In the aftermath of the deadly ambush that killed four American soldiers near Tongo Tongo, Niger, we outlined the context and background of U.S. Special Forces in Africa and specifically in Niger, examined what happened during the ambush to the best of our ability, and detailed the attempted rescue mission to repatriate La David Johnson. With new information released by the Department of Defense based upon their 6,000-page investigation into the ambush we now know much more and can examine this firefight in far greater detail.
First, it must be noted that the following analysis has the benefit of hindsight, a massive DOD investigation, and other previous reporting on what happened in Niger on October 4th, 2017. ODA 3212 was on the ground that day and had to make difficult decisions under fire based on what information they had on hand at that moment. Today, we have the luxury of looking at the situation from 20,000 feet while examining all available data. This article bases its commentary around the following video while making additional observations.
From the onset it is worth noting how much of AFRICOM and SOCAFRICA‘s command structure is actually based in Germany rather than on the African continent. Would it make a difference if these structures were located in Africa? Perhaps not, but this demonstrates how far removed they are from the cultures and battlefields that these commands preside over are as they are not even in the same theater of operation.
The Pentagon’s narrative of events holds that ODA 3212 essentially went rogue by submitting a false Concept of Operation (CONOP) form to headquarters for a Key Leader Engagement (KLE) when they actually intended to conduct a Direct Action (DA) raid against a terrorist leader. The fact that the ODA was ambushed after this mission failed to materialize and that the team was ordered to examine an abandoned village where the militant leader was thought to be located by their headquarters renders the Pentagon’s “rogue” team narrative as being the reason for the ambush null and void.
Even if the CONOP submitted did not sufficiently detail the ODA’s planned activities, the team was ambushed while doing what they were directed to do by their higher headquarters, not because they were freelancing or coloring outside the lines. The Pentagon has attempted to link the CONOP to the ambush so that they can defer all responsibility to the low-ranking soldiers on the ground.
When conducting this operation, the ODA and other American personnel on the mission rolled out in light skinned four-wheel drive pickup trucks, rather than heavy up-armored humvees or MRAPs that soldiers typically drive in Iraq or Afghanistan. The reason for this is because of the terrain and sandy ground in Niger. Heavy armored vehicles will sink into the dirt and become immobilized. The ODA was also lightly armed, with only M240 machine guns for support weapons mounted on their trucks. In retrospect, the M2HB .50 caliber machine gun would have been better suited for this mission due to the longer range, greater killing power, and the intimidating effect that it has on the enemy — 60mm mortar systems also could have made a difference in the ensuing firefight.
After failing to locate the High Value Target, ODA 3212 began returning to base but stopped in the village of Tongo Tongo so that their partner force could eat breakfast and recuperate. The ODA used the opportunity to meet with village elders (7:00 mark on the video) while they waited to build some rapport. Around 11:30 in the morning, ODA 3212 and their Nigerien partner force departed Tongo Tongo and soon received small arms fire from the village, which was now behind them. It was not a well-planned coordinated ambush in which the convoy was trapped inside a killzone. The convoy stopped as enemy fighters maneuvered through the wood line and opened fire on them. The ODA reported enemy contact up to their Advanced Operating Base (AOB).
At this point, the M240 gunners laid down a base of fire on the enemy positions while other team members prepared a bold flanking maneuver. These are basic infantry fire and maneuver tactics, which are doctrinally sound. However, there are some lingering questions. The American chosen to lead this flanking maneuver was the ODA’s team leader, captain Micheal Perezoni.
Leading a flanking movement is the type of task falls under the purview of a Non-Commissioned Officer, a sergeant. This is something that any enlisted Special Forces (or infantry) soldier should be able to handle. The team’s captain would normally be expected to remain with the element laying down a base of fire and talking on the radio to coordinate elements. The sergeants rally the troops and fight the enemy. The officer in charge needs to be thinking several steps ahead and planning what the team will need to do next.
