2018/04/11 – In one of the final chapters in a lengthy investigation into how four Americans died on an obscure battlefield, some of those who fought in the pitched firefight have been reprimanded, while senior officers who approved the mission have gone unpunished.
The Army has punished two members of the Special Forces team ambushed in Niger last October for their decisions before the mission and for insufficient training alongside their Nigerien allies in advance, according to military officials. Four others in their chain of command were also disciplined.
Some of those punished in recent weeks included the Green Beret team leader, Capt. Mike Perozeni, and his second in command, a master sergeant. Those absent from the six letters of reprimand include the two senior officers who approved the mission and who then oversaw the operation as it went fatally awry.
The punishments appear to run counter to another narrative the Army has pushed in past months: the heroism displayed by the troops under fire. Almost all of the soldiers on the 11-man team, including those who were killed, have been nominated for valor awards, though they have yet to be approved. According to one official, senior officers at Special Operations Command believe that members of the team can be held responsible for failures before the mission and still be awarded commendations for their actions during the ambush.
Capt. Jason Salata, a spokesman for Special Operations Command, said in a statement that he would not discuss “any accountability actions.” But he added that “we remain committed to learning all we can from this ambush as a way to continue to honor the sacrifice and commitment of our fallen soldiers.”
What happened on the night of the ambush?
The events that led up to the ambush are the result of three separate missions.
The first, which took place on Oct. 3, began with the Green Beret-led unit, Team 3212, departing from an outpost in Oullam and heading toward the Niger-Mali border. The team’s stated initial plan was to visit a vulnerable checkpoint of Nigerien troops and speak with the soldiers there. The investigation said the mission was misrepresented to higher-ups by a lower-ranking officer. According to Pentagon officials, the officer failed to disclose that the team’s actual plan was to go after an Islamic State leader named Doundoun Cheffou.
The second mission, which was launched on the night of Oct. 3 after intelligence located Mr. Cheffou, involved an operation against the leader’s camp with a helicopter-borne team of American commandos and Nigerien counterterrorism troops from the town of Arlit, along with Team 3212.
Because of bad weather, the helicopter mission was canceled. Team 3212 was told to go to the campsite alone in what was the third and final mission. After searching the empty campsite, the team headed back toward Oullam. It was ambushed outside the village of Tongo Tongo by a large group of Islamic State militants that had been tracking its movements for hours.
Before the Oct. 4 ambush, many Americans were unaware that the Green Berets and 800 other American troops were deployed in Niger. The attack led to the largest loss of American lives in combat in Africa since the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia.
The deaths of the four soldiers — Sgt. First Class Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright and Sgt. La David Johnson — set off an intense debate over what the American military is doing in Africa, and why.
Why are they getting punished for the battle?
The initial findings by Africa Command released in May focused on missteps by junior officers before the 11-man Green Beret team and 30 Nigerien soldiers headed into western Niger’s desert scrub. That report yielded 23 separate findings, six of which were then investigated separately by Special Operations Command. Troops on the ground in Africa answer to Africa Command as the geographic headquarters. Special Operations Command is responsible for training, equipping and sending the forces to the military’s regional commands.
The drawn-out inquiry process resulted from a clash between Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general, and Gen. Tony Thomas of the Army, the head of Special Operations Command, according to officials.
General Thomas, in the weeks after the ambush, insisted that it would fall primarily on the Special Operations leadership to helm the investigation into the attack. But Mr. Mattis thought differently, ensuring that Africa Command — commanded by a Marine general — would lead the inquiry. After the investigation, it would then fall on General Thomas to ensure that any of Africa Command’s findings that pointed to missteps within the Special Forces team and its chain of command would be investigated and those involved appropriately punished.
Who is getting punished
As of now, four officers and two enlisted soldiers received letters of reprimand, known as a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand. Maj. Gen. Edwin J. Deedrick Jr., the commanding officer of the First Special Forces Command, administered five of the letters. The sixth was given by General Thomas to Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks of the Air Force.
A letter of reprimand’s severity is based on where it is placed in a soldier’s file. If the letter is considered “local,” it will disappear after the soldier changes jobs. But, if it is permanent, the punishment will stay with the soldier throughout his time in the military. In short: A permanent letter of reprimand often means the end of a career.
Below are the members of Third Special Forces Group and Special Operations Command-Africa who were punished and why.
