DoD’s Report on the Investigation into the 2017 Ambush in Niger

On October 4, 2017, four U.S. Army Green Berets and four Nigerien soldiers were killed in action during an ambush of a joint U.S.-Nigerien mission outside the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger. On May 11, 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) released a detailed video-graphic depiction of the ambush and an eight-page summary of a much longer classified report on the events leading up to, during, and immediately following the ambush. Given the new information provided by DoD, the public has the opportunity to consider the risks U.S. forces were operating under, as well as the lessons DoD has derived from the events and the recommendations the investigation generated.

Q1: Why did DoD conduct this investigation?

A1: The ambush marked the highest-casualty event in Africa for the U.S. military since the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, when 18 Army Rangers lost their lives. Sergeant First Class (SFC) Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sergeant (SSG) Bryan Black, SSG Dustin Wright, and Sergeant (SGT) LaDavid Johnson were all killed in action during the engagement with militants from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

Immediately after the ambush, the U.S. media and some members of Congress conveyed surprise that U.S. forces were in harm’s way in Niger and wanted to know why the unit was so vulnerable in the case of an attack. Furthermore, the recovery of Sgt. LaDavid Johnson’s remains was delayed by 48 hours. Senior leaders at DoD stated that the purpose of the investigation was to understand whether mistakes were made and to provide more details to the families of the fallen. In a press conference approximately three weeks after the attack, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained what DoD wanted to know:

We owe the families of the fallen more information, and that's what the investigation is designed to identify. The questions include, did the mission of U.S. forces change during the operation? Did our forces have adequate intelligence, equipment and training? Was there a pre-mission assessment of the threat in the area accurate? Did U.S. force—how did U.S. forces become separated during the engagement, specifically Sergeant Johnson? And why did they take time to find and recover Sgt. Johnson?

Q2: Who conducted the investigation?

A2: U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) conducted the investigation. Major General Roger Cloutier, AFRICOM’s chief of staff, was the lead investigator. The draft was then reviewed by General Thomas Waldhauser, commander of AFRICOM, and General Dunford before being approved by Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Q3: Why were U.S. forces in Niger in the first place?

A3: The Trump administration, in a report required by the National Defense Authorization Act, states that U.S. forces are in Niger to “train, advise, and assist Nigerien partner forces.” During his October press conference, General Dunford was more expansive in his explanation: “Service members in Niger work as part of an international effort, led by 4,000 French troops, to defeat terrorists in west Africa. Since 2011, French and U.S. troops have trained a 5,000-person west African force and over 35,000 soldiers from the region to fight terrorists…affiliated with ISIS, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram.” The summary report echoes these statements and adds that the unit involved in the ambush were deployed to train and equip “a new Nigerien Counter Terrorism (CT) Company” and to conduct operations “with a separate Nigerien unit, until the new CT Company reached full operational capacity.” At a press conference presenting the summary report to the public, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Robert Karem stated that the U.S. military presence in Niger “is necessary because the establishment of terrorist safe havens in the Sahel could pose a significant risk to U.S. national security interests.” Karem also noted that the United States supports ongoing French CT operations in the region.

Q4: If the United States isn’t at war in Niger, under what authorities are forces deployed there and conducting lethal operations?

A4: The Trump administration has argued that a variety of legal frameworks authorize military activities and the use of force in Niger, including U.S. Title 10 authorities, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), deployment notifications under the War Powers Resolution, and the right to self-defense. The summary report notes that “USSOF have the authority to conduct CT operations with partner Nigerien forces.” Assistant Secretary Karem also stated that “an array of fiscal, operational and legal authorities govern the various activities of U.S. military forces” in Niger.

Q5: What were the investigation’s major findings?

A5: Overall, the summary report blames “tactical and operational decisions” for the loss of life in Niger, but it also reveals problems and misalignments regarding predeployment training, team staffing, joint training with Nigerien partners, equipping, and, notably, the process for crafting and approving mission proposals known as concepts of operations (CONOPS). On this latter point, the investigation found that two individuals in the chain of command, the team commander and the company commander, “inaccurately characterized the nature of the mission in the CONOPS.”

The summary report makes very little reference to larger strategic questions about the presence of U.S. forces in Africa or approaches toward counterterrorism overall. Given that the investigation was run by AFRICOM and not the Office of the Secretary of Defense or an outside entity, it would have been unlikely for the report to comment on policy issues such as the feasibility of CT objectives in the Sahel.

The summary report offers a detailed description of the firefight between the joint U.S.-Nigerien patrol and militants from ISGS. An eight-vehicle convoy of Nigerien and U.S. soldiers was pulling away from the village of Tongo Tongo at 11:40 a.m. on October 4 when they began taking fire from “a large enemy force.” During the approximately hour-long engagement, the three U.S. vehicles were first separated into two and then three different locations. Both separations were the result of one vehicle failing to retreat—first the vehicle with SSGs Wright, J. Johnson, and Black did not retreat with the other U.S. and Nigerien vehicles, and later the vehicle driven by SGT L. Johnson was unable to follow the other U.S. vehicle during the withdrawal from the second location. All four Americans were forced to abandon their vehicles because of taking heavy fire and were killed in action while trying to evade their attackers on foot. The team apparently reported troops in contact immediately but did not request assistance until 53 minutes into the attack.

