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'New York Times' Investigates Ambush Of U.S. Soldiers In Niger


On October 4, four American soldiers on patrol in the African country of Niger were killed in an ambush by terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State. The Pentagon promised a thorough investigation. That was months ago. And the story more or less disappeared from the public eye after that.

Now a team of reporters from The New York Times has pieced together a detailed investigation into how this mission went so wrong. They found that the routine patrol was traveling not in armored vehicles but in pickup trucks and an SUV. They were unexpectedly ordered to go search the campsite of a terrorist leader who was believed to be in the area. That order pushed them further into hostile territory without air support for protection.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Why was this patrol that was out on a routine, low-risk mission asked to go to the suspected hideout of a known terrorist?

SHAPIRO: Rukmini Callimachi went to Niger to report this story. She says the patrol eventually did find the campsite, which was empty. And at first, it seemed like the four Americans and the Nigeriens they were with would make it safely back to base.

CALLIMACHI: They got there. The terrorist was not there. The campsite was empty. It was described to me as a dry hole. And they spent some time there collecting evidence. And as the sun was coming up on October 4 - they've now been out for 24 hours - they started to head home. And this is where officials and members of the patrol told us that they think a kind of complacency had set in.

This is a patrol led by American and Nigerien forces who had been out to this area many times without incident. I was told by Nigerien officials that the Nigeriens in the group had been out there 17 times without incident. The Americans, on the various bases we have in Niger, I was told have never had any contact in Niger. What comes next is what people describe as basically letting down their guard.

On their way home, they stop in the first village that they pass. It was 10 to 20 miles after the campsite. And at this point, the Nigerien forces stop their convoy because they're out of water, and they want to go to the village well. And then a series of events happen that end up delaying the convoy in a place that we now, in retrospect, know was intimately tied to Doundoun Cheffou, the very person that they were seeking out.

SHAPIRO: In this village that they're in the morning of October 4, you describe a scene where the chief asks for medicine for the children. And as they're handing out the medicine, they see motorcycles leaving the village. What do they suspect that's about?

CALLIMACHI: What they were seeing were the signs of something malicious being mounted. They see a couple of guys on motorcycles who speed off. In retrospect, they now think that these were the scouts for the terror group that were alerting the group that they were there. They also see groups of young men gathering. They have an unwelcoming, even menacing expression. And at one point, they see a gun. They decide to leave, and they're ambushed. According to the geolocation that we were able to do from the footage that we got of this attack, they were ambushed not even 200 yards south of the village.

SHAPIRO: One of the remarkable details of this story is that you were able to obtain footage from the Americans' helmet cams. How did you get that?

CALLIMACHI: We got it from a Mauritanian website called Agence Nouakchott d’Information, ANI.

SHAPIRO: This is a news organization from Mauritania.

CALLIMACHI: Exactly. It's a news agency in the capital of Mauritania. I've known them for a long time because I used to be based in West Africa, and they have really unbelievable jihadist contacts. They often get jihadist statements before anybody else. They got the video, and we were able to obtain it from them.

SHAPIRO: What did it show?

CALLIMACHI: I mean, it showed something that is really heartbreaking, which is that you see two vehicles of American troops. One is a white Toyota. One is a black SUV. At one point, the white car leaves. We assume that it got away. And you see that in the black car, there are now three soldiers that are alone. And they are now completely cut off from the rest of their unit, and they're taking heavy fire. Two of them get out of the vehicle. They start walking beside the vehicle as the third soldier tries to continue driving it. They're basically using the vehicle as cover. The first one of them goes down. They try to drag him behind the cover of the vehicle, and then the enemy is upon them.

And then the two survivors start sprinting. And they're running, and they're running, and they're running. And you just see that there's - they're completely alone. There's nobody there to help them. There's no air support. There's no cavalry coming. And then the second one goes down. You see the survivor, who I think was Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, stop running. He ducks behind a tiny, wispy bush and tries to fire at the enemy, but there's only so much he can do. And then he too is overrun.

SHAPIRO: These men died in October, and the Pentagon promised a thorough investigation. When do you think we will see it?

CALLIMACHI: Well, the latest that they announced was the last week of February. I have sources telling me that they don't think it'll come out until March. There has been obviously a delay here, and I can only imagine how grueling this period must have been for the families.

SHAPIRO: I should say that even though we're not focusing on it in this conversation, your article also goes into detail about these soldiers' lives before they joined the military, what their families were left with after they died...


SHAPIRO: ...And a lot more than we're discussing right now.

CALLIMACHI: And I should make very clear that this was a very large team effort. I'm not the only person who wrote this piece or who contributed to it.

SHAPIRO: Rukmini Callimachi is part of The New York Times team that reported the new article "'An Endless War': Why 4 U.S. Soldiers Died In A Remote African Desert." Thanks so much.

CALLIMACHI: It's my pleasure, Ari. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROUS'S "RECENSERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.