Niger attack: US convoy separated during ambush, soldier says

The vehicles carrying the 12-member Green Beret-led team that was ambushed in Niger by ISIS militants earlier this month became separated during the firefight, US officials and a Nigerien soldier present told CNN Thursday.
The team was traveling with 30 Nigerien soldiers when they were attacked by approximately 50 ISIS affiliated fighters armed with rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and heavy machine guns, according to US military officials.
    During the subsequent gun battle, which lasted for hours, four US soldiers were killed and two were wounded. Five Nigerien soldiers were also killed.
    Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, a US defense official told CNN that the joint US-Nigerien force, armed only with rifles, managed to kill 20 ISIS militants during the firefight.
    A Nigerien soldier, whose unit was the first ground force to respond and arrive on scene in the aftermath of the attack, told CNN that he was informed by some of the wounded Nigerien soldiers that the first two vehicles were hit and the convoy was subsequently split.
    The attackers began the assault equipped with eight vehicles with "dozens" of fighters arriving via motorcycle to reinforce the attack during the battle, according to the Nigerien soldier who isn't authorized to speak publicly on the incident.
    A US official directly familiar with after action reports told CNN that the US military convoy was separated during the ambush in Niger. The separation of the convoy may explain why Sgt. La David Johnson's body became separated from the rest of team.
    The Nigerien soldier who spoke with CNN said that he first encountered the 12-member US team on October 3, when they were on the way to their objective, an abandoned encampment that had previously been the location of a regional terrorist leader, codenamed "Naylor Road."
    He described the joint US-Nigerien unit as being a "light force," believing that the combined group had insufficient numbers and firepower for a patrol into what he said was a high risk area.
    The Nigerien soldier said that, when he saw them on the day before the attack, the US troops had only one heavy machine gun, no body armor and were driving unarmored 4x4s while wearing "t-shirts and baseball caps."
    "I was surprised that the Americans would go out into the zone with such a light convoy and no air cover, no drones to keep watch over them," the soldier said.
    Multiple US military officials had told CNN previously that the American soldiers were driving unarmored pick-up trucks and it is not uncommon for Green Beret-led military advisers to not wear body armor when accompanying host nation forces in low threat areas.
    The Pentagon could not say Thursday whether the US troops were wearing body armor.
    "That'll be uncovered as part of the investigation. As I stand before you right now, I don't know the answer to that question," the Joint Staff Director, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, briefed reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday
    Multiple military officials have told CNN that the team was never expected to encounter hostile forces during its patrol and intelligence gathering operations.
    "At no time was the team ever directed to 'take direct action' against enemy forces," a US defense official told CNN Wednesday.
    McKenzie noted Thursday that dozens of similar patrols in that same general area over the course of the last six months had not encountered any enemy forces.
    "We make a professional judgment about the probability of coming into significant contact with an enemy force. It was the judgment of the commanders on the ground that that probability was unlikely," he said.
    US intelligence and surveillance assets had observed the terrorist leader leave his encampment and cross the border into neighboring Mali. No enemy fighters were encountered at the abandoned site.
    "Those soldiers were armed for the type of mission they set out to do," McKenzie said.
    The Nigerien soldier who spoke to CNN said that his unit arrived on the scene on October 4 and witnessed the surviving US and Nigerien soldiers standing back to back, trying to cover all sides in a defensive position.
    "I admired their bravery, they were ready to fight until the end," the soldier said.
    About one hour into the firefight, the team requested support.
    Asked why it took an hour for the request to be made, McKenzie said there were a "variety of reasons that could have happened."
    "It may have been that they assessed that the situation was not significant enough to call for help. It may have been that they were under fire so intense they were unable to get to their communications equipment," he said.
    A remotely piloted drone aircraft arrived overhead within minutes of the request for help, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, told reporters Monday.
    But a US defense official told CNN that the US drones in Niger are not authorized to be armed, which meant the aircraft was unable to conduct airstrikes in support of the troops on the ground.
    Three defense officials told CNN this week that the US military had been seeking the authority to arm its drones in Niger before the ambush and is continuing to do so in the attack's aftermath.
    Armed French Mirage jets arrived about one hour later -- two hours after the troops made initial contact with enemy forces.
    One of the officials said the jets were authorized to strike but did not.
    French military helicopters and contractor aircraft arrived to evacuate the wounded US and Nigerien soldiers and then later returned for the bodies of the dead.
    The Nigerien soldier's unit and another Nigerien unit spent the night of October 4 securing the location, according to the soldier, with more helicopters arriving along with US troops equipped with night vision.
    He said the US military personnel began searching on foot for Johnson.
    Senior military commanders have said that the investigation will take time and that its findings will first be shared with the families of the fallen.
    "The very first people that we want to sit down with and share the facts are the families, once the investigation is complete," Dunford told reporters Tuesday at a press conference in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
    A defense official told CNN on Tuesday that the chief of staff to the commander of US Africa Command, Major Gen. Roger Cloutier Jr., is leading the formal investigation into the deadly ambush.
    The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain, who was briefed Thursday by defense officials on the incident, told reporters the investigation may take 30 days to complete.
    Other Senators questioned whether the role of US troops in Niger needed to be re-examined in the wake of the attack.
    But the Nigerien soldier who spoke to CNN said he plans to remain in the fight.
    "Many people join the army here because it's employment but as you grow within the military, that's when you get the sense of pride, honor, duty," he said. "We are going to protect our country, we are the ones who are going to defend it."
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