The Four Biggest Questions About the Deadly Niger Firefight
For all the attention on the tragic encounter that killed Sgt. La David Johnson and his fellow troops, precious little is known about what really happened in Niger.
In the middle of the morning of Oct. 4 local time, militants believed to be aligned with the Islamic State ambushed a convoy of elite U.S. soldiers and their local military partners in southwestern Niger. Four Americans would end up killed. One of them was Sgt. La David Johnson, who was separated from his Special Forces detachment during the battle and became the subject of an agonizing, white-knuckle international search.
The search was initially a rescue mission. After two days of searching, those involved understood Johnson was dead, and the mission shifted into recovering his body.
The most extensive initial explanation of the ambush and its aftermath have come from two press briefings. The first, on Oct. 6, after Johnson’s body was recovered, was given by the U.S. Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) chief spokesman, Colonel Mark R. Cheadle. The second came on Monday from Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Yet press reporting over the past month has contradicted or complicated aspects of those accounts, leaving the public with far less than a clear picture of a fatal day in a part of the world most Americans did not know their military was fighting.
None of this is to imply that Cheadle or Dunford are lying, that journalists and their sources have the full story or that the full story is even available yet. Initial battlefield accounts are often wrong. The Pentagon has an investigation open into the Niger ambush. Here is a preliminary guide to several questions that investigation will need to answer.
According to Dunford, local fighters “associated with ISIS” attacked a dozen U.S. Special Forces and another 50 or so Nigerien soldiers with small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. The Special Forces had machine guns, small arms and communications gear permitting them to call in additional support. It is unclear if they wore body armor, but, Dunford said, “they did not expect resistance.”
The Daily Beast reported on Oct. 4, based on special-operations community sources, that the firefight lasted hours. Dunford did not specify precisely how long it was, beyond saying it “took several hours.” A fight that began, according to Dunford, in the mid-morning of Oct. 4, local time, lasted “well into the evening.” The wounded were evacuated sometime “late afternoon, early evening,” he said.
To give another indication of how the battle proceeded, Dunford said U.S. Special Forces did not call in for air support for an hour after coming under attack, seemingly under the impression that they could overpower the militants. Dunford said the French sent Mirage jets that arrived “about two hours” after the ambush began.
Where Was Sgt. Johnson?
The circumstances behind how Sgt. Johnson was separated from the rest of his unit are unclear, as is the timeline of that separation. Nor is it clear—from both The Daily Beast’s sources, other reporting, Cheadle and Dunford—why the rest of the unit was unable to reach him during or after the firefight. (Cheadle said he had “zero indication” enemy fighters captured Johnson.) In the absence of such clarification, many have tweeted that U.S. special forces “abandoned” Johnson, an assertion that does not currently have evidence to support it—particularly considering the extreme reluctance of servicemembers to leave a comrade to his fate.
“I want to know why it took them 48 hours to find my husband,” Johnson’s widow Myeshia told ABC News on Monday.
It is also tragically unclear when and how Johnson died.
Nigerien security forces found Johnson’s body, Cheadle said. Those forces had been combing the area where the ambush occurred and found Johnson’s body “in the vicinity of the attack.” Cheadle noted that the military did not know, as of his Oct. 6 briefing, “exactly where this soldier’s vehicle was hit or where he moved from there. You can only imagine, in the confusion of battle, the fog of an attack, how people are in an initial state of shock and then they move to a position of cover and concealment and reporting to higher [headquarters], care for the wounded and consolidating” their position.
Cheadle said he couldn’t give an estimate of “how many yards or meters” Johnson’s body was from where the fight took place “because I don’t know exactly where he came under fire.” The Nigeriens transported Johnson’s body “to a location far away from the attack” zone before a transport back to Niamey to definitively identify Johnson.
CNN reported that the Nigeriens found Johnson’s body further away than “yards or meters.” The Nigeriens recovered Johnson’s body “nearly a mile” away, CNN said. But without a clear picture of the battlefield—that is, how close or distant the fighting occurred—it is hard to determine whether CNN’s reporting can be reconciled with Cheadle’s account. CNN said Johnson’s body was nearly a mile away “from the central scene of the ambush,” which is a field of unknown proportions. Dunford said he didn’t yet know.
Were There Eyes in the Sky?
One of the central questions concerns how the ambush occurred. During Cheadle’s briefing, The Daily Beast asked if the convoy carrying the Green Berets, their support personnel and their Nigerien partner forces had ISR—intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—assets overhead. In a situation like this, such assets would give ground forces visibility into potential dangers beyond their lines of sight. Having a surveillance drone or a piloted reconnaissance plane above might anticipate or mitigate an ambush or give those in the thick of one a clearer sense of where the attack is coming from, enemy maneuvers, possible areas of escape, and so forth.
Cheadle simply answered “yes,” that there was an unarmed reconnaissance aircraft overhead during the assault. He declined to elaborate. However, Cheadle later added that “dense brush” would have “made it easy [for the attackers] to have good concealment”—and effectively blinding any U.S. eye in the sky. Dunford added on Monday that the drone was on scene “in minutes,” suggesting that it was not overhead when the patrol began. The drone shot full-motion video, though Dunford said he had not yet seen the footage.
