WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A series of individual and organizational failures, including a lack of training and situational awareness, contributed to a deadly ambush in Niger last year that killed four U.S. soldiers, a partial Pentagon report released on Thursday said.
The October ambush, carried out by a local Islamic State affiliate, has brought increased scrutiny of the U.S. counterterrorism mission in the West African country, and the report will likely raise more questions about U.S military operations on the continent.
President Donald Trump’s handling of condolence messages to the families of the dead U.S. soldiers has been criticized by lawmakers in Washington and raised the profile of the deadly incident.
“The investigation identifies individual, organizational and institutional failures and deficiencies that contributed to the tragic events of 4 October 2017 ... no single failure or deficiency was the sole reason for the events,” an eight-page summary of the report says. A redacted version of the complete report may not be publicly released for months.
The report did not assign blame, but said recommendations had been made to U.S. Special Operations Command on actions that could be taken against personnel. The top U.S. military official in Africa said that ultimately he was responsible.
“I take ownership for all the events connected to the ambush of 4 October. Again, the responsibility is mine,” Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command, said during a Pentagon press briefing.
Even before the U.S. Special Operations Forces Team arrived in Niger, high personnel turnover had prevented the team from carrying out important pre-deployment training as a team, the report found.
Only half of the team had trained together when it arrived in Niger in the fall of 2017.
On Oct. 3, the special forces team, along with partner Niger forces, set out on a mission to target a key Islamic State militant near the village of Tiloa, Niger. The team had not trained for the mission and did not notify higher-level commanders that it would be undertaking it.
While the team mischaracterised this mission, the report did not find a direct link between that and the ambush that killed the four U.S. soldiers.
The top U.S. general said last year that the team was on a reconnaissance mission.
On the way back to its base, after carrying out a separate intelligence gathering mission, the team stopped at the village of Tongo Tongo to resupply. It was then that the U.S. soldiers, along with their Nigerien partners, were ambushed by militants.
The report and a 10-minute video shown to reporters details the gun battle and how at one point U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson sought to run away on foot from the militants after he was unable to enter his vehicle. He was ultimately killed 1,000 meters (about 3,300 feet) from the vehicle.
The evidence showed that all four soldiers had been stripped of any serviceable equipment and the militants had made an attempt to take the bodies with them.
Two of the soldiers’ bodies were found in the back of a militant’s vehicle and one body next to it, said Army Major General Roger Cloutier, who led the investigation into the ambush.
As a result of the October incident, U.S. forces in Africa would now be more “prudent” in carrying out missions and improvements have been made for troops in areas such as firepower and equipment, response times and level of intelligence provided, Waldhauser said.
Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Bill Berkrot