Military investigation of Niger disaster finds numerous failures in planning
A months-long military investigation of a disastrous 2017 mission in Niger found that multiple individual and institutional failures contributed to a chain of events culminating in a militant ambush that left four Americans dead.
Senior officials, in a summary of their report, cited two lower-level officers for poorly planning operations with Nigerien forces but did not recommend disciplinary action. A separate, ongoing review will make that determination.
Marine Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, who heads U.S. Africa Command, said the team of 11 Americans involved in the firefight was inadequately trained and prepared even before it stepped off its base for the ill-fated mission near the village of Tongo Tongo.
Waldhauser said he had taken steps to better ensure service members’ 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 four Americans killed were Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright and Sgt. La David T. Johnson. 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 media accounts about what happened the day of the battle, particularly regarding the fate of La David Johnson, who remained missing and was feared captured for about 36 hours before his bullet-ridden body was recovered by villagers.
Contrary to some of those reports, the summary said Johnson was killed while returning militant fire after getting separated from other troops.
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 chief of staff 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.
According to Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has concluded that systemic problems “must be addressed immediately,” 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 disciplinary action or valor awards will be carried out by U.S. Special Operations Command. Navy Capt. Jason Salata, a SOCOM spokesman, said after the news briefing that the command has received the report and “initiated a line-by-line review.” No disciplinary steps have been taken.
Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, said the decision to publicly assign blame to junior officers for planning failures — actions that the chief investigator, 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, including the team leader, for failing to appropriately secure approval for their initial mission, the report laid out additional missteps. Those included insufficient 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. 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.
U.S. officials focused much of their investigation on how the unit, called Team Ouallam, after the location of a base it used, secured approval for its operations.
According to the Pentagon, the unit set out on Oct. 3 from Niamey on a mission that was initially identified by Perozeni and another captain as a routine reconnaissance mission near Mali’s border. No one higher in the chain of command was “aware of the true nature of the mission,” the report summary said.
In fact, the unit was searching for Doundoun Cheffou, an Islamic State leader who U.S. officials believed may have been linked to the kidnapping of an American. Later, the men were tasked on two different missions, both of which did have approval from more-senior officers.
Late the following morning, the unit was on its way back to base after an impromptu stop in Tongo Tongo when it started receiving fire from behind.
Soon, the gunfire intensified. Although the soldiers did not know it at the time, they were facing attack from about 100 militants linked with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the summary said. The team quickly reported contact with the enemy to U.S. soldiers at their base nearby.
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, 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 about noon.
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 depart. The sergeant fought back using an M240 machine gun and sniper rifle, but ultimately was forced amid heavy fire to escape on foot.
U.S. military investigators estimated that Johnson ran 450 meters southwest on his own. He sought refuge behind a thorny tree and fired at the advancing militants, who wounded him with machine-gun fire and then, approaching by foot, killed him with small-arms fire. His death was said to occur about an hour after the ambush began.
Investigators found that Johnson was not captured alive by militants or executed, but was “killed in action while actively engaging the enemy,” the report said. That assessment disputes an account provided to The Post in November by Nigerien villagers. They said that Johnson’s hands appeared to have been tied behind his back, suggesting that he had been executed after being captured.
Reached by phone Thursday, the two villagers , Mounkaila Allassane and Adamou Boubacar, said they stood by their story but both declined to comment further.
The Pentagon released no further details on Johnson’s death.
The bodies of Black, Wright and Jeremiah Johnson were retrieved a few hours after the firefight, on the evening of Oct. 4. But the 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.
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 until the militants were forced to retreat when French aircraft arrived at the scene.
It’s unclear how inadequate aerial surveillance may have contributed to the incident or how a force of 100 militants could have massed quickly enough to surprise the unit. Investigators said they were not able to determine whether villagers tipped off the attackers or were coerced into withholding warnings.
The events around Tongo Tongo generated an immediate outcry from lawmakers, who said they had not been properly informed about 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 nameand that he suggested that the soldier “must have known what he signed up for.”
Trump denied the account, and his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, blasted the lawmaker, Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.). Kelly, whose 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.”