Pen­tagon de­tails Army sergeant’s last mo­ments in Niger am­bush

It took about two days for the mil­i­tary to find Florida na­tive’s re­mains

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY PAUL SONNE AND DAN LAMOTHE paul.sonne@wash­post.com dan.lamothe@wash­post.com Su­darsan Ragha­van in Cairo con­trib­uted to this re­port.

No fig­ure in the am­bush in Niger has com­manded more at­ten­tion than U.S. Army Sgt. La David T. John­son, who fell off the mil­i­tary’s radar for nearly two days dur­ing a hec­tic search and whose wi­dow ac­cused Pres­i­dent Trump of stum­bling over her late hus­band’s name dur­ing a con­do­lence call.

How the 25-year-old trained Army me­chanic from Florida went from be­ing deemed “miss­ing” by the U.S. mil­i­tary to “killed in ac­tion” be­came a cen­tral ques­tion in the months af­ter the in­ci­dent, which also killed three other U.S. sol­diers and marked the sin­gle dead­li­est mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion for U.S. forces in Africa since the 1993 Bat­tle of Mo­gadishu.

An of­fi­cial ver­sion of events re­leased Thurs­day by the Pen­tagon de­scribed a har­row­ing scene in which John­son and two of his part­ner sol­diers from Niger were at­tempt­ing to get back in their ve­hi­cle to flee en­emy fire, only to end up run­ning into the brush as Is­lamic State fighters blocked them from es­cap­ing and pur­sued them to their deaths.

The 11 Amer­i­can sol­diers in John­son’s unit were trav­el­ing with a larger group of Nige­rien part­ner forces when they were am­bushed on the way out of a meet­ing with lo­cal lead­ers in the vil­lage of Tongo Tongo. Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ates were known to op­er­ate in the re­gion, but U.S. forces were un­ac­cus­tomed to hav­ing di­rect con­tact with them, let alone with an or­ga­nized group in­clud­ing about 100 com­bat­ants.

“They had never seen any­thing in this mag­ni­tude — num­bers, mo­bil­ity and training,” Marine Gen. Thomas D. Wald­hauser, com­man­der of U.S. Africa Com­mand, said in a brief­ing at the Pen­tagon on Thurs­day. “It was a to­tal tac­ti­cal sur­prise in how that took place.”

In the middle of the am­bush, John­son was caught un­der en­emy fire with three other mem­bers of his U.S. team and about 25 part­ner Nige­riens, as Is­lamic State fighters be­gan to en­velop them from the east and south, ac­cord­ing to a sum­mary of the Pen­tagon in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the in­ci­dent.

As it be­came in­creas­ingly clear that the troops were over­whelmed by the en­emy, the U.S. team’s com­man­der gave an or­der to break con­tact and re­treat.

By then, ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon, John­son had emp­tied a ve­hi­cle-mounted M240 ma­chine gun on the Is­lamic State fighters and switched to an M2010 sniper ri­fle while tak­ing cover at the rear of his ve­hi­cle. He ac­knowl­edged the or­der be­fore at­tempt­ing to climb into the driver’s seat and get away with two Nige­rien part­ner sol­diers.

But as the other ve­hi­cles in the con­voy took off, the three sol­diers found them­selves pinned down. They “were driven back to their prone po­si­tions by ac­cu­rate and heavy en­emy fire,” the Pen­tagon re­port said. “Un­able to reach the ve­hi­cle and with en­emy forces rapidly clos­ing on their po­si­tion, they were forced to evade on foot.”

In other words, they set off run­ning. Is­lamic State fighters were in pur­suit.

The first Nige­rien sol­dier ran west for about 460 meters be­fore he was gunned down by the com­bat­ants. The se­cond Nige­rien sol­dier made it an­other 110 meters but was also picked off.

John­son con­tin­ued run­ning, even­tu­ally find­ing cover un­der what the U.S. mil­i­tary de­scribed as a thorny tree three-fifths of a mile from the ve­hi­cle.

But John­son was out­num­bered. First, the en­emy fighters fired on him with a ve­hi­clemounted heavy ma­chine gun. Then, they ze­roed in on the young sergeant with smaller firearms, killing him alone in the West African brush some 5,300 miles from his Florida home.

On Thurs­day, the Pen­tagon sought to dis­pel ear­lier ac­counts in the me­dia, in­clud­ing The Washington Post, of­fered by Nige­rien vil­lagers sug­gest­ing that John­son had been cap­tured alive or found with his hands tied.

“The en­emy did not cap­ture SGT L. John­son alive,” the re­port said. His “hands were not bound and he was not ex­e­cuted but was killed in ac­tion while ac­tively en­gag­ing the en­emy.”

A U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cial with knowl­edge of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion said that in­ves­ti­ga­tors based the con­clu­sion that John­son was not bound or ex­e­cuted on sev­eral pieces of ev­i­dence, in­clud­ing an ex­am­i­na­tion of his re­mains. No lig­a­ture marks were found on his wrists or hands, and they were not bound when his re­mains were re­cov­ered by U.S. troops, the of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity due to the sen­si­tiv­ity of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The of­fi­cial said John­son was shot as many as 20 times, in­clud­ing at least once in the head. The mil­i­tary based its con­clu­sion that he was not ex­e­cuted on a lack of pow­der burns to the head, which would have in­di­cated that he was shot with a gun to his skull.

