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KOLLO, Niger -- Cut off from its unit, the tiny band of U.S. soldiers was outnumbered and outgunned in the deserts of Niger, fighting to stay alive under a barrage of gunfire from fighters loyal to the Islamic State group.

In the footage of their final moments, the three Americans are cut off in the desert scrub, under intense fire.

Jogging quickly at a crouch, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black motioned to the black SUV beside him to keep moving. At the wheel, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright tried to steer while leaning away from the gunfire. But the militants, wielding assault rifles and wearing dark scarves and balaclavas, kept closing in.

Black suddenly went down. With one hand, Wright dragged his wounded comrade to the precarious shielding of the SUV and took up a defensive position, his M4 carbine braced on his shoulder.

The gunfire was coming closer now, from a 45-degree angle.

"Black!" yelled a third U.S. soldier, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, checking for wounds. Black lay on his back, motionless and unresponsive.

Cornered, Wright and Johnson finally took off, sprinting through the desert under a hail of fire. The militants are almost on top of them.

Johnson, wearing the body camera, trails behind. He is hit and goes down, still alive. Wright stops running, turns and fires at the militants from behind a bush. The force of his weapon bends the wispy branches like a powerful wind.

For several long excruciating breaths, Wright keeps the militants away. But there's only so much one soldier can do. The militants shoot Johnson several more times, and then turn all of their fire on Wright.

He holds them off for as long as he can.

These were the last minutes in the lives of three U.S. soldiers killed Oct. 4 during an ambush in the desert scrub of Niger that was recorded on Johnson's military helmet camera. A fourth American, Sgt. La David Johnson, who had gotten separated from the group, also died in the attack -- the largest loss of U.S. troops during combat in Africa since the 1993 Black Hawk downing in Somalia.

The four men, along with four Nigerien soldiers and an interpreter, were killed in a conflict that few Americans knew anything about, not just the public, but also their families and even some senior U.S. lawmakers.

Dozens of interviews with current and former officials, soldiers who survived the ambush and villagers who witnessed it point to a series of intelligence failures and strategic miscalculations that left the U.S. soldiers far from base, in hostile territory longer than planned, with no backup or air support, on a mission they had not expected to perform.

They had set out Oct. 3, prepared for a routine, low-risk patrol with little chance of encountering the enemy. But while they were out in the desert, U.S. intelligence officials caught a break -- the possible location of a local terrorist leader who, by some accounts, is linked to the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen. A separate assault team was quickly assembled, ready to swoop in on the terrorist camp by helicopter. But the raid was scrapped at the last minute, and the Americans on patrol were sent in its place.

They didn't find any militants. Instead, the militants found them. Short on water, the patrol stopped outside a village before heading back to base the next morning. Barely 200 yards from the village, the convoy came under deadly fire.

Four months later, tough questions remain unanswered about the chain of decisions that led to U.S. special forces troops being overwhelmed by jihadis in a remote stretch of West Africa.

How did a group of U.S. soldiers -- who Defense Department officials insisted were in the country simply to train, advise and assist Niger's military -- suddenly get sent to search a terrorist camp, a much riskier mission than they had planned to carry out? Who ordered the mission, and why were the Americans so lightly equipped?

UNDEFINED WARFARE

More broadly, the deaths have reignited a long-standing argument in Washington over the sprawling and often opaque war being fought by U.S. troops around the world. It is a war with sometimes murky legal authority, one that began in the embers of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was expanded to Yemen, Somalia and Libya before arriving in Niger.

The ashes of the fallen twin towers were still smoldering Sept. 14, 2001, when Congress voted overwhelmingly to authorize the U.S. military to hunt down the perpetrators. It was a relatively narrow mandate, written for those specific attacks, but it has become the underpinning of an increasingly broad mission around the globe. For more than 16 years since that vote, U.S. service members have been deployed in a war that has gradually stretched to jihadi groups that did not exist in 2001 and now operate across distant parts of the world.

The result has been an amorphous and contested war that has put Navy SEALs in Somalia and Yemen, Delta Force soldiers in Iraq, and Green Berets in Niger in harm's way.

The deadly ambush in October happened on a continent still largely viewed through the lens of humanitarian catastrophes -- a place where most Americans are accustomed to expending dollars, not lives. A military report on what happened, which was supposed to be released in January, is still under review. Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters that the investigation runs "thousands of pages."

The fallout is already underway. A draft of the report has called for the Pentagon to scale back the number of ground missions in West Africa, and to strip commanders in the field of some authority to send troops on potentially high-risk patrols.

Perhaps even more significantly, the ambush has exposed holes in the argument the Pentagon has made under three different administrations: that in many far-flung places, U.S. troops are not actually engaged in combat, but are just there to train, advise and assist local troops.

After the ambush, members of Congress from both parties said they knew little about the U.S. military presence in Niger, expressing alarm.

"I didn't know there was 1,000 troops in Niger," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told NBC's Meet the Press two weeks after the deadly attack. (There are actually about 800 U.S. troops in the country.)

"This is an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time or geography," Graham continued.

The Pentagon's chief spokesman, Dana White, declined to comment "until the investigation is complete."

"We have to get the investigation right," she said.

The war authorization passed by Congress more than 16 years ago has been used so often to justify the deployment of U.S. troops that some administrations have tried to sidestep criticism by finding other legal powers to invoke, including for U.S. troops in Niger.

On Feb. 20, 2013, President Barack Obama sent a short letter to Rep. John Boehner, then the speaker of the House. Citing the 1973 War Powers Act, the president said the Pentagon would deploy 40 troops to Niger to set up a drone base, conduct reconnaissance flights and help facilitate intelligence gathering for French forces in Mali. The troops, and others to follow, also would provide training and assistance for Nigerien forces, he said.

