Mysterious ambush in Niger sparks firestorm of questions

No one seems to know exactly what happened and lawmakers aren't pleased.

In this March 7, 2015 file photo, Nigerian special forces and Chadian troops participate with US advisors in the Flintlock exercise in Mao, Chad. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jerome Delay, file
In this March 7, 2015 file photo, Nigerian special forces and Chadian troops participate with US advisors in the Flintlock exercise in Mao, Chad. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jerome Delay, file

With the White House under fire over its handling of the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger, questions are rising about the deadly ambush.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) was among a growing chorus of voices demanding answers on Wednesday. After responding “No” when asked if the White House was being upfront about the operation, McCain was asked if he supported a congressional investigation into the incident.

“Investigations?” the senator responded. “I want the information that the Senate Armed Services Committee deserves and needs to start with. Then you decide whether a quote ‘investigation’ is needed or not.”

“That’s why we’re called the Senate Armed Services Committee. It’s because we have oversight of our military,” he continued. “So we deserve to have all the information.”

On Thursday McCain renewed his comments, saying the issue “may require a subpoena.”

Other lawmakers have offered similar concerns over the mysterious ambush.

“I think the administration has to be more clear about our role in Niger and our role in other areas in Africa and other parts of the globe,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) told CNN. “They have to connect it to a strategy. They should do that. I think that the inattention to this issue is not acceptable.”

Those seeking answers are in good company.  The Pentagon’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) has sent a team to Niger to investigate what went wrong earlier this month when Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, and Sgt. La David Johnson were killed.

“We need to collect some very basic raw facts,” one defense official told NBC on Wednesday, fleshing out comments from Secretary of Defense James Mattis last week.

“We will look at this and say, ‘Was there something we have to adapt to now? Should we have been in a better stance?'” Mattis told reporters.

When asked for comment about the current status of that investigation on Thursday, AFRICOM told ThinkProgress there were “no updates available at this time.”

Very little is clear about what happened on October 4 when attackers killed the four United States Army Special Forces officers (known colloquially as Green Berets.) The soldiers were reportedly told not to expect any serious episodes of violence during their time in the area while they trained Nigerien soldiers. But at the conclusion of one joint patrol a team of 12 U.S. soldiers found themselves surrounded by 40 to 50 militants. The soldiers in turn called in French support. But French fighter jets were unable to help and instead circled above, sources familiar with the incident told Business Insider.

In the ensuing chaos, the four soldiers were killed, along with at least four Nigerien soldiers whose names have not been released. While the bodies of Black, Wright, and Jeremiah Johnson were soon discovered, La David Johnson’s body was not found for another two days.

An investigation into the ambush is likely to ask a number of questions, including why the soldiers were not expected to encounter militants and whether La David Johnson was in fact alive for some period of time before his body was found. But the incident has also drawn attention to the quiet but creeping U.S. military presence in Niger.

The West African’s country’s southwestern region has become increasingly popular for militants and a new group calling itself the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara recently surfaced in the area. That group is believed to be responsible for the ambush but has not claimed responsibility; a number of extremist branches affiliated with ISIS or Al Qaeda operate in the region, including the ISIS-backed Boko Haram. The United States provides assistance to Niger in dealing with these groups, aid that includes intelligence and surveillance as well as physical military deployments.

Similar efforts are underway in neighboring countries, including Chad, which was recently included in the Trump administration’s latest travel ban despite cooperation with the United States on counter-extremism efforts. Niger is notably home to Agadez, a centrally-located city where the United States is currently building a drone base.

That’s par for the course. U.S. military involvement in Africa consists predominately of drone bases — in addition to Niger the United States has a presence in Djibouti, Cameroon, and Tunisia, among others. Most of these countries are appealing largely because of their proximity to other hotspots, like Somalia, Libya, and, in Niger’s case, Mali. There are roughly 800 U.S. troops currently stationed in Niger, up from the 150 who were brought in 2013 — part of an effort to assist France’s intervention in Mali after militants took hold of the northern part of the country in 2012. That number has risen due to drone base building needs; very few are assisting with efforts like the one that ultimately killed La David Johnson and his fellow servicemembers.

It’s unclear how the ambush will impact those ongoing operations. Some have speculated it will cue an uptick in regional military efforts. Others have pointed to the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” stand-off in Mogadishu, Somalia, which resulted in a U.S. withdrawal from the country after 18 U.S. servicemembers died.

A number of figures have criticized Trump for how he handled the deaths. The president offered no remarks on the attack for 12 days while repeatedly weighing in on other matters, like the National Football League and health care. When asked about his silence on Monday, Trump proceeded to defend himself. But the president’s insistence that he had reached out to the families of the fallen soldiers erupted into a back-and-forth, particularly with regards to a call made to La David Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson. Trump reportedly told Johnson, “He knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway,” according to Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-FL), who was with Johnson at the time of the call.

Trump later said that Wilson fabricated the story. Cowanda Jones-Johnson, La David’s mother, has corroborated Wilson’s account, telling the Washington Post, “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.”