But the of­fi­cial ac­knowl­edged that John­son was in­deed killed at a rel­a­tively close range as Is­lamic State fighters closed in on him. Video re­leased by the mil­i­tants ap­pears to show them shoot­ing at least one other U.S. sol­dier in the head at close range af­ter he had been hit by gun­fire, though it wasn’t clear which shots were fa­tal. The video was cap­tured on a hel­met cam­era of one of the Amer­i­cans killed.

Se­nior U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials did not pro­vide that level of speci­ficity Thurs­day dur­ing a news con­fer­ence, but Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., the se­nior in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cer, said John­son’s body was “treated like all the other re­mains, both U.S. and Nige­rien.”

“His ser­vice­able equip­ment was stripped and taken from him,” Cloutier said. “But he was never in en­emy hands alive. They did have ac­cess to his re­mains and took his equip­ment.”

The U.S. mil­i­tary said its in­ves­ti­ga­tors in­ter­viewed 143 wit­nesses, in­clud­ing sur­vivors of the at­tack, in re­search­ing the re­port. It cau­tioned that the de­pic­tion of John­son’s fi­nal mo­ments wasn’t based on wit­ness ac­counts but rather “solely on ev­i­dence re­cov­ered dur­ing the course of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

A na­tional scan­dal erupted af­ter John­son’s wi­dow, Myeshia, ex­pressed her con­cerns about her phone call with Trump. But what also made John­son’s case so ex­cep­tional was the time it took the U.S. mil­i­tary to lo­cate his body af­ter the at­tack.

A Nige­rien quick-re­ac­tion force iden­ti­fied the re­mains of the three other Amer­i­can troops who died in the am­bush the same day and im­me­di­ately trans­ferred them to Amer­i­can custody. The mil­i­tants had at­tempted to take their re­mains away in ve­hi­cles, but aban­doned the ef­fort when French fighter jets roared over­head in a show of force, ac­cord­ing to U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials.

Nige­rien and Amer­i­can forces con­tin­ued to search for John­son through the night of the at­tack un­til nearly 6 the fol­low­ing morn­ing, but they couldn’t find him and re­turned to their base.

Ru­mors started cir­cu­lat­ing that the Is­lamic State fighters might have taken some­one hostage north of the vil­lage. The U.S. mil­i­tary was still look­ing for signs that John­son was alive or pos­si­bly cap­tured.

“There was some reporting that in­di­cated there could be a sol­dier held hostage some­where north of Tongo Tongo,” Cloutier said. “Of course, that re­port was taken se­ri­ously and as­sets be­gan look­ing there for signs of life or any­thing like that. It turned out to be an er­rant re­port. But the search for Sergeant La David John­son never stopped.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon, John­son was found about 48 hours later. Cloutier said the Army sergeant had run a long way — about 960 meters — from where he was last seen by his fel­low sol­diers, com­pli­cat­ing the ef­forts to de­ter­mine the where­abouts of his re­mains.

Af­ter the at­tack, Tongo Tongo’s chief and an­other man from the vil­lage pro­vided ac­counts of the af­ter­math of the am­bush to The Post. They said they found John­son’s body with his hands tied be­hind his back. The U.S. mil­i­tary dis­puted that at the time, say­ing there was no ev­i­dence his hands were tied.

Reached by phone late Thurs­day, the two vil­lagers — Mounkaila Alas­sane and Adamou Boubacar — stood by their story but de­clined to say more.

The mil­i­tary reem­pha­sized its ac­count on Thurs­day, say­ing his body wasn’t treated any dif­fer­ently from the bod­ies of other sol­diers killed in the at­tack.

As­pects of what hap­pened to John­son’s re­mains are still un­clear. The Pen­tagon did not ad­dress Thurs­day why, more than a month af­ter he was killed, it an­nounced last Novem­ber that more hu­man re­mains of John­son had been found sep­a­rately.

Ef­forts to reach John­son’s fam­ily in re­cent days have been un­suc­cess­ful.

The Pen­tagon re­moved all ref­er­ences to John­son’s re­cov­ery in a video re-cre­ation it re­leased to the me­dia Thurs­day. When the un­clas­si­fied video was shown to Congress ear­lier, it was about 21 min­utes long. But it was cut by about half be­fore pub­li­ca­tion Thurs­day, de­fense of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged un­der ques­tion­ing. As pre­sented, it ends with John­son’s death, rather than his re­cov­ery.

Wald­hauser said the longer video “goes into a lot of spe­cific ac­tiv­i­ties right there on the ground.”

As for why the Pen­tagon with­held it, Wald­hauser said it might have been “too much in­for­ma­tion” for the brief­ing Thurs­day, leav­ing less time for ques­tions.

The video, how­ever, was not shown dur­ing the news con­fer­ence at all. It was shown be­fore it, in a sep­a­rate set­ting.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Marine Gen. Thomas D. Wald­hauser, cen­ter, head of U.S. Africa Com­mand, takes ques­tions about the re­port with Robert S. Karem, left, an as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense, and Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr. The sergeant’s wi­dow has said that Pres­i­dent...

Army Sgt. La David T. John­son

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