WASHINGTON — A single, thorny tree was all that U.S. Army Sgt. LaDavid Johnson could see as potential cover from the swarm of terrorists pursuing him as an ambush unfolded in Niger on October 4, 2017.
The surprise enemy force — which outnumbered U.S. and Niger forces at least 3-1 — had already divided, killed and wounded some Americans in a overwhelming ambush, rendered some vehicles useless and was unrelenting in its onslaught.
It was not anything that U.S. troops had expected or had seen in Niger before, top military leaders told Pentagon reporters on Thursday.
Sgt. Johnson managed to reach the tree unscathed in a gesture that was ultimately futile. Enemy terrorists unleashed a torrent of fire from a heavy machine gun to cut off any possible further flight by him. They cornered him, closed in and killed him, according to a report released Thursday.
“Although the report details the compounding impact of tactical and operational decisions, no single failure or deficiency was the sole reason for the events of 4 October 2017,” part of the eight-page unclassified report said.
Johnson was one of four U.S. soldiers killed that day, along with four soldiers from Niger. The other Army members killed were Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright — both Green Berets — and Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson. Two Americans were wounded.
The slaying of Johnson epitomized the situation that a handful of U.S. and Niger forces confronted in the ambush — outgunned, outnumbered, nowhere to find protection and no way to safely escape.
None of those killed were taken alive or mutilated. All their equipment was taken by terrorists, the report said.
On Thursday, the Pentagon released a public version of its findings. Among other things, the report said the initial mission of the U.S. force was improperly described and thus improperly approved, that the unit had failed to conduct collective training, the troops were not properly equipped, and that overhead intelligence drones’ “eyes” were directed away from the unit after it was believed it had completed its mission.
The report also said the U.S. troops did not conduct “pre-mission rehearsals or battle drills” with allied forces from Niger. The report blamed “individual, organizational and institutional failures” for the domino impact of what became a fatal mission.
The report said if it were not for the arrival of French Mirage jets, which flew at treetop level to rout the enemy forces about an hour into the battle, the casualty count would have been much higher.
“We have directed a number of changes,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters. “We did this prior to the conclusion of the investigation.”
Those changes include being more prudent in mission choice, increased firepower for U.S. forces and quicker response time, he said.
Investigators determined that two junior officers used an old mission description document that had been approved to obtain approval for the Oct. 3-4 mission, essentially cutting and pasting the reasons seeking the mission for the new one. The falsified document received approval for a mission for reconnaissance, not to kill or capture an ISIS leader, the report said.
“It wasn’t deliberately to deceive,” Gen. Roger Cloutier, who directed the investigation, told reporters. ”It was a lack of attention to detail.”
That improper mission went off without a hitch but the high-value target was not found. That false mission, on Oct. 3, did not directly contribute to the Oct. 4 ambush, other than putting U.S. and Niger troops out in remote areas, Cloutier said.
Next, after receiving new intelligence, a more senior officer overseeing operations assigned the team to provide backup to another group of U.S. Special Operations Forces that was sent out to assault a suspected terrorist camp. However, poor weather aborted that mission and the heavily armed Special Ops force returned to its base.
After that, the force that was eventually ambushed was ordered to gather intelligence on an ISIS suspect at an encampment that drone monitoring showed to be abandoned. That individual was identified as Doundou Chefou, an ISIS-tied militant who is thought to have kidnapped a U.S. citizen last year.
The U.S.-Niger force went to the site, gathered data and headed back to its base, Waldhauser said.
On its return, Niger forces needed water and stopped in the village of Tongo Tongo. While there, a meeting was held with local leaders for several hours.
It was after the departure from Tongo Tongo that the ambush occurred, according to the report.
Cloutier said investigators interviewed 143 witnesses including 37 survivors of the attack. Photographic evidence contributed to the report, he said, and investigators found the ambush site and surrounding areas largely undisturbed.
The full 6,000-page report was not released because confidential parts need to be redacted, Waldhauser said. “We could have waited until that was all redacted,” Waldhauser said. “Instead of delaying, what we wanted to do was get the info to the families.”