Tongo Tongo ambush
The Tongo Tongo ambush occurred on 4 October 2017, when armed militants from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) attacked Nigerien and U.S. soldiers near the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger, while they were returning to base from a mission. During the ambush, five Nigeriens, four Americans, and at least 21 ISGS militants were killed and eight Nigeriens and two Americans were wounded. The Nigerien and U.S. soldiers were participating in a mission to gather information on the whereabouts of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the ISGS.
The ambush sparked political debate over the presence of U.S. troops in Africa and brought attention to previously under-reported U.S. military activities in the region. The ambush also prompted congressional inquiries, and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Defense. The U.S. Department of Defense inquiry, completed in 2018, found that the 11-member U.S. special forces team was not prepared for the mission, and identified other flaws in planning.
- 1 Background
- 2 Attack
- 3 Casualties
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
In January 2013, a senior Nigerien official told Reuters that Bisa Williams, the then-United States Ambassador to Niger, requested permission to establish a drone base in a meeting with Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou. On 5 February, officials from both Niger and the United States said that the two countries signed a status of forces agreement that allowed the deployment of unarmed surveillance drones. In that month, US President Barack Obama sent 150 military personnel to Niger to set up a surveillance drone operation that would aid France in its counterterrorism efforts in the Northern Mali conflict. In October 2015, Niger and the US signed a military agreement committing the two countries "to work together in the fight against terrorism". U.S. Army Special Forces personnel (commonly referred to as Green Berets) have deployed on numerous occasions to train personnel of the Niger Armed Forces (FAN) to assist in the fight against terrorists from neighboring countries. In October 2017, there were about 800 US military personnel in Niger, most of whom were working to build a second drone base for U.S. and French aircraft in Agadez. Construction of the base is expected to be completed in 2018, which will allow the US to conduct surveillance operations with the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper to monitor ISIL insurgents flowing south and other extremists flowing north from the Sahel region.
In 2015, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara was established by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, who was a spokesperson and senior leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a splinter group of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In August 2013, MUJAO merged with al-Mourabitoun, which swore allegiance to al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. In May 2015, Sahrawi spoke on the behalf of al-Mourabitoun and had pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, the declaration was not recognized by the group's leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and the al-Qaeda loyalists, creating a split in the group. According to the United States Department of Defense, ISIL leaders in Syria had acknowledged Sahrawi's allegiance through their Amaq News Agency but ISGS "has not been formally recognized as an official branch of ISIL". The ISGS's first confirmed terror attack occurred on 2 September 2016 when fighters targeted a customs post in Markoye, Burkina Faso, an attack that left a border agent and a civilian dead. The ISGS had since been targeting pro-government militias that support the French and United Nations forces in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 46 attacks occurred since early 2016 in the Tahoua and Tillabéri regions of Niger. OCHA also said that seven districts in the two regions had been under a state of emergency since March 2017, and the government renewed the measure for an additional three months on 18 September. The FAN had launched a military operation to reestablish security in Tillabéri in June 2017.
On 3 October 2017, 11 U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group accompanied 35 soldiers from the Security and Intelligence Battalion (Bataillon Sécurité et de Renseignement or BSR) on a civil reconnaissance mission to gather information near Tongo Tongo in the Tillabéri region of Niger. In a video recorded before the ambush, young men can be seen on motorbikes armed with rifles and machine guns, repeating Islamist slogans, and discussing what they would do in the event they captured soldiers, with one of them saying that they would decapitate them. The Americans were travelling in two technicals and one unarmed Toyota Land Cruiser. A fourth vehicle had been provided to the Nigeriens by the Central Intelligence Agency and had specialized surveillance equipment on board.
