Military and Police

They Fought Until The End — Report Released on Deadly Ambush in Niger

An unclassified eight-page summary of the 6,300-page investigation into the October 2017 ambush that killed four American soldiers in Niger was released Thursday. Killed in the attack were Sergeant LaDavid Johnson, Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Sergeant First Class Jeremiah Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Justin Wright. Four Nigerian soldiers were also killed and two other Americans were wounded during the October 4, 2017 in Niger.

According to the investigation summary, the Special Forces team (Team OUALLAM) was conducting an operation with Nigerian forces in the vicinity of Tiloa to capture a key member of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria–Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS). They traveled in an eight-vehicle convoy, three American and five Nigerian.

Unable to locate the target, the team remained in the area to conduct a key leader engagement (KLE) with a partner force commander. Another attempt at conducting a capture mission was made but was again unsuccessful. While returning to base, Team OUALLAM conducted another KLE, this time in the village of Tongo Tongo, while also resupplying their convoy.

Upon completion of the KLE, the convoy began moving out of the village of Tongo Tongo and was ambushed immediately south of the village by a large enemy force. Small arms fire was directed at the rear of the convoy and was initially light. The convoy halted and American and Nigerian soldiers dismounted their vehicles and began returning fire. The American vehicles returned fire with their mounted M240B machine guns.

The American team commander on the ground, with the Nigerian force commander, attempted to flank the enemy. The enemy force began to envelop Team OUALLAM and, realizing they were severely outnumbered, the decision was made to return to the vehicles and break contact to the south. At this time, the American team commander reported observing a larger than expected enemy force equipped with motorcycles and trucks with mounted heavy machine guns.

Two Nigerian vehicles were disabled by enemy fire and three more departed the area around this time. This left three operational vehicles remaining in the kill zone, which was estimated to be thousands of feet long. The American team commander ordered the convoy to begin movement at this point, and Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson acknowledged the order with a thumbs up. He was observed to be in the vicinity of the trail vehicle with Staff Sergeants Bryan Black and Justin Wright.

They threw smoke grenades for concealment and began slowly driving the vehicles forward, with dismounted personnel using the vehicles for cover. Staff Sergeant Black was near the front of the vehicle and was hit by small arms fire at this time. Sergeant First Class Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sergeant Wright remained with Staff Sergeant Black until enemy fire forced them to withdraw. Approximately 85 meters southwest of the vehicle, Staff Sergeant Johnson was struck by enemy fire and was unable to move further. Staff Sergeant Wright remained with him until he too was killed.

Elements of the team that had continued south consolidated at a position known as “Position Two.” This element consisted of two U.S. and three Nigerien vehicles. Realizing that not all of the convoy was with them, four American soldiers began heading on foot back to the initial ambush site. The four Americans and twenty-five Nigerians that remained at Position Two continued to engage the enemy, who was now advancing towards their position. A decision was made to break contact with the enemy, and one vehicle accelerated from the area, separating the team.

Sergeant LaDavid Johnson was the lone American remaining at Position Two and he continued to engage the enemy with both the vehicle-mounted M240B machine gun and the M2010 sniper rifle. Sergeant L. Johnson attempted to get into the driver seat of the vehicle at Position Two but was forced back by heavy enemy fire. With the enemy closing in on their position, Sergeant L. Johnson and two Nigerians broke contact and began running to the west. Both Nigerians were shot and killed. Sergeant L. Johnson continued to evade on foot for a total of almost 800 meters. He sought cover behind a single thorny tree, the only cover and concealment in the vicinity. He continued to engage the pursuing enemy until he was killed by enemy fire. The enemy did not capture him alive.

The remaining American and Nigerian soldiers made their first radio call around this time, advising that there were troops in contact and requesting assistance. They evaded the enemy into a wooded area to the west of the ambush site, where they established a hasty defensive position and prepared to make their last stand.

Friendly forces responded to the request for assistance immediately and French jets arrived over the area but could not engage due to being unable to identify U.S. locations on the ground. The investigation credits French and Nigerian partner forces with saving the lives of the remaining team members. Shows of force by French aircraft prevented the remaining members of the team from being overrun and caused the enemy to break off their pursuit and flee the area.

French helicopters from Task Force Barkhane arrived later in the day and evacuated the surviving members of Team OUALLAM.

In the eight-page summary of the investigation, AFRICOM concludes that “individual, organizational, and institutional failures and deficiencies contributed to the tragic events of 4 October 2017.”

The findings continue to say that “no single failure or deficiency was the sole reason for the events of 4 October 2017. To the extent this report highlights tactical decisions made by Soldiers in the heat of battle, it should not be overlooked that American and Nigerian forces fought courageously on 4 October 2017 despite being significantly outnumbered by the enemy.”

About 800 US troops continue to operate in Niger in an “advise and assist” role, providing training and logistical support to Nigerian security forces. Another 6,000 US troops are serving in other parts of Africa, including special forces and support elements for drone operations.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Chris Castellano

Christopher Castellano is a U.S. Army Veteran. He currently serves as a firefighter in New York City.

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