A Pentagon report has found that Islamist extremists ambushed and killed four U.S. troops in Niger last October after a series of missteps left the Americans exposed and vulnerable in a remote corner of the African nation.
The Pentagon has sent the classified report to Congress and military officers have started to brief the families of the soldiers who were killed. The report has not been released publicly, but an official who has seen it described it to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.
The mission began on Oct. 3, when 12 Americans, led by Green Berets, joined with a larger force of Nigerien troops on a routine patrol in the southwest part of the country, near the border with Mali.
The Americans have been in Niger since 2013 to train, advise and assist the Nigerien military in its battle with extremists linked to the Islamic State. The Americans are not supposed to take part in combat unless they come under fire.
On the mission, the Americans and the Nigerien forces were meeting with village leaders.
The troops spent the night, and instead of returning to their base the next day, they were given a new mission. They were called to look for intelligence in a place where a militant leader had apparently fled.
According to the official who’s seen the report, a lower-level officer signed off on this new mission, and higher-level officers were not kept abreast of it or were not aware of the change in plans.
The U.S. team was not anticipating any contact with the militants, and didn’t have proper planning, training or heavy firepower.
Ambushed by 50 extremists
But the American and Nigerien forces ran into an ambush and were overwhelmed by some 50 fighters in a two-hour shootout in the village of Tongo Tongo.
The four Americans killed were Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Sgt. La David Johnson. Two more Americans were wounded, and five Nigerien soldiers were killed.
The report says the soldiers fought bravely. There was helmet-camera video that showed some of the soldiers pulling wounded comrades to safety behind an SUV.
The report does not cast blame or call for punishment. But it does say there were failures at multiple levels, and calls for them to be addressed by the Army and the Special Operations Command.
President Barack Obama sent the U.S. troops to Niger five years ago, and around 800 are believed to be in the country. The Americans are building a base for drones, but do not have a large airfield for manned aircraft that could mount a rescue mission.
Niger and other African countries want U.S. training and expertise to deal with security threats, but they do not want a large, visible American presence.
Until the American deaths in Niger, the U.S. military presence there received little attention.
The New York Times reported that on Dec. 6, two months after the October ambush, another group of Green Berets and Nigerien forces killed 11 militants in a shootout. The U.S. military did not announce the fighting at the time. But the Times reported it on March 14, calling it one of 10 previously undisclosed clashes in West Africa since 2015.