On 4 October, the soldiers met with local leaders, asking them for information about the whereabouts of an accomplice of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. The U.S. and Nigerien team leaders objected to the task because they were not heavily armed or equipped for intense combat should they encounter Chefou's ISIS fighters alone. But the team leaders' concerns were overruled by a higher command. The U.S. soldiers were divided in two groups: one that would stay back and guard the vehicles and another that would attend the meeting. However, the meeting would drag on with the local leaders delaying the soldiers' departure by stalling and keeping them waiting. The group guarding the vehicles began to suspect that something was wrong when they witnessed two motorcycles race out of the village. At that moment, the unit believed that the local leader was complicit in an impending attack. After completion of the meeting, the soldiers walked back to the rest of the unit and their unarmored pick-up trucks.
While the soldiers were returning to base, about fifty armed ISGS militants believed to be led by Doundou Chefou, a lieutenant in the terrorist group whom the US code named "Naylor Road", began their assault against the soldiers. The militants, who had arrived with a dozen technicals and about twenty motorcycles, had been armed with light weapons, vehicle mounted weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. Just two hundred yards away from the village, the force was allowed to pass through the ambush killzone before the ambush was sprung, leaving the first two vehicles of the element trapped. According to a Nigerien soldier who was wounded in the ambush, the militants had sent a large herd of cows towards the convoy and then attacked under the ensuing dust cloud. The team's leader, Captain Michael Perozeni, and a Special Forces Communication Sergeant (18E), Sgt. First Class Brent Bartels, were both shot and wounded early into the ambush. The Nigeriens who were not already dead or injured retreated.
Under fire, the US soldiers used their vehicles for cover, at times driving them short distances. Staff Sergeant Bryan C. Black, the team's medic (18D), was the first U.S. soldier to be killed. Armed only with rifles, they began returning fire, killing some of the militants. Edited footage from Johnson's helmet camera later released on the internet by militants shows Wright driving a vehicle with Johnson and Black walking alongside for cover and advancing to a smoke grenade, while firing back at militants when Black falls, apparently dead. After an unclear amount of time, Johnson and Wright begin sprinting through the brush without covering one another, likely as militants are close to overwhelming them, before Johnson collapses after taking several hits. He and Wright are then shot repeatedly point-blank by ISIS fighters.
Separated from the rest of the team, Sergeant La David Johnson was shot as many as 18 times by M4 carbines and Soviet-made machine guns as he took cover in thick brush, fighting to the end after the fleeing militants. La David Johnson was with two Nigerien soldiers who tried to get to a vehicle to escape, but were unable to do so.
Within minutes of the ambush, an unarmed US drone captured video of the firefight. Half an hour into the ambush, French Mirage jets were ordered to respond to the ambush, and they arrived roughly two hours later. Even though there was now air support, the French pilots could not engage because they could not readily identify enemy forces in the firefight. Nevertheless, the presence of the fighter jets brought the engagement to an end. It was reported by CNN and Le Monde that two French Super Puma helicopters were brought in from Mali to evacuate those killed and injured, but United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) spokesperson Robyn Mack said that Berry Aviation, an independent contractor, was "on alert during the incident and conducted casualty evacuation and transport for US and partner forces". Within three to four hours after the soldiers called in for support, a French special operations team arrived at the scene. The rapid action of French forces (given the huge distances involved), according to all accounts, probably saved the remaining members of the group.
One U.S. soldier was slumped inside the team's pickup truck while two other U.S. soldiers were on the ground, one of whom was clutching a walkie-talkie. On 6 October, the body of La David Johnson was found by children tending cattle. His body was nearly a mile (1.6 km) away from the scene of the ambush. On 12 November, additional remains of La David Johnson were found at the site where his body was recovered.
Among the Nigeriens, four were killed and eight were wounded. Among the U.S. soldiers, four were killed: Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright. Two U.S. soldiers who were wounded in the ambush were transferred to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. A senior U.S. intelligence official told ABC News that at least 21 militants were killed.
Bryan Christopher Black (3 August 1982 – 4 October 2017) of Puyallup, Washington, was born in Camp Pendleton, California, to Henry and Karen Black. While in school, Black learned to play chess and, by the sixth grade, had earned a national ranking. Black graduated from Puyallup High School in 2000. At the age of 20, Black earned a business degree at Central Washington University. Black moved to Mammoth Lakes, California, where he taught skiing, worked construction jobs in the off season, and met his wife, Michelle. They would later move to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where they raised two sons, Ezekiel and Isaac.
