Military Inquiry Finds Soldiers Were Unprepared in Deadly Niger Ambush

One of the American soldiers ambushed by militants in Niger was wearing a helmet camera – we analyzed the footage to understand what happened.

WASHINGTON — A Defense Department investigation of a Special Forces mission in Niger last fall found widespread problems across all levels of the military counterterrorism operation, but focused in particular on the actions of junior officers leading up to an ambush that killed four American soldiers.

The investigation, released Thursday, found that the 11-member team had not undergone crucial training as a unit before it deployed to Niger because of “personnel turnover” and had not rehearsed its mission before leaving its base. It said the two junior officers had “mischaracterized” the mission in a required planning document filed before the team, which included Green Berets, departed.

It also found that soldiers wounded on the mission — at least two Americans and three Nigeriens — were not evacuated for more than four hours, far longer than the Pentagon had acknowledged.

Most Americans were unaware before the Oct. 4 ambush that Green Berets, and 800 other American troops, were stationed in Niger, and the attack led to the largest loss of American lives during combat in Africa since the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Somalia.

The deaths of the four soldiers — Sgt. First Class Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright and Sgt. La David Johnson — set off a fierce debate over secretive American military missions in remote and far-flung battlegrounds.

The investigation did not recommend specific corrective action to avoid the confusion and lax oversight that contributed to the deaths.

The findings have been met with dissension inside the military, and there are questions whether they glossed over blame for senior commanders who had ordered an unprepared and poorly equipped team on a search for a local militant leader in the desert scrub of western Niger.

An unclassified executive summary of the investigation and an hourlong briefing at the Pentagon by senior officers on Thursday offered only a glimpse of the decisions made before the local fighters linked to the Islamic State initiated their ambush.

[Read The Times’s reconstruction of what happened in Niger.]

Even as it found “individual, organizational and institutional” mistakes, the investigation revealed heroic efforts by a team that was battered and outnumbered as it braced to take a last stand against a barrage of heavy machine gunfire and mortar rounds from militants aligned with the Islamic State.

Were it not for the arrival of two French Mirage jets that made roaring treetop passes in a show of force that scattered the extremists, far more Americans and their Nigerien partners probably would have been killed in the shadowy mission, which left the soldiers far from base, in hostile territory, with no backup or air support.

“Nigerien and French units assisted without hesitation,” according to the investigation’s eight-page executive summary. It said the allied forces “very likely saved the lives of U.S. and Nigerien soldiers, several of whom were wounded in the attack.”

Arnold Wright, the father of Sergeant Wright, suggested on Thursday that the public report was, at best, incomplete and expressed frustration that so much of the investigation remained classified.

An executive summary, he said in a telephone interview, was all that the military could make public “without this thing blowing up into a firestorm,” and he suggested that senior officials were trying to protect their reputations.

“They had their story, and they’re going to stick to it,” said Mr. Wright, a former soldier who received a briefing from military officials before the summary was released. “It doesn’t really matter what I’ve got to say. They did what they did for political reasons. I understand it, but it doesn’t mean it’s right.”

The executive summary and the Pentagon briefing did not directly address why the team was relatively unequipped, traveling in an unarmored sport utility vehicle that was not carrying a mounted machine gun. It did not specifically fault the Army, the United States Africa Command and the Special Forces for fatal gaps in training and oversight.

The summary also did not acknowledge that Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., the Army officer who oversaw the inquiry, is a senior official in the very command he was investigating. General Cloutier was promoted last month to lead all Army forces in Africa.

The executive summary described the firefight, which took place near the village of Tongo Tongo, in dramatic but careful detail.

Credit...Aaron Ross/Reuters

It said the Green Beret unit, known as Operational Detachment-Alpha Team 3212, departed from its base in Ouallam, Niger, for a mission near the town of Tiloa. It was accompanied by a unit of 30 Nigeriens and was after a “key member” of the local Islamic State, Doundoun Cheffou, who is suspected of involvement in the kidnapping of an American aid worker.

