Niger attack was likely a set-up by terrorists, say officials

WASHINGTON — An emerging theory among U.S. military investigators is that the Army Special Forces soldiers ambushed in Niger were set up by terrorists, who were tipped off in advance about a meeting in a village sympathetic to local ISIS affiliates, three U.S. officials who have been briefed on the matter told NBC News.

The group of American Green Berets and support soldiers had requested a meeting with elders of a village that was seen as supportive of the Islamic State, and they attended the meeting at around 11 a.m. local time Oct. 4, after a long night of patrolling, the officials said. Such meetings are a routine part of the Green Beret mission, but it wasn't clear whether this meeting was part of the unit's plan.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not address that theory when he briefed reporters on the incident Monday. He said the troops had been on a reconnaissance mission.

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US soldiers killed in Niger ambush
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US soldiers killed in Niger ambush
A combination photo of U.S. Army Special Forces Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson (L to R), U.S. Special Forces Sgt. Bryan Black, U.S. Special Forces Sgt. Dustin Wright and U.S. Special Forces Sgt. La David Johnson killed in Niger, West Africa on October 4, 2017, in these handout photos released October 18, 2017. Courtesy U.S. Army Special Operations Command/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, U.S. on October 5, 2017. Courtesy Aaron J. Jenne/U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, West Africa on October 4, 2017, poses in a handout photo released October 18, 2017. Courtesy U.S. Army Special Operations Command/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia

(Photo via U.S. Army)

Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio

(Photo via U.S. Army)

Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington

(Photo via U.S. Army)
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Three weeks after a deadly attack that has become a political flashpoint, the U.S. military is grappling to get a handle on the basic facts of what led to the deaths of four service members — and the growing chorus of questions about the U.S. mission in Niger and other parts of Africa.

Among the questions, Dunford said, was whether the mission changed; whether the intelligence was good enough, and why one of the fallen soldiers was separated from the rest of the unit.

"We owe you more information; more importantly, we owe the families of the fallen more information," Dunford said. "Did the mission change? It's a fair question."

Investigators are leaning toward a conclusion that local militants used the meeting in the village of Tongo Tongo to mount a sneak attack, officials said. Villagers sought to delay the troops as they tried to leave the village, according to officials. Once they departed, in unarmored vehicles, militants attacked them with small arms and machine-gun fire, the officials said.

The solders dismounted and began returning fire, and were soon facing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades launched from "technical" vehicles — light military vehicles — the officials said.

The soldiers got back in their trucks and retreated about a mile before they were ambushed again. The attackers had trapped the Americans in a kill zone, the officials said, where they could envelop them in fire.

The two separate ambush sites could explain why Sgt. La David Johnson's body was found more than a mile from the coordinates from which the other dead and injured troops were evacuated by helicopter.