Black enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 2009 to become a Green Beret, and was a Special Forces medical sergeant (18D). He was awarded three medals during his service: the Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. He spoke English, French, Arabic, and Hausa, the last of which is spoken in Niger.
Black's funeral was held in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on 18 October 2017. A memorial service was also held for Black on 19 November in Puyallup. U.S. Representative Dennis Heck and Washington State Senator Hans Zeiger spoke at his memorial service.
Jeremiah Wayne "JW" Johnson (6 December 1977 – 4 October 2017) of Springboro, Ohio, was born in New Bern, North Carolina, to J.W. and JoAnn Johnson, and graduated from North Stafford High School in 1996. After graduating high school, Johnson owned and operated a business until he enlisted in the U.S. Army as a CBRN specialist in October 2007. He was subsequently assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group. Johnson was married to Crystal and had two daughters, Addie and Elisa. His funeral was held in Fayetteville, North Carolina on 19 October 2017.
La David Johnson
La David Terrence Johnson (2 January 1992 – 4 October 2017) was born in Miami Gardens, Florida, to Samara Johnson and Terrance McGriff. After his mother's passing in September 1999, Johnson's care was entrusted to Richard and Cowanda Johnson. In 2010, Johnson graduated from Miami Carol City Senior High School.
Johnson's family enrolled him in 5000 Role Models, a mentorship program of US Representative Frederica Wilson that prepared African American children for college, vocational school, or the military. When Johnson was a Walmart employee in Miami, people in his community knew him as a local stunt rider and was called the "Wheelie King". In January 2014, Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army as a wheeled vehicle mechanic (91B) and was awarded the Achievement Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and the Army Service Ribbon during his service.
In school, Johnson met Myeshia Manual, whom he married on 22 August 2014. Johnson had her name tattooed on his chest. The couple had two children, Ah'Leesya and La David Jr., and one unborn child, La'Shee.
Dustin Michael Wright (24 September 1988 – 4 October 2017) of Lyons, Georgia, was born in Toombs County, Georgia, to Arnold Wright and Terri Criscio. Wright graduated from Toombs County High School in 2007. He attended Georgia Southern University and Fayetteville State University.
In July 2012, Wright enlisted in the U.S. Army as an engineer and ultimately became a Special Forces engineer sergeant (18C) assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group. His funeral was held at Toombs County High School on 15 October 2017.
On 5 October, President Mahamadou Issoufou condemned the ambush and called for a moment of silence "to the memory of our soldiers who have fallen on the field of honour" and to the memory of "all victims of terrorism". On 6 October, Issoufou declared three days of national mourning. On 7 October, the deceased Nigerien soldiers were buried after their bodies were taken from the city morgue in Niamey with Defence Minister Kalla Moutari, US Ambassador Eunice Reddick, and Nigerien lawmakers watching. On 21 October, a Niger security source told AFP that the village chief, Mounkaila Alassane, was arrested for "complicity" with the militants.
In an interview with Voice of America, Almou Hassane, the mayor of Tondikiwindi, alleged that residents of Tongo Tongo were complicit in the ambush: "The attackers, the bandits, the terrorists have never lacked accomplices among local populations".
On 1 November, Prime Minister Brigi Rafini said that Niger was open to allowing US drone strikes against terror groups. On 30 November, the government of Niger gave the US permission to fly armed drones out of Niamey.
White House response and controversy
The ambush was the deadliest combat incident involving US soldiers since Donald Trump took office as President on 20 January 2017. On the day of the ambush, Trump was briefed by telephone by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. The former was aboard Air Force One, having left Las Vegas after visiting victims and first responders affected by a recent mass shooting.
However, Trump did not make a statement on the ambush for the next twelve days; his lack of response drew criticism from commentators and the press. On 17 October, during a press conference, Trump was asked about his silence by a reporter and commented on the incident. Trump responded by saying that he wrote letters to the families of the victims, but falsely accused his predecessors, specifically President Obama, of not or rarely calling the families of deceased soldiers.
