The Army special operations team that came under lethal attack last October in the African nation of Niger was initially conducting an unauthorized kill-or-capture mission whose true nature it concealed from higher headquarters, the Pentagon confirmed for the first time Thursday.
The findings of a monthslong probe highlight key inconsistencies between the public explanations at the time that it was a training mission gone horribly wrong when 12 American and 30 Nigerien soldiers were ambushed in the remote village of Tongo Tongo and four Americans killed — and not a combat operation.
To what extent the inaccurate information that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other top officials provided flowed from the inaccurate information the Pentagon now says the team itself provided to its superiors is not clear.
The sequence of events is laid out in an eight-page summary of a classified, 180-page report by U.S. Africa Command provided to Congress earlier this week that has prompted accusations that the Pentagon was deliberately misleading about what its troops were doing in Niger.
The two Green Beret captains in charge of planning the mission “inaccurately characterized the nature of the mission” in the written plan they sent to their battalion headquarters in the nation of Chad, the summary states.
The mission was approved at a low level based on the understanding that it would be a routine meet-and-greet with local leaders — a type of mission that was within the team’s charter.
Military officials repeatedly insisted in the aftermath of the Oct. 4 ambush that the mission was “meant to establish relations with the local leaders" — as Africa Command spokesman Col. Mark Cheadle put it two days later.
But according to the investigation, the Green Berets and other soldiers were “targeting a key member” of a local insurgent group affiliated with the Islamic State, a mission that would likely not have received approval because of the risks involved.
The target was reportedly Doundoun Cheffou, a former local cattle herder who had joined a West Africa affiliate of Al Qaeda and then later pledged allegiance to ISIS, although the Pentagon summary did not identify him.
Such a kill-or-capture raid would have required approval from the headquarters in Chad.
The team ultimately came up dry on its unauthorized mission and moved on to visit a nearby Nigerien military base.
Some former Green Berets with experience in Africa take issue with the narrative the Pentagon released Thursday, particularly the allegation that the two unidentified captains filed a misleading mission plan.
“There are some findings that are correct and some findings that are unfair,” a former senior Green Beret officer with experience in West Africa said in an interview. “I highly doubt they filed a false [concept of operations],” as the mission plans are called. “You might fudge the level of the CONOPS to get different resources or depending on whether you expect contact, but I don’t believe there was any falsification or cowboy s---. These guys were out there trying to make things happen. I was in that unit for a long time, and they’re killers, but they’re not cowboys.”
Derek Gannon, another Green Beret combat veteran, acknowledged that “a lot of mistakes happened” during the mission. “This was a young team and they were not expecting contact, and once the bullets flew, that team fell apart.”
The report also sheds new light on the fate of the Americans who were killed.
During the firefight, which lasted over an hour, some of the Nigerien soldiers accompanying the Americans fled, and the Americans repeatedly retreated to different positions under heavy fire. Three of the soldiers who were killed were left behind at two points along the way.
When insurgents found the first three soldiers’ bodies, they “fired several additional bursts into” them, the summary says, adding that they were dead by the time the insurgents reached them. La David Johnson and two Nigerien soldiers with whom he attempted to escape on foot were all killed when the enemy found them.
“The enemy did not capture [Johnson] alive,” the summary states, contradicting some media reports. His “hands were not bound and he was not executed but was killed in action.”
He was found 48 hours after the other bodies. The summary does not explain why additional parts of Johnson’s body were found on the battlefield more than a month later, on Nov. 12.
Previously, the Pentagon had made the more expansive claims that no soldiers were “left behind” on the battlefield and that none of the bodies fell into enemy hands, which the summary appears to contradict.
But the summary of the investigation answers few questions about what support the embattled team received from an American drone that was reportedly on the scene for part of the time, or French Mirage attack jets.
The report notes that a French Mirage did a low “show of force” pass over the battlefield “approximately 47 minutes after receiving notification,” but it does not say how long into the battle that notification was received.
And according to a Pentagon official speaking on condition of anonymity, references to the drone were edited out of the summary provided to the media.
“The investigation identifies individual, organizational, and institutional failures and deficiencies that contributed to the tragic events of 4 October 2017,” the summary states.
The summary includes no suggestion that the military will take disciplinary action against any of the officers in the chain of command, whether in Niger, Chad or Germany, where the larger headquarters for U.S. special operations in Africa is located.
Retired Maj. Gen. Jeff Schloesser, who left the Army after a similar investigation recommended charges of dereliction of duty against some of his subordinates over a bloody 2008 firefight in Afghanistan, warned that battlefield losses should not be viewed as solely the fault of the commanders or soldiers involved.
“All combat includes a foe, a thinking enemy who is doing everything they can to prevail,” Schloesser said. “The enemy gets a vote, and sometimes they fight fiercely.”