To understand how these men got to Niger, it's necessary to go back to Aug. 7, 1998, the day that nearly simultaneous truck bombs exploded at two U.S. embassies in East Africa: one in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and the other in Nairobi, Kenya.

The attacks, which killed more than 200 people and wounded 5,000 more, thrust Osama bin Laden onto the FBI's 10 most-wanted fugitives list and started decades of coordination with Kenya to fight terrorism in East Africa.

"Those bombings were the wake-up call to say to the United States that there is a threat emerging in Africa," said Gen. Carter Ham, a former head of the U.S. Africa Command.

By the end of the George W. Bush administration, U.S. Green Berets were training African armies to guard against infiltration by al-Qaida militants. And within the first year of the Obama administration, a string of killings, bombings, kidnappings and other attacks against Westerners and security forces in North and West Africa raised fears that al-Qaida's branch in the region, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, was taking a deadly turn, posing a larger security threat.

OUT TOO LONG

The Pentagon's explanation of what happened to its soldiers in Niger has shifted repeatedly.

Within hours of the attack, Defense Department officials said the U.S. ground patrol had been ambushed during a routine reconnaissance mission in which it was simply advising and assisting Nigerien troops.

Weeks later, U.S. officials began privately acknowledging that the ambushed soldiers had been diverted from their low-risk patrol and sent several hours away, toward the border with Mali. The change in plans was completely unexpected and came as the soldiers were already on their way back to base.

But an opportunity had suddenly presented itself, U.S. and Nigerien officials now say. Just hours before, U.S. intelligence officials had intercepted a call on an electronic device associated with Doundoun Cheffou, a former cattle herder believed to be a senior lieutenant in a shadowy local group that had recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.

Cheffou's men were believed by Nigerien and some U.S. officials to have played a role in the kidnapping of the only American to be abducted by jihadis in the region: Jeffery Woodke, an aid worker yanked out of his home in 2016 in Niger, some 300 miles from where the electronic device was turned on.

If captured, Cheffou could lead U.S. forces to Woodke, said Rudy Atallah, the former director of African counterterrorism policy for the Pentagon. Military officials quickly ordered an assault team of U.S., French and Nigerien commandos based in Arlit, 700 miles northeast of the capital, to go after Cheffou, officials say.

The scramble to pull together a raid and hunt down Cheffou upended what had been a fairly uneventful day for the four U.S. sergeants already out on patrol.

They were part of a group of 11 U.S. and 30 Nigerien soldiers with a very different assignment: to visit a number of villages to meet with residents and leaders. It was considered routine, low risk and something they were well equipped for.

Starting around 6 a.m. Oct. 3, the Americans and their Nigerien counterparts headed out from their base in Ouallam, 60 miles north of Niamey, to villages to meet with community leaders, according to two of the Nigerien soldiers on the mission. In the afternoon, their assignment completed, they began to head back to base.

Before they got there, a new order came in: Provide backup to the assault mission gearing up in Arlit. The plan was not for Team 3212 to join the raid, officials say, but to get close enough to pursue escaping militants or help out as needed.

But soon, the plans changed yet again. Back in Arlit, the preparations for the raid were falling apart. Bad weather or mechanical problems scotched the assault team's helicopter mission, and U.S. spy agencies determined that Cheffou and a handful of fighters had left the location, officials say. They believed the trail had gone cold.

Team 3212 and the 30 Nigeriens with it were moving into position to back up a raid that was no longer happening, officials said. The same chain of command ordered the team to press on -- now on its third assignment in 24 hours. Could the team salvage some of the mission by searching the site where Cheffou had been, collecting any scraps of information left behind that might offer clues about his hideouts and network?

The sense of urgency and risk that infused the planning around the raid from Arlit seemed to recede once that mission was scrubbed and Cheffou vanished -- even though he and his fighters may have remained in the area Team 3212 was entering.

As the team pushed on toward the location, the air support assigned to the raid dropped off. French forces that had been alerted to stand by to support the impending operation also stood down. The team, assigned to support a priority mission, was on its own, current and former U.S. military officials say.

Even though the mission was scrubbed, Team 3212 apparently stuck to the same schedule. The Americans and Nigeriens bedded down in sleeping bags next to their vehicles, according to one of the Nigerien soldiers. They rose while it was still dark and pushed through to the militant campsite. It was empty, the two Nigerien soldiers said.

The team gathered material from the campsite and began the long drive back to base as the sun was rising. They had traveled no more than 20 miles of the approximately 110-mile journey back when they approached the first village on their route, a speck on the map known as Tongo Tongo.

They were tired and out of water, said one of the Nigerien soldiers who survived. They decided to take a break just outside the village, near a well.

The village chief walked out to meet the convoy, explaining that several children were sick. The unit began distributing medicine, the Nigerien soldiers said. Some of the soldiers saw men speeding out of the village on motorbikes, they said, possibly to alert the militants.

Some soldiers had the impression that the chief was trying to delay them. He was later arrested, and his phone contained the numbers for known terrorists, including one connected to Cheffou, Nigerien officials said.

Around 11:30 a.m., the patrol left for home. But right outside the village, the convoy came under attack from militants with small arms, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Early in the firefight, Team 3212's leader, Capt. Michael Perozeni, and a radio operator, Sgt. 1st Class Brent Bartels, were both shot and wounded, probably reducing the team's ability to communicate to higher command, a military official said.

At some point, the convoy split up, leaving at least two of the vehicles cut off under heavy gunfire. Jeremiah Johnson, Wright and Black were in the black SUV.

Somehow, it was left behind.

A Section on 02/18/2018

Print Headline: A fight to the death in the desert

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