On 16 October, Trump called the widow of La David Johnson. Representative Frederica Wilson, who was present during the call, alleged that Trump told the widow that La David Johnson "knew what he signed up for" and only referred to him as "your guy", indicating that Trump did not actually know the soldier's name. This account was disputed by Trump, who said that he "had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife" and accused Wilson of "fabricating" her account.
On 18 October, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared that Wilson had willfully mischaracterized the spirit of the conversation. On CNN, Wilson said, "This might wind up to be Mr. Trump's Benghazi". On 19 October, Kelly, whose son was killed in the War in Afghanistan in 2010, defended Trump's call with the widow of La David Johnson. On 23 October, Trump wrote on Twitter, "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!"
On 25 October, Trump told reporters that he did not "specifically" authorize the mission in Niger.
In a United Nations Security Council meeting on 30 October, US Ambassador Nikki Haley pledged $60 million towards a new counterterrorism force in West Africa. Haley also expected the G5 Sahel to "take on full regional ownership of the force within a period of three to six years, with continued US engagement". Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the money would "bolster our regional partners" in fighting against militant groups.
Senator John McCain stated that the Trump administration was not being forthcoming about the details of the ambush. McCain also said that the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which he is the chairman, would like to get the information "it deserves and needs", before deciding whether a formal investigation is necessary. On 19 October, McCain said that a subpoena may be required to determine what happened in Niger. On 20 October, McCain and Mattis met in McCain's office in the United States Capitol. After the meeting, Mattis told reporters, "We can do better at communication". On the same day, Senator Lindsey Graham said that the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee will be briefed next week. After a meeting with Mattis, Graham told reporters that the rules of engagement would be changing and warned that the U.S. should anticipate more military operations in Africa as the war on terrorism continues to morph.
On 26 October, Robert Karem, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, and Air Force Major General Albert Elton briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee in a closed session. After the briefing, Senator Ted Cruz said that "on the initial assessment there were not significant steps that could have been taken to prevent this assault". However, Senator Richard Blumenthal said, "I could not look those families in the eye and say we're doing everything we need to do to provide sufficient intelligence that will enable them to be successful in their missions and avoid the kind of catastrophe that we saw here". McCain said the ambush was "a direct result" of budget sequestration.
Military response and inquiries
In October 2017, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that the ambush was "considered unlikely". Officials from the Department of Defense said that soldiers had carried out 29 similar operations in the past six months with no problems, and such operations were considered routine by the time of the ambush. General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided new information about the ambush to the public and said that the operation was initially a reconnaissance mission.
In December 2017, Major General Mark Hicks, the commander of Special Operations Command, Africa (SOCAFRICA), wrote a letter to the Special Operations Forces that read, "To reinforce and clarify guidance going forward I would like to emphasize that we must reduce our risk exposure and build trust in our ability to exercise sound judgment and disciplined planning and execution".
On May 10, 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released an unclassified executive summary of the DoD's investigation and gave a briefing on the outcome of the department's investigation. The report found that "personnel turnover" had caused the 11-member U.S. Special Forces team to forgo important training before being deployed, and that the team did not rehearse the mission. The investigation also found that "two junior officers had 'mischaracterized' the mission" in planning documents. The report did not make specific recommendations on the handling of future missions. Some within the U.S. military were critical of the report because they viewed it as underplaying blame for senior officers who had approved of the mission.
Family members' response
On 18 October, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who was also present during the conference call, confirmed Wilson's account saying "Yes, [Wilson's] statement is true", and "I was in the car and I heard the full conversation". Jones-Johnson said, "President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband". On the same day, Arnold Wright said that Trump was respectful when he called with his condolences, "He talked to me about the loss of my son and how he served with honor and dignity and he just wanted to give me a call to thank me".
On 23 October, Myeshia Johnson said on ABC's Good Morning America that Wilson's account of the call with Trump was "100 percent correct" and that the call "made [her] cry even worse". She said she didn't like Trump's tone and that she broke down when Trump fumbled her husband's name. Myeshia Johnson wanted to see her husband's body, but was reportedly not allowed to do so by the military.
