WASHINGTON – U.S. forces caught in a deadly ambush in Niger earlier this month did not call for support until about an hour into the firefight, according to new details provided by the Pentagon Monday as questions into the four U.S. troop deaths there continued.
The Oct. 4 attack occurred as 12 members of a U.S. special operations task force were returning along with 30 Nigerien partnered forces from an overnight reconnaissance mission. They had traveled from the capital city of Niamey to an area about 50 miles north, near the village of Tongo Tongo, and were in the process of returning back when the attack took place, said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, who held the late Monday briefing.
There are approximately 800 U.S. troops advising and building the capacity of Nigerien forces there. That’s the highest number of U.S. forces operating there in recent times, but the U.S. has had a presence there for the last 20 years, Dunford said. The forces have concentrated in Niger to counter any potential moves by the Islamic State to reconstitute itself after being driven from its defacto capitals in Iraq and Syria.
There are 6,000 U.S. forces operating in AFRICOM in total, Dunford said.
The overnight mission actually started Oct 3, but the attack occurred during the late morning hours of Oct. 4.
The unit was ambushed by small-arms fire, rocket propelled grenades and technical vehicles by approximately 50 militants, Dunford said. The U.S. forces had not expected resistance and was only lightly armed with machine guns, small arms and communications capability “to reach back and get larger supporting arms,” Dunford said.
However the unit did not call for aircraft to assist until an hour after it came under attack, something Dunford said was part of the ongoing investigation.
“My judgement would be that unit thought they could handle that situation without additional support,” Dunford said.
Once the forces called in for help, assistance came in three waves.
The first response came within minutes, as a U.S. drone that had been operating in the region was retasked to provide oversight.
That drone, which Dunford did not identify, did not strike enemy targets on the ground.
Dunford did not say whether the drone was armed.
“I’m not going to talk about what our capabilities are in the region, but that particular capability that was there within the region did not strike.”
Dunford confirmed there was a full motion video feed “right over the scene” during the firefight, which will likely be helpful during the indecent investigation. He had not seen the video yet.
The second wave of air support, in the form of French Mirage jets, arrived roughly an hour after it was requested, which included 30 minutes for the French jets to get off the ground and then roughly 30 minutes to arrive on scene.
The Mirage jets did not immediately drop weapons on the militants, something Dunford indicated was part of the ongoing investigation.
“Part of the requirement is obviously the ability to integrate, and I don’t know if there are any challenges integrating, I don’t know why the Mirages didn’t drop bombs during those initial passes, I don’t know if the people on the ground asked them to do that,” he said. “Those are things we’ll find out in the investigation.”
Finally, French attack helicopters arrived later in the afternoon, after the fight had been going for some time.
Overall, Dunford said the unit did not have “any limitations” on firing in self-defense and did not know why munitions were not dropped. “If there is an issue of self-defense we have the inherent right to do that and we will do that.”
The firefight continued on through the afternoon, and later that day two wounded U.S. soldiers were medevaced from the scene. By evening, three of the special forces killed – Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29 – were airlifted out. At the time they were evacuated, one soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson, was still missing, Dunford said.
Questions remain about the timeline, specifically about the duration of the firefight and when the U.S. and Nigerien casualties occurred. Five Nigerien troops were killed in the firefight, Dunford said.
It wasn’t until 9:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time Oct. 4 – which would have been 2:30 a.m. the morning of Oct. 5 in Niger – that the Commander of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, notified Dunford that there was a missing soldier. Dunford then immediately notified the White House, he said.
“At that point, knowing we had a missing soldier we made a decision to make sure we had all of the resources to include national assets were available for the recovery of that operation.”
It’s Johnson’s status, the almost 48-hour window to recover him and the treatment of his widow in the days after the attack that continue to drive questions about the attack. Myeshia Johnson buried her husband this weekend in Florida. But the pregnant and grieving new Gold Star wife was not allowed to view his body, she told news outlets Monday.
Dunford said he would be looking into the circumstances of Johnson’s burial.
“What typically happens – again – I’ve been involved in these cases myself - there are times when we make a suggestion to the family that they may not want to review the remains. At the end of the day the policy is it’s the family’s decision as to whether or not they do that,” Dunford said. “I don’t know what happened in the case of Mrs. Johnson but we’ll certainly find that out.”
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.