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US Army Sgt. La David Johnson's funeral
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US Army Sgt. La David Johnson's funeral
Myeshia Johnson, wife of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, kisses his coffin at a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Cowanda Johnson, who raised U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, is comforted by Richard Johnson Jr. (L) and S.J. Johnson at a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
An unidentified honor guard member reacts after the graveside service for U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
La David Johnson Jr. son of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, is presented with an American flag next to his sister, at a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Myeshia Johnson, wife of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, receives the flag which draped his coffin at a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Members of the 3rd Special Forces Group, 2nd battalion cry at the tomb of US Army Sgt. La David Johnson at his burial service in the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other US soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on October 4. / AFP PHOTO / GASTON DE CARDENAS (Photo credit should read GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) attends the graveside service for U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
The coffin of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, is taken into Christ The Rock Church for his funeral service in Cooper City, Florida, U.S., October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
The coffin of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, is carried by a military honor guard as his widow, Myeshia Johnson, is escorted in at a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Myeshia Johnson (R), widow of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, sits with her daughter, Ah'Leeysa Johnson (C) who was presented with an American flag at a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
An honor guard carries the coffin of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, at a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
An honor guard member touches an American flag to the coffin of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, at a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) attends the graveside service for U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Cowanda Johnson, who raised U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, reacts with Richard Johnson Jr. at left during a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Myeshia Johnson, widow of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, is escorted into his graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
An honor guard stands at attention as a hearse carries the coffin of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, to a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
An honor guard stands at attention after they placed the coffin of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, at a graveside service in Hollywood, Florida, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Richard Johnson, Sr., holds the hand of La David Johnson Jr., as he and sister Ah'Leesya Johnson hold folded US flag given to them during the burial service for their father US Army Sgt. La David Johnson at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other US soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on October 4. / AFP PHOTO / GASTON DE CARDENAS (Photo credit should read GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Ah'Leesya Johnson holds a folded US flag given to her during the burial service for her father US Army Sgt. La David Johnson at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other US soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on October 4. / AFP PHOTO / GASTON DE CARDENAS (Photo credit should read GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)
A member US Army Special Forces salutes the casket of US Army Sgt. La David Johnson at his burial service in the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other US soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on October 4. / AFP PHOTO / GASTON DE CARDENAS (Photo credit should read GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the 3rd Special Forces Group, 2nd battalion, comfort each other as they say their las goodbyes to US Army Sgt. La David Johnson at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Sgt. Johnson and three other US soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on October 4. / AFP PHOTO / Gaston De Cardenas (Photo credit should read GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, FL - OCTOBER 21: Richard Johnson, jr and Cowanda Jones-Johnson attend the burial service for her son U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Myeshia Johnson kisses the casket of her husband Army Sgt. La David Johnson during his burial service for at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other US soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on October 4. / AFP PHOTO / GASTON DE CARDENAS (Photo credit should read GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the army honor guard fold the flag above the casket of US Army Sgt. La David Johnson during his burial service at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other US soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on October 4. / AFP PHOTO / GASTON DE CARDENAS (Photo credit should read GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, FL - OCTOBER 21: Members of the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) 2nd battalion Fse comfort each other as they attend the burial service for U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
COOPER CITY, FL - OCTOBER 20: Mike Pacheco is overcome with emotion as he attends the viewing for U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson at the Christ the Rock Community Church on October 20, 2017 in Cooper City, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, FL - OCTOBER 21: La David Johnson, Jr. is given an American flag by a military honor guard member during the burial service for his father U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, FL - OCTOBER 21: Richard Johnson, jr wipes tears away from the face of Cowanda Jones-Johnson as they attend the burial service for her son U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The hearse carrying the cakset of US Army Sgt. La David Johnson arrives for his burial service at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other US soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on October 4. / AFP PHOTO / Gaston De Cardenas (Photo credit should read GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)
US Military honor guard plays TAPs as the body of U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson during is interred at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other US soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on October 4. / AFP PHOTO / Gaston De Cardenas (Photo credit should read GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Americans didn't ask for help until about an hour into the firefight, the officials said. Once they did, a drone arrived within minutes, and French Mirage fighter jets arrived in about an hour, Dunford said.

"My judgment would be that that unit thought they could handle the situation without additional support," Dunford said, addressing the one-hour delay in the call for assistance.

The jets flew low over the site in an attempt to scare off the militants. The French jets did not drop bombs because the battlespace was so confused and they were not in radio contact with the Americans, the U.S. officials said. But the arrival of the jets did disperse the attackers, the officials said.

The mayor of the village told Voice of America, a U.S. government-sponsored news organization, that residents of the village sympathetic to militants delayed the Green Berets while the attackers assembled.

"The attackers, the bandits, the terrorists have never lacked accomplices among local populations," said Almou Hassane, the mayor of Tongo Tongo, in what the VOA said was his first interview with a Western news organization.

The village chief in Tongo Tongo, a man named Mounkaila Alassane, was arrested after the attack, Hassane said.

The latest information raises a fundamental set of questions, analysts said: Why would a small, lightly armed U.S. unit go into a village sympathetic to terrorists without drones overhead and a rescue force available if things went wrong?

"We know the proper way to do these missions so we can control risk," said one former special operator who works as a military contractor. "Every time you skip a step or use less resources, you incur more risk. They clearly skipped steps and had less resources than would be proper to see if they were walking into an ambush. At what level did someone accept the extra risk?"

Dunford spoke to the issue of too much risk, calling it "speculation," and said the investigation would get to the bottom of that question.

"Are they taking risks? They are," he said. "Are they taking risks that are unreasonable?...I don't have any reason to believe that."

In some ways. the incident recalls what happened in December 20009 in Khost, Afghanistan, when an al Qaeda militant whom the CIA thought was going to give officers information instead detonated a suicide bomb, killing seven CIA officers and two other Americans. The CIA allowed the militant into its base without searching him because officers were trying to win his trust.

In this case, the Green Berets put themselves as risk seeking to win the trust of local residents, officials said.

There was no drone or other surveillance overhead when the attack commenced, but one official said there had been some overhead surveillance of the militants' preparation of the ambush — including men pushing motorcycles out of the village and then starting them out of earshot and driving them to the ambush site.

But those images were seen after the fact, the officials said, suggesting they may have been gathered by a sensor on a satellite.

Dunford said a drone was rushed to the area once the troops called for help, and it recorded video of some of the engagement. He has not seen the video, he said.

The Green Berets do not appear to have had any warning of a possible attack. 

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