Furthermore, the captain chose to flank with just four Nigerien soldiers, rather than taking half (which would have been roughly 15 troops) of the host-nation element with him. This is likely because he suspected that they were only facing three or four enemy rather than a larger force with reinforcements in-bound. We now have information that the ODA did not have at that time, which is important to keep in mind. Meanwhile, one of the trucks filled with Nigerien soldiers turned and fled the battlefield, abandoning their teammates. This is the first big sign that things are about to head south and the U.S.-Nigerien element is beginning to fray under the stress of combat.
The flanking element than ran into a body of water (9:13 on the video), but got eyes on the enemy force that had ambushed them and returned fire, killing several of militants who belonged to ISIS-Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS). Captain Perezoni then observed a large enemy force moving towards him consisting of militants on dirt bikes and riding in technicals (pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on them) so he broke contact with his four Nigerien troops and fell back to the convoy at 11:57AM. He then ordered the convoy to pick up and drive south so that they would not be outflanked by the large enemy force he had spotted.
It is stated in the DOD video that the Team Sergeant and other ODA members had to rally and organize their host-nation counterparts who were taking cover in the woods behind the convoy, which implies that they were simply hiding rather than being decisively engaged in the firefight. By the time everyone was up and moving, it was too late and they were flanked by the enemy force that captain Perezoni had been trying to avoid. Two Nigerien vehicles hurried away and left the rest of their convoy behind. This now means that three truckloads of soldiers had left the main element behind, taking each of those men out of the firefight and giving the enemy less vehicles to focus their fires on.
The last vehicle in the new order of movement was one of the American pickup trucks where Staff Sergeants Black, Wright, and Johnson were located. The DOD video states that captain Perezoni signaled (presumably via a hand and arm signal as they would not have heard much over the sound of gunfire) that they were to depart. Staff Sergeant Johnson is said to have acknowledged this with a thumbs-up. At this point, one of the Americans threw a smoke grenade in order to obscure their movements from the enemy. This is right about where the helmet cam footage captured by the ISIS-GS element and uploaded online begins.
The other two American vehicles than depart and drive away heading south. The last vehicle, driven by Staff Sergeant Wright slow rolled forward while Staff Sergeants Black and Johnson moved behind the vehicle, using it as cover while returning fire on enemy positions (10:30 mark on the video). At this point there is a huge break in contact between the American elements of the convoy and they are no longer able to effectively provide mutually supporting fires. Staff Sergeant Black was then shot and killed by the enemy. Wright then exited the vehicle and he and Johnson returned fire until they were overwhelmed by enemy gunfire. With few options left remaining, they decided to escape and evade.
While running in the opposite direction of the enemy forces, Johnson was shot about 85 meters away from their vehicle. Wright was not going to leave his team mate behind and ran back to Johnson’s position, continuing to fire on the advancing enemy forces. Both soldiers were shot and killed.
It was only when the other two American vehicles with the two remaining Nigerien vehicles arrived at a security halt 800 meters away that they realized that they were missing one vehicle along with Wright, Johnson, and Black. At the security halt, they tried to radio back to the missing vehicle but received no response, likely because those team members had already been killed. The security halt was also beginning to come under enemy fire. At this point two ODA members volunteered to run back (12:00 minute mark) and try to find them. This was undoubtedly very brave of these two men, however that these men were ever in this position is horrifying. Why did the entire security halt not pick up and return to the kill zone instead of sending just two men?
About ten minutes later, two additional ODA members left the security halt to try to go and find the other two men who had departed and help them find their missing team mates. Sergeant La David Johnson was manning the M240 on one truck and returning fire at enemy positions. What becomes clear throughout the video is that ODA 3212 and their host-nation counter-parts were separated again, and again, and again. The convoy was broken down into smaller and smaller elements which were easier to kill by enemy forces. Had the convoy stuck together and functioned in a coordinated manner, it is unlikely that the enemy would have had nearly as much success as they did.
It got so bad that the American element was broken down into buddy teams, and later down to one soldier left alone.
