When many Americans woke up one morning in October to discover that two US Special Forces soldiers and one support soldier were killed in an ambush in Niger, they were incredulous. Why are American troops in Niger? How is Niger important to the United States strategically? How could our highly trained Special Forces soldiers be killed in an ambush during what was supposed to be a low-risk mission? This article will answer these questions in detail.
3rd Special Forces Group had been in Niger for years by 2017, and 10th Special Forces Group had been deploying there before them. Historically, the land-locked African country was more of a French area of operations. While the United States military has a global mandate, the French take a more localized approach, focusing on their former colonies in West Africa. Some see this as a continuation of the French-Afrique relationship, a kind of unseemly mafia-like relationship between African states and their former colonial masters. Be that as it may, the French Foreign Legion has been very active in this theater, combating Al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali while other French soldiers maintain a presence in nearby countries like Ghana and Senegal.
Many were shocked to learn that American Special Operations Forces were operating in Africa, but this is far from anything new. JSOC’s Intelligence Support Activity (Task Force Orange) has been operating in Mali, drone programs known as Aztec Archer and Creek Sand had been implemented, SEAL Team Six operators were in and out of embassies around the continent not to mention executing direct action raids in Somalia. Delta Force had been deployed to Libya on numerous occasions, as have Special Forces and MARSOC. AFRICOM and SOC-Africa have had dozens of on-going train, advise, assist missions ongoing across Africa.
The history of each West and Central African nation, and the history of Western military involvement there, is worthy of volumes so brevity will have to be used here, keeping the focus on the contemporary environment. With a number of African nations facing a threat from Islamist groups, the United States military has deployed U.S. Special Forces to these countries to work in an advisory (non-combat) role. 3rd Group also deployed to Uganda, built strong relationships with the local military, and had some success in tracking down the whereabouts of one Joseph Kony, but without cross-border authority to go into the Central African Republic from AFRICOM (and ultimately the White House) there was no way that he was ever going to be captured.
In nearby Nigeria, the U.S. government wanted to send Green Berets to help fight Boko Haram, but due to war crimes (the Nigerian Army had a thing for executing prisoners) U.S. Special Forces were prohibited from joining the fray under the Leahy Amendment. This opened the doors for the South Africans to serve as advisors instead, and Eeben Barlow of STTEP International helped facilitate this relationship. Eventually, the U.S. government got what they wanted, pressured the Nigerians to get the South Africans out, and get U.S. Special Forces in. Washington D.C. hates competition.
Niger became strategic to the Global War on Terror largely due to its location on the map in central Africa where it shares borders with Mali, Algeria, Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Benin, and Burkina Faso. Of those countries, Mali, Libya, and Nigeria have had extremely challenging Islamist threat groups active in recent years. Algeria and Chad are not in great shape either.
One of the biggest problems with conflicts in Africa is that they happen irrespective of international borders, in other words, national boundaries are often completely ignored assuming the local population is even aware of them. Because of this, problems in the surrounding countries greatly affect Niger. Additionally, Niger has an at risk population when it comes to extremism due to various factors like mortality rates, poverty, a very young population, and other social issues making Niger ripe for exploitation by extremists.
3rd Special Forces Group
3rd Special Forces Group began deploying 12-man ODA’s to Niger in 5-6 month rotations called Joint Combined Exchange Training or JCETs. Contrary to what many have claimed about SOF deployments to Niger, these were not top-secret missions or shady off-the-books operations out of a Tom Clancy novel. JCETs are routine and often publicized. They are also arranged through the host-nation government with the assistance of the U.S. State Department. In other words, the Special Forces team is there at the invitation of the host-nation’s government. These JCETs consist of the American soldiers training and advising their partners in the Nigerien military.
In recent years, U.S. Special Forces has conducted JCETs to train up a Nigerien counter-terrorism unit called BSI. They have also trained them in explosive ordnance disposal and other tasks. The Green Berets would also accompany and assist their Nigerien counter-parts on operations, however they would not directly participate in combat themselves. As Green Berets have learned from Colombia to the Philippines, in order to build rapport and have the respect of your local teammates, you have to share some of the risks rather than kick back in a headquarters somewhere during operations.
