Pentagon faults 'Institutional failures' that led to the deaths of 4 troops in Niger

Matt Saintsing
May 10, 2018 - 2:31 pm

Photo Courtesy of Defense Department

A series of “institutional failures,” including inadequate training, led to the deaths of three Green Berets and a mechanic assigned to 3rd Special Forces Group, in an ambush in western Niger, last October, according to a Pentagon summary of the investigation released Thursday. 

Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, and Sgt. La David T. Johnson, were part of a U.S. Special Forces mission charged with assisting Nigerien troops when their element encountered Islamic State-linked extremists just outside the southwestern village of Tongo Tongo on Oct. 4.

Five Nigerien troops were also killed, and two other Americans were wounded in the attack.  

It all started on October 3, 2017, when the Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA), the primary tactical section of a Special Forces company consisting of about 12 Green Berets, left the relative security of their base on what was supposed to be a routine mission to talk with Nigerien village elders.

But plans quickly changed and the mission became more dangerous as they were directed to a site recently associated with a terrorist leader and fighters.

According to the report, the ODA “did not conduct pre-mission rehearsals or battle drills with their (Nigerien) partner force.”

Additionally, “this mission was not approved by the proper level of command,” the report reads, adding that the mission change required the authorization of a U.S. - battalion-level—or Lt. Col—command in neighboring Chad. That request never made it up the chain of command.

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Runser

The team spent the night outside the wire, and that morning they began to return to their base when they stopped in Tongo Tongo to meet with village leaders and to pick up some water.

When they began to drive off, the soldiers and Nigerien partners were ambushed by a much larger force.

The team of Americans and Nigerien forces “fought courageously despite being significantly outnumbered by the enemy,” according to the Pentagon report.

The team leader directed the force of U.S. and Nigerian troops to pull back, but the vehicle that Wright, Black and Jeremiah Johnson were traveling in stayed at the ambush site.

Enemy fire was so intense that “Staff Sgt. Wright and Staff Sgt. J. Johnson were forced to evade on foot.”

“Enemy small arms fire hit Staff Sgt. J. Johnson, severely wounding him. Staff Sgt. Wright stopped and returned to Staff Sgt. J. Johnson, and continued to engage the enemy until each was shot and killed by small arms fire,” the report states.

Earlier reports said some Americans were taken alive, but according to the Pentagon, Black, Wright and Jeremiah Johnson, “were never captured alive by the enemy,” but instead, terrorists “fired several additional bursts into the bodies of the three soldiers.”

The reports summary says that the ODA were hundreds of meters from the wounded and dead U.S. and Nigerien troops, and in the process of searching for the missing soldier, had to flee to avoid being overran.

La David Johnson and Nigerien soldiers couldn’t get to a friendly vehicle and the remaining vehicles in the convoy drove away. La David Johnson's body was then found, two days later. 

Multiple failures are cited in the report including “a lack of attention to detail” in the mission’s planning and “inadequate notification” of their leaders. This, according to the summary, lead to a “general lack of situational awareness and command oversight at every echelon.”  

French Mirage jets arrived in the skies above just as the battle was coming to an end. The report says the French jets made a few low altitude passes in a show of force, and forced the enemy to scatter. The jets did not drop any ordinance, because the pilots couldn’t distinguish between U.S., Nigerien, or enemy fighters.

The U.S. mission in Niger is part of a larger “train, advise, and assist” strategy that has characterized the ever-morphing war on terrorism.There are roughly 800 U.S. troops in Niger at any given time.

Missions like this are intended to build-up local partner forces, so they can bring the fight against extremism themselves but these can and often do take dangerous turns even when not looking for a direct fight. The fight, however, can find them.