NBC News contradicted these accounts on Friday. Citing a congressional aide briefed on the attack, NBC reported, “there was no U.S. overhead surveillance of the mission.” The absence of aerial surveillance, if true, would contrast with a central aspect of the U.S. presence in Niger. It began in 2013 to establish a hub for drone surveillance in west Africa, in the wake of the French-led war against Islamist forces overrunning neighboring Mali. Surveillance flights then occurred near Niamey, the capital, and in September 2016 AFRICOM announced plans to build a $100 million “temporary, expeditionary” airfield in Agadez, which the command called an “ideal, central location to enable ISR collection.”
What Was the Mission...?
What Johnson and the Green Beret-led team were doing on Oct. 4 is also a matter of dispute. Cheadle said they were meeting “people of influence that can help educate their people on ways to create a more stable environment.” Such missions are known as “key leader engagements,” a term typically referring to a quasi-diplomatic envoy to local potentates, often to convince them to cooperate with the U.S. and its allies, rather than bandwagoning with their adversaries.
But Dunford said on Monday the mission was “planned as a reconnaissance mission,” suggesting that whatever meeting occurred that morning had a particular tactical purpose.
The Daily Beast’s own reporting, from shortly after the ambush, suggests a different or perhaps supplementary account. Two sources from the special-operations community said the U.S.-Nigerien patrol specifically hunted a known terrorist target, though how detailed the information they possessed on the target is unknown. It is possible, though unknown, that the “leader engagement” concerned the targeted person and, aided in the U.S. understanding of the target or the environment in which the target operates.
It is further unknown whether the supposed target had any relationship to the ambush; The Daily Beast does not know the target’s name. The New York Times suggested Friday that the patrol may have engaged in an “unapproved” mission, chasing militants across the Mali border before the militants returned after the local-leader meeting. Dunford said it was a “fair question” whether the mission changed that day.
NBC’s congressional source said that a subject of interest on Capitol Hill is if attendees of the leader-engagement meeting “intentionally delayed” the U.S.-Nigerien patrol. If so, it would suggest a local antipathy or hostility to the U.S. and a sympathy to Islamic State in a region where Green Berets remain operating. That’s a flashing red light now that Sen. Lindsey Graham, after a briefing from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, predicted “more actions in Africa, not less.”
…And How Far Did It Creep?
The U.S. military mission in Niger began in 2013 with 100 around servicemembers and a seemingly simple goal: to aid in the surveillance of regional Islamist militants. It now entails mentoring the Nigerien military, beyond surveillance missions, on an open-ended duration. Over the summer, the White House told Congress the Niger deployment was sized at 645 troops. By the time of the Oct. 4 attack, reporters understood the force size to comprise 800 troops. On Sunday, Graham said it was 1,000. By contrast, the U.S. has 400 troops in Somalia, where its presence has lasted the better part of a decade against al-Shabab.
“That’s the largest number in Africa right now… in any one country, that’s the most,” Dunford said, pegging it at 800 troops. (Camp Lemonnier, the Djibouti base from which the U.S. stages its operations in East Africa—far from Niger—hosts an estimated 4,000 troops, so it’s possible Dunford meant operations beyond staging areas.)
Cheadle and Dunford both said the Special Forces did not expect the assault. He would not answer a question about whether their patrol drove in armored vehicles—“that’s just gonna give people an idea what to shoot at,” he said—which would indicate the level of threat that they expected to encounter.
“We’re reevaluating where we want to look at some of our assist, our advise missions. This was not expected. This was clearly something that had we anticipated this sort of attack, we would have absolutely devoted more resources to it to reduce the risk,” Cheadle said. Dunford said that in Niger, U.S. troops do not accompany Nigerien forces on patrol unless the “chances of enemy contact [are] unlikely.”
Either way, the fact that an adversary was able to ambush and kill four elite U.S. soldiers is another reminder that in practice, “advise missions” morph into combat extremely quickly. Advisory is often a battlefield mission, rather than a headquarters or academic exercise, no matter how much the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to conceal the battlefield risk through euphemism.
Dunford, speaking at the Pentagon on Monday, emphasized that he and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis want the investigation into the Niger ambush finished quickly—but gave no timetable, and said it would err on the side of accuracy. But the political spectacle around the assault is operating at a far faster tempo.
For two weeks, Donald Trump was silent about the ambush, all while he found time to feud with NBC, football players protesting racialized police brutality and a Republican senator. When Trump broke his silence, Johnson’s family considered him disrespectful—to which Trump reacted by untruthfully claiming that unlike previous presidents, he has called relatives of fallen troops. Defending Trump, White House chief of staff John Kelly untruthfully portrayed a congresswoman and mentor to Johnson as a showboat. By Friday, after Kelly’s portrayal was contradicted by a video, the White House had shifted to the stunning argument that Kelly was beyond criticism by virtue of being a retired four-star Marine general.
Johnson’s widow Myeshia, who is pregnant with their child, has expressed dismay and anger that Trump seemed not to know Sgt. Johnson’s name when Trump called her.
“He said he couldn’t remember my husband’s name,” Myeshia Johnson told ABC News on Monday. “The only way he remembered my husband's name is because he told me he had my husband’s report in front of him and that’s when he actually said La David. I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name and that’s what hurt me the most, because if my husband is out here fighting for our country and he risked his life for our country why can’t you remember his name.”
In response, Trump tweeted a suggestion that Myeshia Johnson is lying.