U.S. Soldier in Niger Ambush Was Bound and Apparently Executed, Villagers Say

NIAMEY, Niger (The Washington Post) -
Sgt. Donald Young places a U.S. flag over the casket of Sgt. La David Johnson during his burial service at Fred Hunter’s Hollywood Memorial Gardens in Hollywood, Fla., Oct. 21. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP)

The body of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of four U.S. soldiers killed in an ambush by Islamist militants in Niger last month, was found with his arms tied and a wound at the back of his head, according to two villagers, suggesting that he may have been captured and then executed.

Adamou Boubacar, a 23-year-old farmer and trader, said some children tending cattle found the remains of the soldier Oct. 6, two days after the attack outside the remote Niger village of Tongo Tongo, which also left five Nigerien soldiers dead. The kids notified him.

When Boubacar went to the location, a bushy area roughly a mile from the ambush site, he saw Johnson’s body lying face down, he said. The back of his head had been smashed by something, possibly a bullet, said Boubacar. The soldier’s wrists were bound with rope, he said, raising the possibility that the terrorists, whom the Pentagon suspects were affiliated with the Islamic State, seized Johnson during the firefight and held him captive.

The villagers’ accounts come as the Niger operation is under intense scrutiny in the United States, with lawmakers expressing concern that they have received insufficient or conflicting information about what happened. The Pentagon is conducting an investigation into the attack in Niger, where the U.S. military is helping the Nigerien government confront a threat by militants associated with the Islamic State and al-Qaida.

Boubacar, a resident of Tongo Tongo, said in a phone interview that he informed the village’s chief after seeing Johnson’s body. “His two arms were tied behind his back,” he said. The chief called Nigerien military forces, who dispatched troops to retrieve Johnson’s remains.

The village chief of Tongo Tongo, Mounkaila Alassane, confirmed the account in a separate phone interview.

A U.S. military official with knowledge of the investigation into the ambush acknowledged that Johnson’s body appeared viciously battered but cautioned against reaching any conclusions until the probe is completed.

“When the Americans received Johnson, his hands were not tied,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

The two Tongo Tongo villagers said they also saw the bodies of the three other American soldiers – Staff Sgts. Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson and Dustin Wright – who U.S. officials say were killed in action. One was slumped inside the team’s pickup truck, they said. The bodies of the other two were on the ground, one clutching a walkie-talkie, they said.

They were wearing T-shirts and boxer shorts, the two men said. It was unclear whether the militants had stripped off their uniforms.

The accounts could help explain why it took two days to find Johnson’s body, while the other men’s remains were retrieved several hours after the battle. Johnson’s widow has said that the U.S. military advised her not to view his corpse, a suggestion often made when remains are badly disfigured.

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FBI and U.S. military investigators have arrived in this impoverished West African nation to try to determine what happened in the Oct. 4 assault on an 11-member Army Special Forces team and 30 Nigerien troops. Among the questions they are addressing: Were there intelligence lapses? Did the unit have adequate equipment? Was the extremist threat properly assessed before the mission began?

The case has received enormous attention in the United States because of conflicting accounts over whether the soldiers were on a low-risk patrol or had changed plans and set out in pursuit of Islamist insurgents. Questions also have been raised about why the team was lightly armed, given the danger in the area.

The Pentagon has said the soldiers were on a routine reconnaissance mission. Under U.S. military rules, American troops in Niger are not supposed to go on combat missions in the country, but they can “advise and assist” on missions with local forces where the chance of enemy contact is low.

A senior Nigerien security official said in an interview that the military unit made a critical error by deciding to spend the night along the volatile Mali-Niger border. That allowed the terrorists to surveil the unit and plan the ambush that occurred the following morning outside Tongo Tongo as the team was heading back to their base, he said.

In fact, the official said, the team was initially on a one-day mission.

“The schedule they did was to come back the first day, but they did not,” Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s interior minister, said in the interview. “They stayed there. And because they stayed there for all the night, the jihadists were able to target them” and follow them.

In an Oct. 23 briefing with journalists, Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the unit stayed away from its base overnight between Oct. 3 and 4. But he said, “I think a probably more accurate description than ‘stayed overnight’ was they caught a couple of hours of sleep after the third and before they completed their mission on the fourth.”

He noted that previous joint patrols in the region had occurred without fatalities. There are roughly 800 U.S. troops in Niger, about a third of whom are Special Forces who take part in the “advise and assist” missions.

“Are they taking risks?” said Dunford. “They are. Are they taking risks that are unreasonable or not within their capabilities? I don’t have any reason to believe that.”