On 25 October, Michelle Black said she was grateful that Trump called her and spoke to her children: "So, yeah he was very gracious and I appreciate anyone who calls cause, like I said, that takes quite a bit of bravery to call into that kind of situation".
On 18 December, Jones-Johnson accused the Department of Defense of lying to her family about how her son was killed. La David Johnson's sister, Richshama, said, "We find out everything via social media".
On 18 October, Mark Landler and Yamiche Alcindor, reporters from The New York Times, drew comparisons between the incident with the phone call to La David Johnson's widow and Trump's feud with the parents of another American soldier killed in action, Humayun Khan, during the 2016 US presidential election. On the same day, three reporters from the Los Angeles Times wrote that his response "illustrated the hazards of his extemporaneous governing style, the disorganization within his White House, and his refusal to back down in the face of criticism".
On 20 October, National Review senior writer David French criticized the comparison between the ambush and the 2012 Benghazi attack and said, "All available evidence suggests that this is a tragedy rather than a scandal". Laura Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College, shared French's view in an article on Slate.
On 20 October, Jason Ditz wrote an article for The American Conservative saying, "Niger provides a terrifying reminder of how far we are from being an informed American public that serves as a check and balance on what our military is doing in our name. We can't have a debate on US intervention overseas if we don't even know where are our forces are, let alone to what end". On 26 October, Phillip Carter and Andrew Swick wrote on Vox, sharing a similar view that missions similar to the one in Niger "have never been specifically authorized by Congress, let alone discussed and debated by the American public". On 27 October, The New York Times editorial board wrote that "the lack of clarity about the Niger operation is one more reason for Congress to replace the 2001 law authorizing military force against Al Qaeda with legislation to address current threats like the Islamic State, limit American interventions, and ensure regular congressional oversight".
On 10 November, local villagers told The Washington Post that La David Johnson's body was found with his arms tied, but the Associated Press reported on 17 December that there were no indications he was shot at close range, had been bound, or taken prisoner.
On 12 January 2018, the ISGS claimed responsibility for the attack after a long delay. In a statement attributed to Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the group said, "We declare our responsibility for the attack on the US commandos last October in the Tongo Tongo region of Niger".
Multiple U.S. officials told CNN that the French military was leading an investigation to gather intelligence about the perpetrators of the ambush. A spokesperson from the French Ministry of the Armed Forces said on 5 October that French soldiers who were participating in Operation Barkhane and based in Chad were involved in an operation in Niger. On 10 October, CNN reported that a U.S. defense official had shared details of an after action report that consisted of interviews with the survivors of the ambush. A senior congressional aide told NBC News that the ambush was caused by a "massive intelligence failure" with no overhead surveillance of the mission, or a quick reaction force in place to swiftly respond in the event that the mission went wrong.
On 19 October, NBC News reported that AFRICOM sent a team to Niger to conduct a "review of the facts". According to The Wall Street Journal, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has since joined the investigation. The U.S. Department of Defense released military records on 26 October that showed that the killed US soldiers had little to no experience in combat. For Wright, Niger was his first overseas deployment.
On 26 October, Dunford announced that Army Major General Roger Cloutier would lead the investigation into the ambush.
On 2 November, four senior Nigerien officials told ABC News that the operation was always a kill or capture mission, contradicting the statement made by Dunford on 23 October. On 8 November, the US Department of Defense said that the investigation would be completed in January 2018. On 5 December, people with knowledge of the operation told BuzzFeed that what happened in Niger "was the result of reckless behavior by US Special Forces".
After a Twitter user published a series of posts claiming to have footage from the ambush, AFRICOM said on 24 January 2018, "We are reviewing the post and determining the veracity of the tweet and the assertions that there is an associated video".
- G5 Sahel
- Insurgency in the Maghreb (2002–present)
- Niger–United States relations
- Northern Mali conflict
- Operation Barkhane
- Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara
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