US team in Niger was collecting intel on terror leader

The US Army team that was ambushed in Niger was gathering intelligence on a terrorist leader operating in the area before it was attacked, three military officials have told CNN.

Four US and five Nigerien soldiers were killed and two Americans were wounded in the October 4 attack.

The officials said the unit was not under orders to conduct a kill or capture mission on the leader. Such missions are typically reserved for other elite special operations forces teams.

“At no time was the team ever directed to ‘take direct action’ against enemy forces,” a US defense official told CNN Wednesday.

US officials have codenamed the target, a regional terror planner and coordinator, “Naylor Road,” according to a US senior military official. The high-value target is also believed to have been involved in attacks in Burkina Faso, the official said.

The 12-man Green Beret-led team was given several different tasks before it was ambushed.

The team’s primary mission was to train, advise, and assist a larger Nigerien force of 30 soldiers.

That mission did not change, but while on a standard reconnaissance patrol, the team was given a new task, to advise and assist the Nigerien soldiers so that they could be used as the “quick reaction force” if another US-Nigerien military team encountered difficulty in a planned operation to capture or kill the targeted leader in Niger, three US defense officials told CNN Wednesday.

Before the capture-or-kill operation was launched, however, US intelligence assets observed the terrorist leader abandon his encampment in Niger and cross the border into Mali.

The mission was then canceled, and the team advising the would-be quick reaction force was given a new task: to go to the abandoned encampment and collect potential intelligence on the terror leader.

The officials emphasized that the terrorist leader was known to no longer be at the location, something the US military continues to believe, and the team was tasked only with collecting possible intelligence.

The mission’s perceived threat level was not changed because military leaders still believed the team would not encounter enemy fighters.

The team did not encounter any enemy forces at the site and left the location.

On their way back to their operating base, they stopped in a separate village in order to enable the Nigerien troops to replenish supplies. While there, US troops met with local leaders as a courtesy.

The official said that it is “quite probable” that someone in the village tipped off the ISIS-affiliated terrorists that US forces were in the village, setting up the ambush.

The village elders themselves are not suspected, but a US defense official told CNN on Wednesday that a village elder has been questioned by Nigerien authorities.

CNN was told previously by multiple US officials that the survivors of the ambush said in initial after-action interviews that they felt the villagers were attempting to delay their departure and may have been complicit in the ambush.

The new details come a day after Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford told reporters that the troops were on their way back to their operating base when they were ambushed by 50 ISIS fighters.

The ISIS affiliated attackers used mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, technical vehicles and heavy machine guns according to one defense official.

About one hour into the firefight, the team requested support.

“My judgment would be that that unit thought they could handle the situation without additional support,” Dunford said. “And so, what we’ll find out in the investigation [is] exactly why it took an hour for them to call.”

A remotely piloted drone aircraft arrived overhead within minutes of the request for help. It was tasked to provide surveillance and reconnaissance and to capture video of the scene, the general said.

But a US defense official told CNN that the US drones in Niger are not authorized to be armed, which meant the aircraft was unable to conduct airstrikes in support of the troops on the ground.

Three defense officials told CNN this week that the US military had been seeking the authority to arm its drones in Niger before ambush.

The military is still seeking the authority to arm the drones in the wake of the ISIS attack, the officials added, with one saying the effort has gained greater urgency.

Armed French Mirage jets arrived about one hour later — two hours after the troops made initial contact with enemy forces.

The official said the jets were authorized to strike but did not.

President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House Wednesday that he was reviewing reports about the investigation into the operation.

“As far as the incident that we’re talking about, I’ve been seeing it just like you’ve been seeing it,” Trump said. “I’ve been getting reports. They have to meet the enemy and they meet them tough, and that’s what happens.”

CNN also learned Tuesday that the Green Beret-led team was on one of its first patrols in the country after arriving just weeks earlier, according to two US defense officials.

One of the officials said the team was on its first patrol when it was ambushed, while the second official said the team was either its first or second patrol.

Previously the military has said there had been 29 similar patrols without incident, but the officials have clarified those 29 patrols were conducted by the task force as a whole, not by this specific unit that came under attack.

The four soldiers killed in the ambush in Niger had relatively little combat experience, according to Army service records obtained by CNN. One of the four killed in action had never been deployed overseas while the other three had each undergone one deployment to Afghanistan, Nigeria and Jordan. None of the four soldiers received the Army’s combat infantry badge or combat action badge, which are given to soldiers participating in units that have been engaged in active ground combat. CNN had been previously told by defense officials that this particular team had only been in Niger for “weeks” and that this was one of their first patrols.

The team’s lack of experience on the ground may not have been a decisive factor in how the ambush took place, but it may have played a role in how the soldiers reacted once the firefight began, according to CNN military analyst retired Col. Steve Warren.

Their newness may have had an impact on how quickly the team called for support and the way evacuations were conducted, Warren said.

During Monday’s Pentagon briefing, Dunford told reporters that there is no indication that the US troops were operating outside their orders at the time of the ambush.

“I don’t have any indication right now to believe or to know that they did anything other than operate within the orders that they were given,” Dunford said. “That’s what the investigation’s all about. So I think anyone that speculates about what special operations forces did or didn’t do is doing exactly that, they’re speculating.”

Still, Dunford said the military will be investigating whether the planned reconnaissance mission changed.

“It was planned as a reconnaissance mission,” he said. “What happened after they began to execute, in other words, did the mission change? That is one of the questions that’s being asked. It’s a fair question, but I can’t tell you definitively the answer to that question. But, yes, we’ve seen the reports, we’ve seen the speculation.”

A defense official told CNN on Tuesday that the chief of staff to the commander of US Africa Command, Major Gen. Roger Cloutier Jr., is leading the formal investigation into the deadly ambush.

Senior military commanders have said that the investigation will take time and that its findings will first be shared with the families of the fallen.

“The very first people that we want to sit down with and share the facts are the families, once the investigation is complete,” Dunford told reporters Tuesday at a press conference in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

“There’s so many bits and pieces of information that are coming out — some speculation, some bits of fact,” Dunford added. “We want to make sure we have the whole story, we have the whole story in context, we can provide the facts to the family.”

One US soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson, was separated from the 12-member team as it was ambushed by the ISIS fighters, and his body was recovered 48 hours later nearly a mile away from the central scene of the ambush, four administration officials familiar with the early assessment of what happened told CNN on Friday.

Dunford said Monday that he could not definitely confirm reports that Johnson was found nearly a mile away, but that those details would come to light as part of the investigation.

“I think we owe the families and American people transparency,” Dunford said.

Asked Tuesday why Johnson’s body was found so far away from the central scene of the ambush, one defense official told CNN that combat happens quickly and soldiers seek cover as best they can.

In the simplest terms, Johnson was separated from his unit in the chaos of battle, the official said.