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Investigation of Niger Ambush Finds ISIS Attack Was 'a Total Tactical Surprise'

Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Robert S. Karen, Marine Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, commander, U.S. Africa Command, and Army Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., chief of staff, U.S. Africa Command, and lead investigating officer, brief the media on the results of the investigation of the Oct. 4, 2017 ambush in Niger at Pentagon on May 10, 2018. (DoD photo by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm)

ARLINGTON, Va. — In a detailed presentation of findings on last fall’s Niger ambush in which four U.S. soldiers were killed, U.S. Africa Command leader Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said the U.S. “had never seen anything in this magnitude — numbers, mobility and training” as the ISIS attack on their patrol.

About 800 Defense Department personnel are currently working in Niger, with a “small fraction” of those special ops forces. Most are supporting air operations and are not intended to be put into combat situations.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Robert Karem said Niger “is a willing counterterrorism partner, but is one of the poorest countries in the world yet has limited means to confront these threats without assistance.”

“We do this to avoid having to send thousands of Americans to shoulder an even larger burden in the fight against a shared enemy,” he said. “We are not alone in working to empower local forces to confront this enemy.”

Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash., Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga., were killed Oct. 4 as three of a dozen U.S. soldiers accompanying a few dozen Nigerien soldiers on the patrol.

On Oct. 6, the body of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Fla.,, who had been listed as missing after the attack, was recovered by Nigerien forces.

ISIS later posted video swiped from one of the fallen soldiers’ body cams, showing the attack unfolding.

“All four soldiers killed in action sustained wounds that were either immediately fatal or rapidly fatal, and were deceased by the time the initial site was accessible to personnel recovery assets,” the report says. “All four soldiers were killed in action before French or Nigerien responding forces arrived in Tongo Tongo.” It said none of them were taken alive by ISIS.

Army Maj. Gen. Robert Clouthier Jr., chief of staff at U.S. Africa Command and the lead investigating officer, told reporters that “no single survivor of the attack that we interviewed had a complete picture of the events of the 3rd and 4th of October.”

“It took a tremendous volume of evidence to corroborate the accounts and to establish the facts. The report and its exhibits became more than 6,300 pages of evidence,” he said.

Explaining the 53-minute gap between the beginning of the ambush and U.S. forces calling for help, Clouthier said that “the evidence would indicate that up until that point, they — they believed it was a small enemy force that they could handle, and then at that point, when they made the final radio transmission, they realized that it was a much larger force.”

Forty-seven minutes after that call for help, French aircraft arrived but didn’t conduct any strikes because of confusion about the scene on the ground. So they conducted low-level fly-bys, spooking the ISIS members on the ground and causing them to retreat.

The survivors were then evacuated by French helicopters. It took ground units four hours to get to the scene.

The report blames “individual, organizational, and institutional failures and deficiencies that contributed to the tragic events,” but concludes “no single failure or deficiency was the sole reason for the events of 4 October.” It said that the “initial concept of operations submitted for this mission was not approved at the proper level of command” as two Army captains “inaccurately characterized the nature of the mission.”

“It wasn’t a deliberate intent to deceive, it was lack of attention to detail,” Clouthier told reporters.

The team didn’t conduct pre-mission training with their Nigerien counterparts due to “personnel turnover during the year.”

“In an operation where you’re under enemy contact, you need to be able to operate like clockwork without having to speak because you know the drills,” Waldhauser said. “In this particular case, the team did not conduct those basic soldier level skills that would, that are really necessary to go on an operation such as this.”

Waldhauser called the ambush, which began shortly before noon after the team had left a village, “a total tactical surprise.”

Johnson and some Nigerien troops became separated from the others at the order to withdraw; they ran and took cover behind a tree before being pinned down by one of ISIS’ truck-mounted machine guns, the report says. “Johnson’s hands were not bound and he was not executed but was killed in action while actively engaging the enemy.”

The driver of the last American vehicle on the scene was shot in the elbow, but returned to collect the team commander, who had been shot and fell out of the back of the pickup. They then got stuck in the mud, and sent the first call for help.

“Secretary Mattis concluded there are institutional and organizational issues, not isolated to this event that must be addressed immediately by the Department of Defense. He directed a number of specific actions to examine, evaluate, and make recommendations on Department personnel practices to improve operational units’ readiness and lethality,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement. “Among others, he directed the Department of the Army to conduct an assessment of the training Special Forces receive and provide to partner forces, and to review its pre-deployment training to ensure that units are adequately prepared for operational requirements.”

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), who was briefed on the findings along with Johnson’s family at U.S. Southern Command, told CNN that questions remain as “nothing they said made sense.”

The family’s concern, she said, “is the neglect and the fault of the armed forces, and what could have been done.”

Wilson said she requested on multiple occasions to the video from the first U.S. drone on the scene, wanting to see if Johnson was on the footage. The congresswoman said she was originally told that she would be able to view it, then was told there was no video after all. “You tell me if you would be satisfied,” she said.