The first buddy team of Special Forces soldiers moved towards the kill zone and made contact with the enemy. They received enough effective enemy fire that they broke contact and ran into the second buddy team that had left the security halt. This moment had a high potential for friendly fire, but thankfully this didn’t happen. At this point there are a lot of individual moving elements on the battlefield that are now separated from one another and do not know where their other friendly elements are or what they are doing. For the ODA members, this situation must have been chaotic and confusing. None the less, the four Special Forces soldiers began planning a new route to move forward and locate Johnson, Wright, and Black.
Back at the security halt, the two U.S. and two Nigerien vehicles were now coming under sustained enemy fire from two directions so captain Perezoni ordered a withdrawal (13:20). The two Nigerien vehicles peeled off and departed the battlefield. Perezoni’s vehicle picked up U.S. and Nigerien troops before heading back towards the kill zone, in the direction that the four ODA team members had gone in. Meanwhile, La David Johnson and two Nigeriens were unable to board their vehicle due to the intense amount of enemy gunfire. Perezoni’s vehicle did not realize this and gunned it towards where they had initially made contact with the enemy, leaving La David Johnson behind.
Facing armed ISIS-GS members on dirtbikes and technicals, with his M240 machine gun out of ammunition, La David Johnson had little option but to attempt to escape and evade with the two Nigeriens he had been left with. The three ran south west to try to escape around 12:30 in the afternoon. The two Nigerien troops were soon cut down by enemy fire about 400 meters away from their vehicle.
La David Johnson was now alone and outgunned, being chased down by dirt bikes and technicals across the flat and largely featureless terrain of the Sahel. He ran another 450 meters and found a thorny tree, the only available cover and concealment. Johnson stayed in the fight and returned fire up until an enemy technical got within 100 meters (15:30) and fired on him with a machine gun. Johnson was fatally wounded.
The ODA was effectively shattered and spread out across the battlefield, fighting individually or in pairs rather than as a team.
As Captain Perezoni’s vehicle raced back towards the kill zone under enemy fire. Five of the seven passengers were wounded. Perezoni was shot and thrown from the bed of the pickup, forcing them to turn around to retrieve the captain. The vehicle then drove into the woodline and became stuck in the mud. This was when the four ODA members who had left to look for their team mates spotted the remaining American vehicle and ran towards it where they linked up. The Americans again came under enemy fire and radioed to their headquarters that they were being overrun.
Believing they were all about to be killed, the team initiated their destruction plan. In what is likely to be a controversial decision, the ODA members destroyed their radios and probably other sensitive items to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. This action would keep classified military secrets out of the hands of ISIS-GS, but now the ODA was isolated without any way to call for further help, communicate with other ground elements, or talk to air assets which would eventually arrive.
The remaining seven Americans and several Nigeriens escaped and evaded through the woodline (17:09) under enemy gun and mortar fire. They trudged through a swamp and successfully broke contact with the enemy for a few moments. Now they established a hasty security perimeter at the edge of the woodline at approximately 12:50PM. At this time, the Americans used their personal devices to send messages to loved ones, final farewells as they believed they would soon be killed.
The use and presence of personal devices on the battlefield is concerning because of OPSEC considerations, as DOD has finally become aware of and acted on by banning Huawei cell phones from military installations. The use of personal fitness devices also compromised clandestine American bases in Syria recently. However, what is more concerning in this moment is that the soldiers had given up hope. They viewed their situation as so dire that they had become fatalistic.
At 13:11, two American unmanned aerial vehicles arrived over the battle space and established contact with the team and arriving French aircraft. That communications were established with the team means that at least one radio was kept, perhaps a smaller E&E radio, but this is unknown. Minutes later, the French Mirage fighter jets did several flyovers, shows of force to signal to the enemy that fast movers had arrived. The French fighter jets did not engage the enemy however, because they could not yet establish which elements on the ground were friendly. The fly overs did work though, and the enemy cut off their pursuit of the American ground element. At 16:00 French helicopters arrived and began looking for the team.
At 16:40, the SOCAFRICA commander recommended to the AFRICOM commander that they initiate missing personal recovery contingencies. An alert was sent up to 1st SFOD-D, commonly known as Delta Force at Fort Bragg. Operators were called in for a hasty briefing and then a package that included elements of 160th Special Operations Aviation got on aircraft bound for Niger.