The investigation found that the leader of Team 3212, Capt. Michael Perozeni, described the mission in a planning document only as a daylong trip to meet with tribal elders — not as a counterterrorism mission. “It wasn’t a deliberate intent to deceive,” General Cloutier told reporters Thursday. “It was lack of attention to detail.”

Meetings with local officials are considered low risk. They do not require approval from senior commanders and are generally undertaken without additional support for protection, like air reconnaissance. By contrast, counterterrorism missions involving assault troops have to be ordered by senior military officers since they require reconnaissance and backup forces.

However flawed, the junior officers’ mistaken planning document did not lead to the ambush, General Cloutier said. “The first mission executes, completes, and is over and done,” he said. “That mission does not result in the Tongo Tongo attack.”

American surveillance planes were scanning the Tiloa area, looking for evidence of Mr. Cheffou. Directed to turn its sights farther north, the surveillance aircraft found him at a desert campsite two-and-a-half miles south of Niger’s border with Mali.

A captain at the base reported the discovery to a higher commander, according to the executive summary. That officer, a lieutenant colonel based in Chad, ordered Team 3212, to shift its mission and pursue Mr. Cheffou as backup for an assault force that would be flying in from Arlit, in central Niger.

Although bad weather prevented the assault force from flying in, the lieutenant colonel ordered Team 3212 “to execute the mission,” according to the executive summary. The colonel was within his authority to do so, the summary said, and he regularly updated his “higher headquarters.”

In fact, a chain of more senior officers had either approved or was aware of the decisions to twice change Team 3212’s mission — even though the inquiry concluded that soldiers had not properly trained or been equipped for an extended, risky operation into the austere borderlands between Niger and Mali.

A senior American officer who was briefed on the classified report said the senior commanders who were aware of the changing mission included Maj. Gen. J. Marcus Hicks, the chief of all Special Operations forces in Africa. The senior officer spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive details more candidly.

There is no mention in the summary of what steps, if any, the commanders took to protect Team 3212. It concluded that the mission was vulnerable from the start because of Captain Perozeni’s misleading planning document, which the summary said “contributed to a general lack of situational awareness and command oversight at every echelon.”

Captain Perozeni was identifiable by title in the executive summary, and he could not be reached for comment. Before he left the base in Ouallam, according to two Defense Department officials who were briefed on the investigation’s classified findings and spoke on the condition of anonymity, Captain Perozeni had warned his immediate superior that Team 3212 did not have the equipment or intelligence necessary to carry out a kill-or-capture raid against Mr. Cheffou.

As it turned out, the Islamic State leader had already left the desert encampment by the time Team 3212 arrived, the summary said. As the soldiers headed back to base, they stopped for water in Tongo Tongo.

Moments after leaving the village, at 11:40 a.m., the eight-vehicle convoy was ambushed and overpowered by more than 100 militants linked to the Islamic State and who operated freely in the area. Investigators found no proof that they were alerted to the convoy by villagers.

The executive summary said no American soldiers were captured, and the four who died “gave their last full measure of devotion to our country and died with honor while actively engaging the enemy.”

It did not recommend specific corrective action to avoid the confusion and lax oversight that contributed to the deaths.

Instead, senior officials in the Army and at the Special Operations Command have 120 days to review and adjust training for Special Forces soldiers, re-examine American troops’ role in joint counterterrorism missions with local forces, and mete out any punishments.

Capt. Jason P. Salata, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., said on Thursday that it was conducting “a line-by-line review of the investigation.”

The head of Africa Command, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, said at Thursday’s briefing that he had already begun an overhaul of the process to plan and approve operations across the continent, and had added more firepower and reconnaissance aircraft to a scaled-back number of American training missions on the continent.

“We have beefed up a lot of things,” General Waldhauser told reporters. “We are now far more prudent in our missions.”

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