and the other overseeing the team’s home base, for failing to appropriately secure approval for their initial mission, the report also laid out additional missteps, including inadequate predeployment training, inadequate pre-mission rehearsal and a failure to use protective gear. The problems were further compounded by communications issues between the United States and its partners and the remoteness of the area where the attack took place.

“These two captains were not the ones who created all these issues,” Christensen said. “They may have made horrible decisions,” he said. “But they were put into those positions by people who knew the shortcomings of what they were doing.”

At least five Nigerien soldiers also were killed in the ambush, and others were wounded, including two Americans. They were identified in December as Capt. Michael Perozeni, the team commander, and Sgt. 1st Class Brent Bartels, in congressional testimony by David Trachtenberg, a senior defense official.

U.S. officials said the men fought “courageously” after they were ambushed the morning of Oct. 4, but struggled with the overwhelming volume of fire they faced and the terrain, which included swamps, woods and open, dusty fields.

The unit, which included 11 American soldiers and more than 30 Nigeriens, was attacked by about 100 militants linked with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the summary said. The American team was called Team Ouallam, after the location of a base they used.

The militants initially attacked the U.S. patrol from the rear as its vehicles were moving south away Tongo Tongo while returning to their base in Niger’s capital of Niamey. The militants were armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and vehicles mounted with machine guns.

The patrol began the previous day from Niamey, and was initially filed as a routine reconnaissance mission near Mali’s border by Perozeni and another Army captain planning it. No one higher in the chain of command was “aware of the true nature of the mission,” according to the Pentagon summary.

In reality, it called for searching for Doundoun Cheffou, an Islamic State leader. The militant leader’s name is not included in the summary report, but has been published by The Washington Post and other media based on reporting.

The ambush began about 11:40 a.m., with the first shots fired when the U.S. and Nigerien team was about 100 meters outside Tongo Tongo, the investigation found. The gunfire initially was light, but erupted as militants advanced through a wooded area to the south and east of the road on which the team was traveling. The team quickly reported contact with the enemy to U.S. soldiers at their base nearby, the summary said.

Believing they were facing a small enemy force, a handful of soldiers attempted to launch a counterattack on foot, but soon discovered a larger group of militants on motorcycles and in trucks mounted with machine guns. Assessing the severity of the situation, and seeing that some of the Nigerien troops had already fled, the Americans began to load their vehicles. 

A small group of soldiers — Black, Wright and Jeremiah Johnson — prepared to move out. But Black, trying to shield himself as he walked along the protected side of his vehicle, was quickly shot and fell, the investigation found. Wright and Johnson stopped the vehicle to assess Black’s wounds but were forced to withdraw as the attack continued. Shortly afterward, Johnson was shot, then Wright. All three died quickly around noon, as they were overrun.

Unaware of what had befallen their comrades, other U.S. and Nigerien soldiers drove about 700 meters south, establishing a defensive position they hoped would allow them to fend off the advancing militant force. Perozeni, facing intensifying mortar and machine-gun fire, ordered a withdrawal.

Survivors told investigators that they saw one of the Americans on the scene, La David Johnson, preparing to get into a vehicle and drive away. The sergeant fought back using an M240 machine gun and a sniper rifle, but ultimately was forced out of his truck by enemy gunfire and tried to escape on foot.

U.S. military investigators estimated that Johnson ran an additional 450 meters southwest on his own, seeking refuge behind a thorny tree and firing at the militants advancing toward him. U.S. officials think Johnson was killed about 12:30 or 12:45, about an hour after the ambush began. 

The other soldiers, meanwhile, were being pursued by militant forces as they tried to flee. Five of seven men in the car were shot, including Perozeni. After getting stuck in the mud, the troops radioed for assistance and then disabled that equipment. They fled enemy fire to the west through a swampy area, establishing a defensive position.

The bodies of Black, Wright and Jeremiah Johnson were retrieved a few hours after the firefight on the evening of Oct. 4. But the U.S. military was unable to recover La David Johnson’s remains until the evening of Oct. 6, an unusual amount of time to be missing on a modern battlefield.

U.S. military officials said Thursday that Johnson was not captured alive by militants or executed, but that he “was killed in action while actively engaging the enemy.” That assessment disputes previously reported accounts by Nigerien villagers. They told The Post in November that his hands appeared to have been tied behind his back.

The events around Tongo Tongo generated an immediate outcry from lawmakers, who said that they had not been properly informed about military activities in Niger, and potentially beyond. 

The episode ignited a larger political controversy after a Democratic congresswoman reported that President Trump had upset La David Johnson’s widow in a condolence call, saying that the president had stumbled over the soldier’s name and that he suggested that the soldier “must have known what he signed up for.”

Trump denied the account, and his chief of staff, John Kelly, blasted the lawmaker, Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.). Kelly, whose own son was killed in the war in Afghanistan, called Wilson an “empty barrel” and made a subsequently disproved claim that she had improperly taken credit for funding an FBI facility in Florida. 

The controversy was a departure from how previous administrations handled military casualties, and provided another illustration of how Trump has been willing to feud publicly, even with individuals typically seen as beyond reproach. 

Johnson’s mother later corroborated Wilson’s account of the conversation and said the president “did disrespect my son.” 

Paul Sonne contributed to this report.


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