Special Forces soldiers told SOFREP that they had a high opinion of their Nigerien counter-parts, but not such a high opinion of their commanders in SOC-Africa who act as if they have all the answers and don’t take the consultation of their men on the ground seriously. The men have an especially low opinion of Gen. Buldoc who at that time commanded AFRICOM and previously commanded 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group. The Green Berets felt that he was too timid to do real work in Africa and that he approached every situation with a mountain of preconceptions which would not waiver. The ODA’s loved the mission and the men in Niger, but not their chain of command.
The environment that the ODA’s worked in was austere to say the least. Typhoid and malaria were common, many of the Americans would lose up to 20 pounds during a deployment. Connectivity was extremely poor and they were lucky if they could get satellite reception once in a while out in the field. In some regards, it was a throwback to the traditional unconventional warfare mission that U.S. Special Forces were designed for. The French had wanted to partner with the Nigeriens initially, but they rebuffed the offer, choosing to work with the Green Berets instead.
The first U.S. Special Forces casualty in Niger was Warrant Officer Shawn Thomas who was killed in a vehicle accident while riding in a non-standard tactical vehicle (aka: technical). ODA’s typically drove around Niger in modified Land Cruisers the same way they have been using Toyota Hiluxes in Afghanistan. The medics worked desperately to save their teammate, but sadly he died from his injuries. Thomas had previously been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan seven times, and left behind a wife and four children.
USASOC’s public affairs office issued a typically bland statement saying, “SF teams are advising members of the Nigerien Armed Forces who are conducting counter-Boko Haram operations to bring stability to the Lake Chad Basin region.”
Despite suffering the loss of a good man, the mission continued with U.S. Special Forces and the Nigerien partner force ensuring that Niger didn’t downslide into the next Afghanistan.
A new threat group emerges: ISIS-GS
This region has been the home to a myriad of terrorist groups to include Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Mourabitoun, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, Ansaru, Ansaroul Islam, Boko Haram and Macina Liberation Front. In Africa, Al-Qaeda and ISIS linked groups feud and battle one another, just as they do in Syria. ISIS-Greater Sahara (GS) is a new group, one thought to be lead by Abu Walid Al-Sahraoui according to a SOFREP correspondent who has worked in the region.
ISIS-GS is believed to be one of the weaker terrorist organizations, which is why we haven’t heard much from them up until today. Al-Sahraoui wants to consolidate power and grow in strength before making public displays, knowing that noisy terrorist groups end up on the receiving end of drone strikes, SOF raids, or South African contractors. The organization’s normal area of operations in located in Mali, particularly around Kidal and Menaka.
In the weeks leading up to the ambush of the 3rd Special Forces Group ODA, sources have reported to SOFREP that the unit was escalating the level of violence on the enemy in Niger. This included launching direct action raids against High Value Targets. This is contrary to the press releases issued by the Pentagon saying that the Green Berets were simply on a recon mission. This is factually incorrect, they were acting as combat advisors to the Nigeriens who were conducting a direct action mission. In the process of this, it is possible that the ODA kicked the hornets’ nest and someone called their terrorist buddies in Mali for reinforcements.
An ambush in Niger
ODA 3212 was returning from their mission with host-nation counterparts when the ambush occurred. Augmented by support personnel from 3rd Special Forces Group’s Group Support Battalion (GSB), these soldiers were utilized as drivers and other important roles in order to free up the Special Forces qualified soldiers to work by, with, and through their Nigerien teammates.
Their convoy came under sustained machine gun fire from enemy technicals, the total enemy force numbering somewhere around fifty ISIS-GS fighters. A handful of Nigerien soldiers were cut down. Staff Sergeants Bryan Black and Dustin Wright were two of the Green Berets killed in the firefight that raged for half an hour. Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, a chemical support soldier, was also killed. The ODA was split in half, most likely due to one half of the team caught in the kill zone while the other was outside of it. A more competent enemy would have better planned the ambush and initiated with the entire convoy inside their kill zone, but thankfully terrorists are not that smart. According to some sources, the Nigerien soldiers ran away at this point, leaving the Green Berets to fend for themselves.
In an austere environment, one which is not a matured battlefield like that of Iraq or Afghanistan, the Special Forces soldiers had only their wits, training, and bravery to fall back on. There would be no drones providing intelligence from overhead, fighter jets to offer close air support, or AC-130 gunships in orbit over the target area.
