The footage from the helmet camera shows the last moments of one of the American Special Forces killed in Niger in October 2017. As the soldier lies on his side, the camera points into the distance of scraggy bushes and baked sand-colored earth.
A black-clad jihadist walks into the frame. Then the camera shudders from bullets.
The footage was taken from the bodies of American Special Forces, repackaged into a propaganda film for ISIS, and months later, began to make its way into the hands of the media before being released online.
In the video, the usual brutalities of ISIS are gone. Instead the extremists want to show a gun battle between their fighters who ambushed American and Niger forces near the town of Tongo Tongo. After some brief quotes from an old sermon by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the video shows images of jihadists in Africa. They are kitted out with trucks with mounted machine guns or “technical.” The men carry AK-47s and other small arms. They don’t wear camouflage or uniforms and don’t even seem to have much gear, such as tactical vests or helmets.
The Americans were on a mission in northern Niger when their convoy was ambushed returning from Tongo Tongo.
Four Americans were killed: St.- Sgt. Bryan Black, St.-Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, St.-Sgt. Dustin Wright and Sgt. La David Johnson, whose body was found two days after the battle.
The deaths of the Americans led to surprise in Washington.
What were Americans doing in Niger? “I didn’t know there were 1,000 troops in Niger,” US Sen. Lindsey Graham admitted after the deaths. US media scrambled to take a “closer look” at what was going on. What America was doing was a “great mystery,” according to The New York Times, which sought to reconstruct the battle.
It shoudn’t have been a mystery. In May 2017, General Raymond Thomas III, commander of US Special Operations Command, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that 8,000 of his 56,000 men and women were deployed to forward positions in 80 countries. He even mentioned “across the Sahel of Africa.”
The Sahel includes Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea. In several of those countries, Islamist insurgencies have percolated and even threatened central governments. So the American and French have gone bootson- the-ground to train partner forces. This is what the US called “by, with and through.” You train and equip the locals, like the US did in Iraq and Syria, and then the locals go kill jihadists.
In Niger, things went wrong when a unit of 12 Americans from the 3rd Special Forces Group and 30 Niger soldiers went out on a reconnaissance near the border with Mali.
On the way back, they were ambushed by dozens of ISIS fighters and other jihadists. Initial reports indicated that the attack included mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, and that the enemy burned trees to cloud the air from drones and used animals to screen their movements.
The video that emerged in late February and was widely circulated online on March 4 doesn’t tell us everything about the battle. The ISIS propagandists spliced several different videos into the one they released. First they took their own video of their men before and after the battle. They then added still images of US forces training the Niger forces. They also took the helmet-cam footage they got from the dead Americans and spliced at least an hour’s worth of video into nine minutes.
What the viewer sees is the initial contact between US Special Forces, who were riding in an SUV and in a white truck. At least six Americans can be seen in the footage. The video then cuts to the Special Forces as they are taking cover behind their vehicle, popping red smoke bombs to hide their movements.
At first they seem confident and calm and the ambush doesn’t overwhelm them. However, once one of their comrades is wounded, things begin to fall apart.
Eventually, two of the Americans make a run for it into the African bush and are both killed. The jihadists videoed the bodies of two of the slain Americans.
They stripped the corpses of weapons, tactical vests, helmets and boots. Why steal the boots? Perhaps the jihadists were not as well-equipped as initially reported.
The ambush in Niger conjures up other instances of Americans being unexpectedly killed in far-away places, such as the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu in 1993 and the raid on the US compound in Benghazi in 2012.
The deaths of Special Forces has some commonality with Operation Red Wings, which cost the lives of US Navy SEALs in Afghanistan in 2005. Given the massive deployment of US Special Forces, incidents like the one in Niger are relatively rare. It has more to do with the extremists getting lucky than the Americans making a fundamental mistake. We don’t know how many other incidents like Tongo Tongo might have taken place in which no one was killed.
Five hundred kilometers to the west of Tongo Tongo is the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou, the site of a gun battle with terrorists last Friday in which four terrorists and several soldiers were killed. Local media now say eight people were killed in what was the third attack on the capital in two years.
The village of Dapchi in Nigeria some 1,200 km. to the east was set upon by Boko Haram in February and 100 girls were kidnapped, a reminder of the 300 girls kidnapped from Chibok by the terrorist group in 2014. Four years later, the extremists are still active. It is not clear that years of fighting by the US, French and others have contained the threat.