Leaders of US soldiers killed in Niger filed misleading mission plan, officials say

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WASHINGTON – The four American soldiers killed in Niger last October were trying to capture or kill a high-ranking ISIS terrorist, but the two officers in charge of their 12-man unit misled their superiors by saying that ‘They were leaving on a much less risky mission, according to two US officials and a congressional official familiar with the classified investigation into the deadly ambush.

The three officials say the investigation, which will be presented to Congress this week, found that the pair believed they had the power to carry out a capture or kill mission against a high-value target even s ‘they had filed documents for a less risky purpose. operation – because other officers in the area had previously bypassed the same basic military procedures.

The 12-man Special Task Force left Niamey, the capital of Niger, on October 3, 2017, with the intention of tracking down Doundou Chefou, code-named Naylor Road, head of an ISIS affiliate called the State. Islamic in the Great Sahara. Accompanied by 30 Nigerien soldiers, the American team headed for an area near the Malian border.

Chefou is believed to be the architect of the kidnapping in October 2016 of Jeffery Woodke, a 57-year-old American aid worker. Woodke was kidnapped from his home in Niger by armed men and taken to Mali.

Before leaving Niamey, officials specify, the two army captains at the head of the 12-man team, one in charge of the field team and the other a team director based in Oaullum, Niger, tabled a mission plan for “key leader engagement”. and recognition – meaning they said the team was just going to meet with local leaders and gather information.

But the three officials told NBC News that interviews during the Pentagon investigation revealed that the two captains intentionally filed an incorrect mission plan. Despite what the two men testified, the mission was still intended to be a capture or kill operation against Chefou.

The misleading “key leader engagement” mission was approved and the team left Niamey. The assessment by US military leaders on the ground was that contact with the enemy was unlikely, according to an October briefing by Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford. But that assessment was based on the belief that the team would be conducting a reconnaissance mission, not the mission the team was actually pursuing – trying to capture or kill a terrorist.

Pentagon spokeswoman Major Sheryll Klinkel said she could not comment on the investigation until it was made public.

Ambush

Three US defense officials with knowledge of the investigation told NBC News what happened after the 12-man team left Niamey on their mission.

According to the three officials, while the team was in the field, senior officers asked it to move from its official mission of “hiring key leaders” to a new mission. Senior officers ordered the men to support a “US government team” that was traveling to the area to pursue Chefou. (Officials did not specify the makeup of this other team.)

In other words, the 12-man team were asked to do something very similar to what they were already trying to do – find Chefou and capture him or kill him. But where previously the men had been the self-proclaimed “main team” secretly chasing the ISIS target, officials say, they would now be the secondary force supporting the team that were actually ordered to find him.

In the hours following this official change of mission, however, the “US government team” that came to the region to lead the pursuit of Chefou was delayed due to weather conditions.

The 12-man US team and its 30 Nigerien counterparts then canceled their reshuffled mission and began returning to base in Niamey.

Nigeriens were running out of food and water and stopped in the village of Tongo Tongo for supplies. The Americans took the opportunity to meet with elders in the region – a “key leader engagement” of the type described in their original and incorrect documents.

A transport team of soldiers of the 3d US Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), transports the transfer case during a return of the wounded for the Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, Oct. 5, 2017.Pfc. Lane Hiser / US Army via AP file

The Americans and Nigerien soldiers left Tongo Tongo to continue their journey back to Niamey. About 100 meters after leaving the village, however, they were ambushed.

The attack was small at first, with only a few shots. But the Americans were so caught off guard that not everyone had put on their protective gear at first.

The Americans retaliated and retaliated, even advancing towards the incoming fire – unwittingly moving straight into the kill zone.

When they reached the destruction zone, the strength of the enemy force became clear. Over 50 militants overwhelmed them with firepower.

ISIS fighters had drawn the Americans into a well-prepared ambush, officials said. The militants had light weapons, rockets, machine guns and technical vehicles equipped with mounted machine guns. They hit the Americans and Nigerians with sustained, precise mortar fire and powerful direct fire.

American soldiers were not equipped for sustained engagement. They were armed with small arms, machine guns and a single shot grenade launcher. The team consisted of three American trucks with four passengers in each and at least six Nigerien vehicles.

Sgt. David Johnson, an Army mechanic from Miami Gardens, Fla., Was separated from the group when he and two Nigerien soldiers sought refuge from the attack in brush. As a truck with a mounted machine gun pursued the men, Johnson crossed a field to take cover. Runner and athlete, he was able to run about a kilometer before being hit by 18 balls. “He came down shooting,” said an official familiar with the report.

Johnson’s body went missing for nearly two days as US, French and Nigerien forces searched the area.

Three other American soldiers, Master Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, were killed in the shooting. Five Nigerien soldiers were also killed and two American soldiers were injured.

ISIS militants tried unsuccessfully to remove some of the bodies from the scene of the attack, according to two US officials. They declined to provide details.

US military officials have already changed some rules of engagement in Niger since the attack. If American soldiers in the area go out on the ground with their Nigerien counterparts, they must have a surveillance drone over their heads.

It has already saved lives, according to a US official. In early December, US soldiers on patrol with the Nigerien army stumbled upon an ISIS training camp. As they approached the camp, a radio call from a drone base in Garoua, Cameroon, warned them of a huge concentration of enemy fighters on their flank. The United States discovered the presence of the enemy just before the shooting began and was able to retaliate and escape without causing any casualties.

The classified report on the attack in Niger compiled by investigators recommends specific changes to training and surveillance to ensure soldiers understand procedures, officials say.

The Pentagon report is over 6,000 pages long and includes interviews with nearly 140 people. The families of the four fallen soldiers were each briefed on the report the last week of April and the first week of May, and US Africa Command leaders will hold a series of classified briefings on the report for members of Congress. this week.

The head of the investigation, AFRICOM Chief of Staff Major-General Roger Cloutier, and AFRICOM Commander General Thomas Waldhauser will lead the briefings.


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