The half of the ODA outside the kill zone began maneuvering, attempting to outflank the enemy. The survivors had to break off their counter-attack and break contact, while the French military was spun up to respond as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and recover the dead. The ODA’s Team Leader, Capt. Micheal Perezoni was wounded in action as was another Green Beret, Brent Bartels. Both were medically evacuated to Germany.
There was one American from the convoy who was still missing though, a mechanic named La David Johnson. He was now officially Missing in Action, behind enemy lines, and thought to be escaping and evading.
The Boys from Bragg
At any given time, there is a battalion of Rangers and a squadron of Delta operators on standby to respond to any crisis worldwide as directed by the Secretary of Defense and the President. Pallets are built, soldiers keep their cell phones close by, and no one travels very far from the base just in case. It is publicly stated that the Ranger battalion on standby can be wheels up in 18 hours or less. Whether or not other elements can respond faster is a closely held secret.
When the balloon went up, operators from Delta Force were called into a briefing and quickly run down on the bare details that their intelligence section had at the time. An American Special Forces team had been ambushed in Niger, and one soldier was Missing in Action, maybe on the run, maybe captured by the enemy. As time went on, reports also indicated that ISIS-GS had been making a beeline towards the Libyan border, and who knew what else beyond. The clock was ticking.
Delta scrambled into action, flying into Niger with an aviation package from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The Army counter-terrorism unit immediately went into their planning sequence, trying to establish a tactical picture of the environment and locate La David. Accounts differ, but some have stated that there was a personnel beacon activated which was being tracked. Others say that there were eyes on someone suspected to be La David.
Delta Force submitted the concept of the operation (CONOP) for the rescue mission to higher for approval. It would be a full moon that night, the added illumination not a good factor for the helicopter pilots or maintaining the element of surprise. A lot of folks were white-knuckling it, including SOFREP. Like other news outlets, we knew about La David but did not report that he was missing in action in order to give him, and the operators, a fighting chance of repatriating an American soldier.
When La David’s remains were located at the ambush site, the mission was stood down. Delta was given the order to return to base at Fort Bragg. It was another tough pill to swallow in what had already been an extremely challenging series of events.
Even while a soldier was suspected to be missing in action, while wounded were being flown to Germany, while the remains of fallen soldiers were being returned home, the Pentagon was already plotting to throw the Special Forces soldiers under the bus.
Today’s military operates in a highly corporatized zero-defect environment which leads officers to becoming extremely risk adverse. They are hesitant to go out on a limb, think outside the box, or do anything that challenges orthodoxy because they need to check certain blocks in their evaluation reports in order to be promoted. Tools used to perpetuate this cynical system include risk assessments. These are worksheets done to assess risk on a graduated scale. If one is honest when filling out these risk assessments, combat operations and most training would max out the assessment and render the military obsolete and non-deployable.
The Pentagon’s prepared narrative is that ODA 3212 did not properly fill out a risk assessment, therefore placing the blame for the ambush and the deaths of their solders solely on theirs, and allowing the Pentagon itself to escape any scrutiny. In the aftermath of a deadly ambush, higher headquarter’s first act was to brainstorm how to put distance between themselves and the man on the ground. Nothing could be more cowardly or show less leadership. This is why Special Forces soldiers do not trust their chain of command. A full investigation will be conducted by the various parties involved and the outcome is unlikely to provide comforting answers.
There is currently a cultural trend within Special Operations which is evolving into doctrine. This is that no operations should ever take place without air cover. SOCOM and JSOC looks at where they have experienced the most success with the least risk and determined that have drones and close air support are their money-maker. Unconventional warfare is the thing of the past to them. The ambush in Niger and the risk assessment nonsense is only going to help solidify that argument with policy makers.
Politicians are likely to back such a doctrine as they do want to mitigate risk to their re-election campaigns. No one wants another Benghazi. Meanwhile, America’s military capabilities will languish. The SOF truth that humans are more important than hardware will again be neglected, and unconventional warfare will be tossed into the rubbish heap because the risks outweigh the rewards for busybody politicians wearing officer rank at the Pentagon.
The ODA in Niger was doing their job, and doing it well. Conducting Special Operations missions entails risks, and it is time that military officers and the public at large start to accept the consequences of sending our young men to war.