Serving and retired officers say soldiers also tried to convince French jets to engage in incident in which four Green Berets died
The US special forces detachment ambushed in the Niger last month fought alone for hours after the local Nigerien forces they were accompanying fled in the first minutes of the engagement, retired and serving special forces officers with knowledge of events have said.
The trapped soldiers also made repeated efforts to convince French warplanes sent from neighbouring Mali to engage the enemy, attempting to “talk in” the pilots who refused to attack due to poor weather, rough terrain and an inability to differentiate friend from foe, the officers said.
Four US Green Berets and five Nigerien troops died in the incident, which has been the focus of an intense debate in Washington over the executive branch’s extensive powers to use military force abroad without congressional approval and with little oversight.
The Niger incident has been described as an “intelligence failure” by the Republican senator John McCain, who blamed it on budget cuts.
The US troops were part of a “train and equip” programme, but the incident has prompted questions in Congress on where such missions blur into counter-terrorist combat.
Controversy flared after Trump was accused of mishandling a phone call to the widow of La David Johnson, one of the dead soldiers.
(October 4, 2017) Soldiers killed in Niger
Four US army special forces troops and five soldiers from Niger die in an ambush during a joint patrol in the south-west of the country.
(October 16, 2017) The row begins
Asked why he has not spoken about the incident, Trump discusses his calls to bereaved families, saying: “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls – a lot of them didn’t make calls.”
(October 17, 2017)
Trump drags White House chief of staff John Kelly into the developing row, saying: “You could ask Gen Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”, a reference to the death of Kelly's son in Afghanistan.
(October 17, 2017)
Trump phones the widow of Sgt La David Johnson and reportedly says Johnson “knew what he was signing up for”, according to Frederica Wilson, a Democratic congresswomen who heard the call.
(October 17, 2017)
Wilson criticizes Trump's reported remark as "so insensitive". In response, Trump claims Wilson's account is “totally fabricated” but Johnson's mother supports Wilson's version of events.
(October 18, 2017)
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Kelly is “disgusted and frustrated” by the politicization of his son's death – even though it was Trump who first mentioned him.
(October 19, 2017) Enter John Kelly
Kelly delivers a rebuke to critics of Trump in an emotional press conference but fails to acknowledge that the controversy began after Trump attacked Obama.
(October 20, 2017)
Sanders says it would be “highly inappropriate” to question Kelly, a four-star general, a comment that causes outcry in itself.
(October 21, 2017)
On the day of Sgt Johnson’s funeral, Trump refuses to let the matter rest, referring to Wilson as "Wacky Congresswoman Wilson" in a tweet.
(October 23, 2017)
Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt Johnson, says Trump's condolence call "made me cry even worse". Trump disputes her account immediately after the interview aires.
The Pentagon has launched a special investigation to be carried out by officers from US Africa Command, which is due to report within two months. A defence department spokesman said that there would be no further comment on the incident until then. But defence department leaks have fuelled anger within the US special forces community at what one retired senior officer called “a massive blame game”.
“To them, it is obviously the [soldiers’ own] fault and error on a ‘routine’ training and advisory mission in Niger,” he wrote in an email to other members of the community, seen by the Guardian.
The email contains new details of the engagement, which took place on the immediate outskirts of the remote village of Tongo Tongo in south-western Niger, in the centre of the volatile Sahel region.
The Pentagon has said the unit that was attacked comprised 12 soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group which had recently arrived in Niger for a six-month tour, and about 30 Nigerien troops.
The ambush took place at 11:40pm on 4 October after the unit had spent two hours in Tongo Tongo, talking to local elders. The previous night, the Americans had destroyed a camp used by Djoundjoun Cheiffou, a lieutenant of Abu Waleed al-Sahraoui, an Islamic extremist based in neighbouring Mali who last year pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Local media in Niger revealed this week that Cheffou was in detention there until 2016 when he was freed in return for the release of an Australian hostage, Jocelyn Elliott.
About 50 men attacked the US and Nigerien unit with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
The retired special forces officer said he had been told by servicemen with detailed knowledge of the incident that “approximately half of the US/Nigerien force was allowed to pass through the ambush killzone before the ambush was sprung, trapping the rear half.”
On hearing firing, the lead group of soldiers turned around to engage the militants.
“Except for those already dead or wounded, all of the Nigerien soldiers bugged out and left the Americans to fight … all by themselves. Two groups, roughly six Americans per group, fighting for their lives alone against a superior ALQ force,” the retired officer said.
A US drone was on the site of the engagement within minutes, but was unarmed. An hour passed before the trapped unit on the ground called for airstrikes against the militants who surrounded them. The delay has surprised and concerned experts and veterans.
“Airstrikes were requested as the Americans fought on. Several French Mirage fighters responded, but refused to engage citing poor weather, rough terrain and an inability to differentiate friend from foe. American SF [Special Forces] requested ‘danger close’ support and attempted to talk the CAS [close air support] in, but the French Mirages alleged continued to refuse to engage,” the officer wrote in the mail, based on his own discussions with serving and retired special forces soldiers with knowledge of the incident.
A spokesman for the French defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations.
According to a CNN account of the incident, the attackers set fire to the dry bush around the encircled special forces soldiers to cover the battleground with smoke. The account quoted a Nigerien soldier as saying that the surviving troops from the patrol were fighting off their attackers, standing back to back in a last stand, when reinforcements finally arrived.
After two hours, French special forces flown by helicopter from their base in Mali reached the site of the ambush, prompting the attackers to withdraw. The French soldiers searched the immediate vicinity and evacuated survivors, including several who were wounded.
Four US special forces soldiers were left behind. Three are thought to have been dead at the site. It is unclear when Johnson was killed, but the 25-year-old mechanic had become separated from the rest of the unit almost immediately after the ambush started, sources within the special forces community said.
The Pentagon has now said that a second team of US and Nigerien forces was close to the ambushed patrol. It was believed to have been on a mission to kill or capture al-Sahraoui. That operation was called off, and the troops eventually retrieved the bodies of three of the US soldiers several hours after the ambush had ended.
Johnson’s remains were discovered by Nigerien troops near the site of the attack two days later.
The five Nigeriens killed in the ambush died in its first moments, sources within the special forces community said.
They described how one of the light, unarmoured trucks used by the patrol became stuck in sand after the attack started. Almost all the Nigerien troops it was carrying were killed or wounded. One source said the vehicle was hit by a mortar round.
Most of the ambushed US unit had no combat experience, and had not been warned to expect any encounter with hostile forces.
This assessment has surprised some and has been a focus of congressional attention. A United Nations assessment indicated that there have been at least 46 attacks by armed groups in the districts around Tongo Tongo since February 2016.
The headline on this story was amended at 11.30 GMT on 4 November 2107 to better reflect its content