Nigerien officials and local villagers have given accounts of the Oct. 4 ambush that killed four U.S. troops that are at odds with the Pentagon's initial version of the incident as a training patrol meant to avoid enemy contact.
"It was a mission to collect information and to neutralize the enemy or the threat," Nigerien Defense Minister Kalla Moutari told The Washington Post of the patrol of about 12 U.S. and 30 Nigerien troops near the Mali border.
"It so happened that the enemy had time to take position and got the right opportunity to attack them," Moutari said of the mission that set out from the Nigerien capital of Niamey on Oct. 3 and was ambushed on Oct. 4 near the village of Tongo Tongo.
Nigerien Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum also gave a description of the mission that conflicted with the Pentagon's account of a routine reconnaissance patrol with no particular objective other than to provide the Nigeriens with an opportunity to work with members of the U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group in their train, advise and assist role.
"It was an intelligence mission but also a mission of an operational nature," Bazoum said, in a lawless area crisscrossed by militant groups with varying loyalties that resulted in the deaths of four U.S. troops and the wounding of two others. Four Nigerien troops and a Nigerien interpreter for the Americans also were killed.
Both Bazoum and Moutari said the patrol had made contact with militants and killed several in action on Oct. 3 ahead of the Oct. 4 ambush.
The four U.S. troops killed were the first U.S. combat casualties since U.S. forces entered Niger in 2013. In February, a member of the 3rd Special Forces Group was killed in a vehicle accident in Niger, the Pentagon said.
About 800 U.S. service members are in Niger, mainly operating drones out of Niamey and constructing a new drone base at Agadez.
U.S. Africa Command initially said three U.S. troops had been killed; two days later, it said the death toll was four.
They were identified as Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia.
The body of La David Johnson was not recovered until two days after the firefight. How he came to be separated from the others has become one of the lingering questions about the incident and the overall U.S. involvement in the region.
At a Pentagon briefing last month, Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the Pentagon's Joint Staff Director, stressed that Johnson was not left behind. He said that U.S., Nigerien and French troops were on the ground searching for him until his body was found about a mile from where the firefight began.
In a report from Tongo Tongo last week, CBS News cited village elder Adamou Bububaker as saying he found three of the slain Americans in or near their truck.
"Two of the bodies were in the vehicle and another on the ground," he said. CBS cited Nigerien military sources as saying that Johnson may have been captured and executed by the militants.
The sources said that Johnson had been shot and his body was dumped in bushes with his hands tied together.
Nigerien Sgt. Abdou Kane, 28, who was wounded in the leg in the firefight, told The Washington Post that some of the Nigerien troops fled as the ambush began.
"The Americans had more sophisticated weapons, and so we let them confront the enemy while we took cover," Kane said. "The Americans were telling us not to flee but to go back and fight the enemy. But the enemy was following us and shooting at us."
The Pentagon has mainly withheld comment on the ambush pending the completion of an Article 15-5 fact-finding investigation led by Army Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., the chief of staff to Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of Africa Command.
The FBI is also in Niger looking into the implications of the ambush for national security.
The Pentagon and AfricCom previously said that at least 26 patrols had been conducted in the same general area along the Mali border this year without incident.
However, the United Nations, in a recent report on violence in the region, said that 46 attacks had occurred this year in the Mali-Niger border area.
U.S. officials have also noted the presence in the area of a new group claiming an affiliation to ISIS and calling itself the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel.
On Oct. 21, gunmen in pickup trucks and riding motorcycles crossed from Mail and attacked a police outpost, killing 13 Nigerien gendarmes and wounding five others, Nigerien officials said.
At an Oct. 22 Pentagon news conference, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said that about two hours passed before fixed-wing and rotary French air support arrived from Mali in the Oct. 4 ambush.
He said the patrol's commander did not call for air support until an hour after the firefight began.
Dunford said he had no immediate explanation for the delay but speculated the commander may have assessed that the patrol could "handle the situation."
Within minutes of the call for air support, an unarmed U.S. drone was overhead, but French Mirage fighters and French Puma helicopters did not arrive for another hour, Dunford said. He added that the French air support from Mali took about 30 minutes to get ready and another 30 minutes to arrive at the scene.
"It's fair to say" that it took a total of about two hours from the time the attack began to when air support arrived, Dunford said.
The Mirages did not drop munitions and "I don't know why," he said, again speculating that the patrol commander warned against it.
Over the weekend, Niger gave permission to the U.S. to use armed drones in tracking jihadist groups. Defense Minister Moutari said the decision to go ahead on armed drones had been made before the Oct. 4 ambush.
Moutari told state radio, "It was a negotiation that had been underway for a while. Arming the drones is an option we decided on before we learned of the tragedy at Tongo Tongo.
"We are dealing with very well-armed groups," he said, and "armed drones are an appropriate and decisive response for fighting terrorism."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.