Captain Perozeni was the leader of Team 3212, Alpha Company, Second Battalion, Third Special Forces Group. He received a letter of reprimand citing his actions before the mission, including insufficient training and rehearsals before leaving base on Oct. 3. One of the main criticisms outlined in the letter states that Team 3212 had rarely trained with the Nigerien soldiers who fought alongside his team that day.
Team 3212 had been in Niger less than a month and had focused on training another counterterrorism unit before the Oct. 3 mission. Captain Perozeni was recommended for the Silver Star, a medal for valor third to the Medal of Honor. He was wounded during the ambush.
The team’s second in command, a master sergeant, was punished for many of the same reasons Captain Perozeni was faulted for: not doing enough training with the Nigerien troops, along with a lack of rehearsals before the mission. His name, and others, have been withheld because of privacy concerns. The names have not been published throughout the investigation.
The next echelon of Team 3212’s leadership
Maj. Alan Van Saun, the company commander for Alpha Company, was home on paternity leave when Team 3212 was ambushed. He was reprimanded for improper training before the company was sent to Niger.
While Major Van Saun was stateside on leave, the acting company commander was a junior captain, meaning most of his responsibilities were left instead to a more experienced chief warrant officer. Even though the warrant officer’s role meant he was not in charge of Alpha Company, he carried out most of the company commander’s responsibilities. Because of this, the chief warrant officer’s letter of reprimand faulted him for the inaccurate mission plan that helped launch the first of the three missions.
Investigators believed Team 3212 and its immediate leadership in Niamey lied about the first mission because the team had an American intelligence contractor, who was able to detect and locate cellphone and radio communications, accompanying the team. The investigators thought that by bringing the civilian, Team 3212 had counted on finding and going after Mr. Cheffou. Team 3212 brought him, however, because dated intelligence pointed to Mr. Cheffou’s presence in the area and it was worth at least trying to locate him when the team was at the Nigerien checkpoint, according to military officials.
The Army also punished Alpha Company’s sergeant major, who left the unit before Team 3212 deployed. As the top enlisted soldier in Alpha Company, he was responsible for the overall training of the company and ensuring that the six teams in the company were properly staffed.
He was faulted for improperly training the company while it was in North Carolina. His replacement who deployed to Niger was not punished.
The highest-ranking person punished was General Hicks, the commanding officer of all Special Operations forces operating in Africa. He was aware of the third mission but was not a part of the approval process. He was punished by General Thomas for not having appropriate oversight of the officers below him. He has long been set to retire after finishing his command.
And who is going unpunished
High-ranking officers with direct oversight of the ill-fated mission
The commander who oversaw Alpha Company and Team 3212, Lt. Col. David Painter, was not punished. He approved the first and second missions and ordered the third. As battalion commander, he oversaw and approved all of his soldiers’ assignments and training, both back in the United States and in Niger. He told Team 3212 to continue on the final mission despite Captain Perozeni’s pushing back on the operation, stating that the team had been out too long and lacked the resources for the operation. Colonel Painter is now a battalion commander in the Army’s new advising unit, the Security Force Assistance Brigade.
Col. Brad Moses, the commanding officer of Third Special Forces Group and Colonel Painter’s direct superior, received no punishment. He approved the second mission and was closely consulted regarding the third and final mission to send Team 3212 into the campsite and the ambush that followed. He is now the chief of staff at United States Army Special Operations Command, the headquarters that oversees the unit charged with investigating and punishing those in Team 3212.
What’s next for the American military mission in Africa?
After the ambush, Africa Command instituted a number of restrictions on Special Operations forces deployed across the continent, including a requirement for more overhead reconnaissance and stricter mission plans. Back in the United States, Army Special Forces units are revisiting how long their units are deployed and how teams train before they travel to combat zones.
Africa Command is also looking at scaling back its presence on the continent in an attempt to align with the current defense strategy, which views Russia and China as leading threats instead of militant groups such as those spread across the Sahel and eastern Africa.
In the end, after more than a year of investigations, the American military punished those involved in the ambush for a series of small-unit training choices before the mission.
Military officials did little to examine the ramifications of the mission these troops were asked to undertake in western Africa, or how they were asked to accomplish it. The more senior officer who ordered the fateful mission, over the objections of the officer leading the team on the ground, went undisciplined and will continue in his career.
NY Times / Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a reporter in the Washington bureau and a former Marine infantryman.