What did officials at U.S. Africa Command know about the fate of Sgt. La David Johnson, and when did they know it?
On October 4, U.S. Special Forces soldiers, operating alongside local troops, were ambushed by Islamist militants in the West African nation of Niger. The next day, AFRICOM announced that three Americans had been killed. But the day after that, AFRICOM unexpectedly updated the toll: a fourth U.S. soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson, had also been slain.
Despite an enormous amount of attention on the killings – not least because President Donald Trump was accused of offending Johnson’s widow when he phoned her to offer his condolences – the Pentagon has refused to officially say what happened to Johnson. Reporting by the Washington Post, among others, based on unnamed military sources, indicated that the Pentagon had immediately dispatched a team of elite commandos to search for him. The Post also reported in November that Johnson was likely taken prisoner, bound, and murdered. But AFRICOM has consistently refused to confirm whether Johnson survived the initial ambush.
Reporting by The Intercept reveals, however, that the day after Johnson was separated from his Special Forces Unit, officials at the headquarters of Africa Command apparently said he was alive. A closed-door conversation at AFRICOM, heard by this reporter over an open phone line, adds this new detail to the Pentagon’s murky timeline of events surrounding the deaths of the four soldiers.
On October 5, I made scores of calls to AFRICOM’s media relations office in Stuttgart, Germany, which is where the command’s headquarters are located. Most went unanswered or resulted in me being hung up on (a response that reflects AFRICOM’s dissatisfaction with my reporting). In one instance, however, AFRICOM personnel did not properly disconnect the call, apparently placing it on speakerphone. As a result, for roughly one hour, conversations inside the press office – from mundane exchanges to screaming outbursts — were broadcast over the open phone line.
The conversations I heard confirmed that the military said Johnson was alive the day after the attack. The candid discussions revealed that the command apparently entered into embargo agreements with several journalists to withhold news about Johnson being alive while military operations to rescue him were underway. Such embargoes are not unusual and are sensible when reporting on an ongoing military operation could jeopardize the lives of people involved in it.
The conversations included AFRICOM spokespeople Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, Robyn Mack, and Col. Mark Cheadle, who is AFRICOM’s chief of public affairs and communication synchronization. A voice that was likely Cheadle said, “We’ve been able to talk a few off the ledge, but it’s gonna break. … By talking about it all you do is put this young man’s life, and those who are trying to help him, in further danger.”
Cheadle’s mention of talking “a few off the ledge” appears to reference journalists who were considering reporting on Johnson. His reference to putting “this young man’s life … in further danger” likely referred to the consequences of reporting that Johnson was thought to be alive and being searched for.
Also mentioned were the names of a number of journalists, including CNN’s Barbara Starr. On October 6, when news of Johnson’s death was released, Starr co-wrote a story in which she noted that her network “did not report the details of the search operation while it was ongoing and did not report the deceased service member’s recovery until CNN was assured that his family was notified.” Her story, in what until now has been one of the clearest signs that the military believed Johnson survived the initial attack, also stated that “the U.S. military said it does not believe Johnson ever fell into enemy hands, but had reason to believe he might be alive. Military officials launched an urgent search-and-rescue mission after receiving electronic signals that indicated Johnson might be alive in the field.”
Officials at AFRICOM’s Stuttgart headquarters ignored multiple requests for comment during the reporting of this article. But Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Audricia Harris said “initial findings did not show evidence Sgt. Johnson was ever in hostile hands” and cautioned against reporting on the incident until an official investigation is complete. “Those reports [on Sgt. Johnson being captured alive] are speculation,” she told The Intercept. “That’s why we have an investigation to collect the facts. So, until that’s complete, everything that you read is conjecture and speculation.”
The military and the FBI are conducting investigations into the deaths of Johnson and Staff Sgts. Bryan C. Black, Jeremiah W. Johnson, and Dustin M. Wright, all of whom were assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group. The military investigation, headed by Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier Jr., is not expected to be completed until next year. “Investigations can go as long as they need to get it right,” Harris said.
The U.S. military’s statements about the attack have changed over time, and even the nature of the mission remains unclear. The day after the attack, AFRICOM said the U.S. soldiers were providing “advice and assistance” to Nigerien troops. A day later, on October 6, the Pentagon called it a “reconnaissance patrol” as part of a broader “train, advise, and assist” mission. Later media reports indicated the mission may have actually been a kill or capture operation aimed at a high-value target.
Several weeks after the attack, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a press conference at which he refused to definitively say whether the military believed or knew that Johnson had survived the initial attack. “Three U.S. soldiers who were KIA were evacuated on the evening of 4 October. And at that time … Sgt. La David Johnson was still missing,” Dunford said. “On the evening of 6th October, Sgt. Johnson’s body was found and subsequently evacuated.”
Unnamed military and intelligence officials have been quoted by news organizations as saying it was unlikely that Johnson was captured and executed by militants. Some of those news organizations indicated the military initially believed that Johnson had been alive following the ambush. The overheard conversation at AFRICOM headquarters appears to offer clear evidence that the military was operating under the belief that Johnson had survived the initial attack.
The White House has also withheld information on the subject. “I actually know a lot more than I’m letting on, but I’m not going to tell you,” Chief of Staff John Kelly said on Oct. 19, when asked whether electronic signals indicated Johnson may have been alive in the period following the attack.
In the past, AFRICOM has taken steps to withhold information and keep quiet embarrassing incidents and untoward activities by U.S. military personnel in Africa — from drink- and drug-fueled deaths and the shooting of an officer by an enlisted man, to soliciting prostitutes and sex crimes. The alleged killing in Mali of a Green Beret by Navy SEALs earlier this year, reportedly in connection to a shadowy money-skimming scheme, remained under wraps for months. The results of an inquiry into the torture and deaths of prisoners at a Cameroonian base frequented by American personnel, exposed by The Intercept this summer, have yet to be released.
Experts say that such inquiries are important, but more fundamental issues loom larger. “The attention to the Niger mission in which four U.S. troops died is welcome, but it will only make a difference if it moves beyond tactical questions to the issue of what the U.S. military role in Africa is and should be,” said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. “The expansion of U.S. operations on the continent is long overdue for congressional scrutiny.”