In the meantime, a Nigerien military element arrived on the battlefield (19:25) and mistook the surviving ODA team members for enemy forces and fired on them with machine guns until the situation could be defused. With the Nigeriens securing a landing zone, French helicopters were finally able to evacuate the American team members at 16:55.
Back on the battlefield, Nigerien troops located and secured the remains of Johnson, Wright, and Black. La David Johnson was still missing as Delta Force landed in Niger. At the time, there were reports that a personnel beacon had be activated and it was believed that ISIS-GS may have been scrambling La David Johnson to a bordering nation. These reports turned out to be false.
Delta Force was now going into their mission planning sequence and preparing for a hostage rescue operation. La David Johnson was still missing and ground elements had not located his remains because he ran run nearly a kilometer from his last known position and was under a dense thorn tree. When Nigerien forces finally found Johnson’s remains, Delta was stood down and ordered to return to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In the end, four American and four Nigeriens had been killed in the firefight. Estimates of enemy killed in action range from 20-25.
That DOD put together a report to explain to the American public why our soldiers are in Niger and why four soldiers were lost that day is something to be commended. This should happen more often, and in previous cases could have helped avert many asinine conspiracy theories that rose up around events such as the Extortion 17 crash in Afghanistan or the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.
Some main points for improvement that are easily identifiable from a tactical perspective are related to inter-team communication as well as command and control. Officers should not be leading flanking maneuvers into battle or jumping into the stack of assaulters outside a door about to be breached. If they are this demonstrates a lack of faith in junior team members, a lack of trust that alludes to deeper issues. Throughout the firefight the ODA allowed themselves to be separated and broken down into smaller and smaller elements, ending up in buddy teams or in La David Johnson’s case, alone with two Nigeriens. If team cohesion had not fallen apart and the Americans and Nigeriens fought as one, the outcome of this firefight probably would have been very different.
Equally disturbing reports have emerged from the higher headquarters elements above ODA 3212, ones that the Pentagon is unwilling to take any responsibility for. Secretary Mattis and General Dunford were reportedly troubled that the Pentagon’s 6,000-page report blames captain Perezoni and his ODA for what happened or failed to happen during the firefight, while senior officers escape any scrutiny. This type of “leadership” is reprehensible. As Special Forces members told SOFREP, they loved the Niger mission but despised their chain of command.
As acknowledged in the DOD video, the ODA was simply going where they had been directed to go and do what they had been directed to do. The team did not “go rogue” as some self-serving Pentagon leaks have implied. Captain Perezoni had also warned his bosses that they were not equipped or placed in a manner to conduct these type of missions but was ignored.
DOD’s bunker down mentality in the face of a scandal is not to support their soldiers but rather to institute further risk mitigation, a politically correct term for tying the hands of Special Forces soldiers all across Africa. Special Forces teams in Niger are said to be pulling their hair out in frustration and are baffled to be told that they are now to stay on their bases and train brigade staff elements, which is not what ODA’s do.
SOFREP recently interviewed African security specialist Eeben Barlow who served in South Africa’s border war before founding Executive Outcomes which deployed military contractors to Angola and Sierra Leone. More recently, he was the chairman of a company called STTEP that deployed contractors to serve alongside soldiers in Nigeria who successfully fought back Boko Haram.
“Watching the footage of those four guys who were shot in Niger, we looked at it,” Barlow said. “I have to admit we were really, really horrified by what we saw because that was a classic example of doctrinal failure, not understanding the terrain, and not understanding the enemy.”
“Watching that I thought, that is so, so tragic and could have been avoided,” Barlow said in frustration. “I think those guys, for want of a better word, were sacrificed in many ways.”
Featured image: Nigerien soldiers practice vehicle contact movements while participating in a special forces training exercise during Exercise Flintlock 2018 in Agadez, Niger, April 18, 2018. Flintlock is an annual, African-led, integrated military and law enforcement exercise working with multinational special operations groups. The exercise is designed to strengthen the ability of key partner nations in the region to counter violent extremist organizations, protect their borders, and provide security for their people. (U.S. Army photo by Richard Bumgardner/Released)