Nevertheless, the special operations command and control element (SOCCE) commander called French and Nigerien counterparts for assistance after the team reported troops in contact. French Mirage jets arrived at the ambush site 47 minutes after receiving the call and flew over the location four times in a show of force, which the summary report states convinced the militants to retreat. A Nigerien Quick Reaction Force (QRF) later arrived to secure the area and retrieve the remains of the fallen. The report finds that French and Nigerien partners assisted U.S. forces “without hesitation” and “very likely saved the lives of U.S. and Nigerien Soldiers.”

The summary report and DoD officials also repeatedly cited the overwhelming numbers and superior firepower of the militants. During the report press conference, General Cloutier estimated there were three attackers for every American and Nigerien. The video depicts ISGS machine guns mounted on trucks, while the report refers to the SOF team taking mortar fire and being maneuvered on by large numbers of mounted and dismounted (on vehicles and on foot) attackers. Together, the video and the summary report convey that U.S. personnel had two trucks and one sport utility–type vehicle, mounted M240 machine guns, at least one T4 antitank rocket, and sniper rifles, likely in addition to their personal weapons. Arming for the Nigerien troops is not specified.

Q6: What didn’t the summary report include?

A6: The summary report does not specify how the operation was mischaracterized in the original CONOP or how those mischaracterizations related to the ambush. However, in response to a question during the report press conference, Generals Waldhauser and Cloutier explained that the CONOP submitted by the team was for a civil-military reconnaissance mission but was actually “focused on the ISIS GS [ISGS] subcommander.” The AFRICOM officials stated that the misleading CONOP had been copied and pasted from a previous CONOP and was the result of inattentiveness rather than intentional deceit. Regardless, it is unclear whether the CONOP affected the joint U.S.-Nigerien team’s readiness to respond during the ambush.

The summary report press conference revealed that team members left their camp at approximately 6:00 a.m. on October 3 to conduct their initial mission, were redirected at 6:00 p.m. to serve as the “supporting effort” for “a multi-team raid” and were out overnight. This means the team had had little to no sleep for more than 24 hours at the time of the ambush on the morning of October 4.

There is also no discussion of the SOF team’s understanding of the threat posed by militants in the area or their assessment of risk prior to undertaking the mission(s). The report itself also does not discuss the allocation of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage during the ambush, but in the course of the report press conference the AFRICOM officials revealed that ISR had covered the site involved in the team’s overnight mission. That aircraft was then directed to a location further north while the team made its way south back to camp. General Cloutier, responding to a reporter’s question, stated that the first U.S. ISR platform arrived at the ambush site one hour and 31 minutes after the attack began. It was not clear whether just the one platform was involved in the team’s prior missions and the ambush.

Q7: What recommendations did DoD make?

A7: The conclusion of the unclassified investigation summary indicates that events in Niger were a result of insufficient “tactical discipline and operational competence.” At the press conference presenting the report, General Waldhauser noted that he made some changes prior to the completion of the investigation and has also taken actions consistent with the findings in the report. Specifically, Waldhauser has ordered that: (1) All service members deployed to Africa understand that the U.S. approach to security force assistance with partners is “by, with, and through” and that AFRICOM forces are not meant to be “participants in direct combat”; (2) Special operations teams will have additional equipment, including “increased firepower” (presumably higher-caliber/more destructive weapons) and vehicles better suited to the terrain; and (3) AFRICOM and Special Operations Command-Africa will conduct a review of the concept of operations approval process “for partner-force operations.”

The summary report further recommends that Special Operations Command, the secretary of the army, and the under secretary for personnel and readiness conduct a broader review of predeployment training and “administrative requirements that detract from war-fighting readiness.”

Those three organizations have 120 days to review the report’s recommendations and provide a “plan of action” to Secretary Mattis.

Q8: Does the report recommend that any individuals be held responsible and punished for the failures that led up to the ambush in Tongo Tongo? Does it recommend any awards?

A8: During the report press conference, General Waldhauser stated there are three “cases” where the report “recommend[s] appropriate action.” SOCOM is now responsible for implementing any accountability measures. General Cloutier also observed that “there were numerous acts of extraordinary bravery” during the ambush. SOCOM is also responsible for recommending awards.

Q9: Beyond the tactical and operational factors, what lessons should the American public learn from this study?

A9: The events in Niger demonstrated that the so-called by, with, and through approach to counterterrorism still exposes U.S. troops to risk, a fact that challenges Americans to consider the value they place on pursuing counterterrorism objectives there. The events in Niger raise questions about the line between assistance and combat in hostile environments. U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed the preventative nature of security force assistance missions in the Sahel region of West Africa, but that raises questions about the effectiveness of security force assistance as prevention, and larger strategic questions about the threat posed to U.S. national security interests and whether deeper military engagements diminish or invite those threats. Although the events also raised questions about applicable legal frameworks for the use of force outside war zones, also called areas of active hostilities, the law is not a substitute for policy. Americans must decide whether they deem CT-related military deployments to West Africa worth the risk to U.S. personnel.

Alice Friend is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Alice Hunt Friend