An initial investigation into the October 2017 ambush in Niger by ISIS affiliated fighters that killed four US soldiers has been completed, according to several US defense officials.
The initial report of the investigation findings is expected to be sent to General Thomas Waldhauser, the commanding general of US Africa Command who could make a decision on whether to recommend administrative reprimands and punishments for any of those involved in authorizing the mission.
Several officials say although no final decision has been made it is possible some personnel may receive administrative punishments for not precisely following the rules when the mission was carried out. Two officials familiar with Army special operations and the Niger mission say these type of punishments are likely to lead to hard feelings between Africa Command and the special operations community – which feels it is often asked to take risks and then disciplined for doing so.
Waldhauser could also ask investigators for more information before signing off on the finished report. Africa Command declined to comment.
The report findings will now have to be briefed to the family members of those killed, the Pentagon and Congress before it is publicly released. Officials say they hope that will happen in late February. The Pentagon had hoped to get the report released to the public by the end of January. But officials says it has taken longer than expected to write a declassified version of the highly complex investigation.
Africa Command which is overseeing the investigation has also reviewed a video of the incident that is being circulated online. CNN has not seen the video but some still shots posted online appear to be from the helmet mounted cameras of the US troops involved in the ambush. It is not clear how much that video, which has been seen by military investigators, has added to their understanding of the ambush.
One defense official who has seen the video says it shows that the US troops fought until the very end against overwhelmingly odds. Part of the video appears to show the US troops trying to use their vehicles as cover. In one part, it appears to show one of the US soldiers shot at close range, though it is not clear if he had already been killed, the official said. Sgt. La David Johnson, who was accounted for 48 hours, is not believed to be seen in the video.
The military and intelligence community also continues to attempt to gather specific intelligence in hopes of being able to target the ISIS affiliated fighters suspected of carrying out the attack. While this type of intelligence gathering is often conducted after an attack, there is special urgency in this instance in part because of the controversy surrounding their mission and the emergence of the video and details of how the team was overwhelmed unexpectedly.
An ISIS affiliated group earlier this year claimed responsibility for the attack. But finding the perpetrators and specifically targeting them is a complex goal according to several officials. In that part of the West Africa along the Niger-Mali border, the US would need reconnaissance and intelligence assets, most likely drones, to locate them. They’d then need to track them until they could be targeted by aircraft or ground troops.
It’s not clear if the mission at that point would be to capture or kill the alleged perpetrators. If they were captured, they could potentially be brought to the US for prosecution in federal court. The FBI has remained involved in the investigation in part because of it potentially has investigatory jurisdiction over the killings of Americans overseas. A precedent was set in 2014 after US special forces captured Ahmed Abu Khattala in Libya, who was alleged to be involved in the 2012 Benghazi attack.
But going after the ISIS affiliated group in this region of West Africa also poses legal complexities officials say. Because any mission against perpetrators of the attack on the Americans would essentially be a combat mission, rather than the training and advisory missions US troops now do, there will have to be a review of the authorities that the Defense Department has to carry out such a mission. That would include authorities from Congress and the President as well as from host governments. It’s possible, several officials say, that some tasks might be carried out by French forces which have a significant presence in the region. The US has permission from Niger’s government to arm drones in the country, but it’s not clear any missions have taken place.
CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to make clear the initial investigation into the ambush has been completed.