Missing US commando found dead two days after deadly ambush in Africa

W.J. HENNIGAN
Last updated 14:24 07/10/2017
US ARMY

Jeremiah Johnson was one of four Special Forces killed in an ambush in Niger.

US ARMY
Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright was killed in the ambush.
US ARMY
Staff Sergeant Bryan Black was killed in Niger alongside three fellow soldiers.
HANDOUT
A US Army team carries the remains of Dustin Wright, who was killed in the ambush in Niger.

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After an intense two-day search, local military forces on Saturday (New Zealand time) recovered the body of a US Army commando who was inadvertently left behind after a daylight ambush by militants killed three other Green Berets in a rugged border region in Niger.

Pentagon officials had not previously announced that a Green Beret was missing in action after the surprise attack on a joint patrol of US commandos and Nigerien troops Wednesday.

The death of four Green Berets in remote West Africa marks the worst single loss of US forces under fire since President Donald Trump took office. The president was briefed on the search and the discovery of the body, officials said.

Six of the 12 Americans on the patrol were killed or wounded.

Officials hoped the missing US Army Special Forces operative might still be hiding in the dense brush, rather than taken captive, and launched a massive search-and-rescue mission with aerial drones and other aircraft, as well as Nigerien ground forces.

READ MORE: Special forces rescue US hostage in Afghanistan

The casualties came as a heavy blow to the insular special operations community that increasingly shoulders the burden of America's counterterrorism operations overseas.

The four fatalities, as well as two wounded Green Berets, were in the 3rd Special Forces Group based in Fort Bragg, N.C.

The Pentagon identified the first three fatalities as Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29.

Officials did not release the name of the Green Beret whose body was found.

It wasn't immediately clear if he was killed in the firefight or died later.

According to the Pentagon, the Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, otherwise known as an "A-Team," went on a routine patrol Wednesday afternoon with about 20 troops from the Niger Armed Forces when they came under heavy fire.

Officials said a barrage of machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades from about 50 militants forced the US and Nigerien troops into defensive positions near the border with Mali.

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The fire peppered the troops' trucks and shattered windows before they could regroup and fire back.

The soldiers called in support from French attack helicopters and fighter jets. It's not clear whether the aircraft fired.

Amid the chaos, the officials said, one of the 12 Green Berets was left behind in a border region notorious for drug smuggling, human trafficking and myriad extremist militias, including allies of al-Qaida and Islamic State.

The other Green Berets only noticed his absence after they had pulled back.

Colonel Mark Cheadle, spokesman for US Africa Command, which oversees US military operations on the continent, said commanders are reassessing whether US forces on patrol are properly supplied to defend themselves.

"We are re-evaluating," he said. "This was not expected. This was clearly something that, had we anticipated this sort of attack, we absolutely would have devoted more resources to it to reduce the risk."

Cheadle said the patrol had planned to talk to local leaders about security. He said the military has no indication that someone tipped off the militants to set up an ambush in the brush.

"It would've been easy to have good concealment in this terrain," he said, adding that an unarmed surveillance aircraft was overhead, but no armed air cover because the threat was considered "unlikely."

Four Nigerien soldiers also were reported killed, with eight wounded. The two wounded Green Berets were flown to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Centre in Germany, the largest US military hospital overseas.

The deadly attack drew attention to the little-known US military presence in Niger, an impoverished desert country in Francophone West Africa. About 800 US personnel are deployed there.

Niger is considered strategic for US counterterrorism operations. It lies between Nigeria to the south, where Islamic State affiliate Boko Haram has been fighting to establish Islamist rule, and Mali to the west, where multiple extremist militias are active.

In all, US special operations teams are deployed in 124 countries to train, advise and assist friendly forces, although most are focused in Africa and the Middle East.

The special operators' clandestine operations and extensive training in guerrilla warfare became critical in tracking terrorist networks rooted in the Middle East and Horn of Africa.

Brig. Gen. Donald C. Bolduc, former commander of US Special Operations Command in Africa, told Special Warfare Magazine, an internal military publication, in January that the future for special operations "isn't in Iraq or Afghanistan but in areas where we're seeing violent extremist organisations spreading, like Africa."

The program has vastly expanded in recent years as the Obama administration sought to bring US troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and rely more on US-trained and armed local forces for counterterrorism operations.

But it has put a burden on special operations forces who face repeated deployments in remote areas that often have little resources in the case of emergency.

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