All The New Details We Learned About The Ambush In Niger From America’s Top General

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford offers answers as to what is known and unknown.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Africa photo


More than three weeks after a deadly firefight in Niger claimed the lives of four American troops and five members of the Nigerien security forces, significant questions remain about the nature of the mission and what exactly happened on the ground outside a village called Tongo Tongo. Now, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford has briefed the press and given the American people the most detailed picture to date of what the U.S. military knows about the incident.

Dunford gave his briefing on Oct. 23, 2017, specifically noting that it was also the anniversary of a deadly bombing of a U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983. He said that while that incident was entirely unrelated, his thoughts were with the families of those Marines, as well, before launching into his briefing

Here is a rundown of the important details he provided about the mission in Niger and its aftermath:

  • After talking with Secretary of Defense Mattis, Dunford decided to make his remarks in the first place in response to what he called “a lot of speculation about the operation.”
  •  Dunford said he specifically wanted to challenge the perception that the Department of Defense hasn’t been forthcoming about the incident.
  • “Our soldiers are operating in Niger to build the capacity of local forces to defeat violent extremism in West Africa. Their presence is part of a global strategy.”
  • Dunford specifically highlighted the threat of ISIS and Al Qaeda.
  • Terrorists use global networks of fighters and other resources to threaten weak institutions around the world and “our strategy is to cut that [connective] tissue.”
  • The U.S. military has had forces in Niger on and off for 20 years and has approximately 800 personnel there at present, the largest presence in any single country in North and West Africa.
  • The U.S. mission is linked to a multi-national, regional effort, anchored by the 4,000 French troops in Niger and elsewhere in North and West Africa.
  • Since 2011, U.S. and French troops have worked together specifically to train a 5,000 member “West African force” and 35,000 other troops from countries in the region.
  • In the region, the main threats are terrorists affiliated with ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram.
  • During the incident in Niger specifically, which began on Oct. 3, 2017, 12 members of the U.S. special operations task force in the region joined 30 Nigerien personnel on a “civil-military reconnaissance mission.”
  • This mission originated in the Nigerien capital, Niamey and the U.S. military’s assessment was that “contact with the enemy was unlikely.”
  • The established operational rules for the unit in question were generally not to conduct an operation, either with Nigerien forces or independently, if there is any likelihood that there could be a confrontation with the enemy.
  • U.S. personnel could accompany partners on riskier missions, but would have to hold back if there was a likelihood of a direct engagement.
  • On Oct. 4, 2017, the patrol came under attack as they moved south from an area near the village of Tongo Tongo toward their “operating base.”
  • The enemy force was approximately 50 members strong in light vehicles armed with small arms and rocket propelled grenades.
  • The attackers were “an ISIS-affiliated group.”
  • “Approximately one hour after taking fire, the team requested support and within minutes a [U.S.] remotely piloted aircraft arrived overhead,” after commanders retasked the aircraft from another mission in the area.
  • Dunford said the drone did not attack targets on the ground, but would not say whether or not it had the capability to do so.
  • The drone was capable of capturing full-motion video.
  • “Within an hour, French Mirage jets arrived on station.”
  • Dunford made the point that the Mirages and other allied combat aircraft are indeed allowed to conduct strikes for force protection situations if US soldiers need help, but what is not clear is if troops on the ground had even tried to request they attempt to do so or what may have kept them from employing their weapons. 
  • The French combat aircraft were in the air in 30 minutes and overhead 30 minutes after that, meaning that approximately two hour elapsed between the beginning of the fire fight and the arrive of the jets.
  • “Later that afternoon, French attack helicopters arrived on station and a Nigerien quick reaction force arrived in the area where our troops were in contract with the enemy.”
  • There is no limit on the ability of units operating in Niger to request for self-defense purposes.
  • Dunford says it would be his judgment that the unit waited to request air support because it initially felt it could handle the situation.
  • “We shouldn’t conclude anything by that one hour” delay in requesting support at this time.
  • “I made it very clear that I make no judgment as to how long it took them to ask for support.”
  • French helicopters helped two wounded U.S. soldiers evacuate to Niamey during the firefight, which lasted for multiple hours.
  • This was the established casualty evacuation plan for this operation in the event that anything happened.
  • Contractors subsequently recovered three American troops who had died on the evening of Oct. 4, 2017.
  • At that time, the force considered U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson still missing in action.
  • Friendly forces found and recovered Johnson’s body on Oct. 6, 2017.
  • U.S., French, and Nigerien forces in some combination were in the area at all times until they found Johnson.
  • The U.S. military committed unspecified “national assets” to the search and rescue effort.
  • “We brought the full weight of the U.S. government to bear in trying – to try and recover his [Johnson’s] body.”
  • The ongoing investigations into the incident are attempting to determine whether or not the mission of U.S. forces changed during the course of the operation, did they have adequate intelligence and other resources, was the initial assessment of the overall threat situation accurate, how did Johnson end up separated from the main group during the firefight, and why did it take two days to find him?
  • Dunford stressed that U.S. Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command, may want more resources in general, especially to expand his operational capabilities, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the particular mission in Niger was understaffed or under resourced.
  • “The responsibility of commanders is to employ the force within the resources that they have available.”
  • After an operational pause, the United States has resumed combined patrols in Niger.
  • Responding to criticism from members of Congress, including Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, that they were unaware of U.S. military activities Niger until seeing the news, Dunford said “if the Congress doesn’t believe – that they’re not getting sufficient information, then I need to double my efforts to provide them with information.”
  • “We owe you more information and, more importantly, we owe the families of the fallen more information.”
  • Dunford could not say why Myeshia Johnson might not have been able to view her husband’s remains.
  • It is typical policy to suggest in certain circumstances that families may not wish to view the remains, but ultimately leave that decision to them.
  • “If any of the families of the fallen are unsatisfied with the support that they’ve had to date or have addition questions, we’re going to go to every last length to try and satisfy their concerns or answer their questions.”
  • Dunford said he hoped to be able to provide more information over the “next several weeks” as the investigations clarify key points about the incident.
  • “We lost four Americans in this incident. We had two others wounded. That makes it a big deal to me. That gives me a sense of urgency to identify exactly what happened, to communicate exactly what happened to the families and to the American people.”

You can watch the whole hour long briefing below:

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