The Pentagon has concluded its investigation into the October 2017 Niger ambush that left four American soldiers and four Nigerien partner forces dead.
Punishments already handed out to junior officers will stand, despite the desire from some family members of the fallen to see more senior leaders held accountable.
The decision is also concerning to some experts and lawmakers who view the failures that led to the ambush as widespread across the chain of command, and not localized within the single ill-fated team from 3rd Special Forces Group, out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“I am satisfied that all findings, awards, and accountability actions were thorough and appropriate,” Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in a statement accompanying the released investigation, which was posted by the Pentagon early Thursday morning.
In the release, many names for specific actions are redacted, such as an exchange in which the captain from the ambushed Green Beret unit, known as Team OUALLAM, asked the battalion commander in Chad whether they could return to base after the helicopter assault force they were supporting unexpectedly pulled out of the capture or kill mission they were pursuing.
The Chad-based commander told the team to continue and they were ultimately ambushed by a large force of ISIS-linked militants.
The investigation assessed multiple points of failure during the mission, “including the nearly 24-hours with little rest, no quick reaction forces assigned, an execution timeline that would put the team near the Mali border approaching daylight hours, no [casualty evacuation] plan, and an ISR platform without sufficient fuel to cover Team OUALLAM’s return to base.”
Punishments dished out
Family members of some of the soldiers killed in the ambush reacted angrily Wednesday after being handed the new report by Army officers and learning that no further disciplinary action would occur, ABC News reported.
An earlier investigation by Africa Command led to reprimands being issued for some junior soldiers involved in the mission, along with the senior commander for special operations advisory teams in Africa at the time, Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks.
Capt. Michael Perozeni, the leader of the Green Beret team that was ambushed, successfully appealed his punishments, according to the New York Times.
“Most would agree with the logic that the senior officers should be held accountable more so than the junior officers,” said ret. Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Addicott, a former military attorney who was a senior legal adviser to Army Special Forces. "The message it sends to the forces on the ground that work these dangerous missions is chilling. A general officer memorandum of reprimand will end a junior officer’s career if placed in his official files.”
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis originally convened a review of the ambush that would include recommendations for awards and punishments. That review was brought to Shanahan when he assumed Mattis’ role.
However, Shanahan told Congress in March that he did not find the existing review satisfactory, “so I convened my own review so I can ensure from top to bottom there’s the appropriate accountability,” he said.
But in the end, Shanahan decided not to recommend any further punishments than the earlier investigations by AFRICOM and Special Operations Command.
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., the first Green Beret elected to Congress, said he was pleased when Shanahan initiated the follow-on review because of concerns that AFRICOM was in effect investigating itself.
“I’m interested in seeing any additional type of information on whether the team in question really went out on their own and perhaps a little rogue, like the previous report intimated, or whether that team was directed to do so," Waltz said before the investigation was released Thursday.
“I think the bigger point for me is the families don’t feel like they’ve received a consistent story of what happened,” he added.
What went wrong
AFRICOM’s investigation found numerous institutional failures leading up to the ambush that took root before the team ever deployed, and reached a zenith when local commanders carried out a capture or kill mission that they didn’t have the authority to do.
The team of 11 U.S. soldiers and 30 Nigerien troops were ambushed near Tongo Tongo, Niger, on Oct. 4, 2017. It was their third mission in the roughly one month since they arrived downrange. The team was pursuing an ISIS-connected militant, known as Doundoun Cheffou, who had a role in the kidnapping of American aid worker Jeffery Woodke in Niger in 2016.
After intelligence located Cheffou, the Green Beret team and its partner forces planned to infiltrate the militant leader’s camp alongside a helicopter-borne team of U.S. special operations and Nigerien counterterrorism forces.
Weather caused the helicopter team to be scrubbed, and the ground team continued alone. After the helicopter assault backed out, the battalion commander based in Chad, identified as Lt. Col. David Painter by the New York Times, told Team OUALLAM to go on alone.
In November, Mattis was angered at the possibility that Painter, as well as Col. Brad Moses, former commander of 3rd Special Forces Group, would escape reprimands, causing him to order a review of the punishments being dealt out, the Times reported.
Painter received a reprimand, but is still expected to pin on colonel. Moses is up for brigadier general, and he is the only person in the special operations chain of command involved in the ambush who remained unpunished, the Times reported.
The redacted report indicated Moses and others in the chain of command were briefed when the Green Beret ground team was redirected after the helicopter-borne team dropped out of the mission.
The slow pace of the investigation and the decisions over who would be punished also drew the ire of Congress this spring.
During his testimony in March, Shanahan was sharply rebuked by Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona congressman and former Marine, who accused the Pentagon of “placing blame on junior officers” while "colonels and general officers just get off the hook.”
Shanahan assured Gallego that wasn’t the case, and said holding senior leaders accountable was the “fundamental reason” for the second review.
“Reports that Acting Secretary Shanahan intends to let the blame for the Niger disaster lie on junior officers and enlisted personnel is a shirking of responsibility to the memory and families of the deceased," Gallego said in a statement Wednesday.
“From the beginning, the investigation into what happened that day has been poorly handled at all levels. Nearly two years later, we are still waiting for answers," Gallego added. “The Pentagon has refused to comply with the mandate to provide Congress with a comprehensive account of what went wrong and the lessons learned, and to provide the families of those lost with any semblance of closure.”
Valor awards for the ambush have not been explicitly confirmed, but Silver Stars and Bronze Stars with Valor are expected to be awarded to the fallen soldiers.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.