Washington, DC – The attack by Islamic militants in the central African country of Niger that left four American military members dead and triggered a public fight between President Donald Trump and Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, of Florida, is hiding a far more dark episode in our nation’s military. New evidence has emerged that reveals that Sgt. La David T. Johnson, the center of the fracas between President Trump and Rep. Wilson, had betrayed his own squad by helping to set up the ambush in Niger by Islamic militants that would ultimately lead to the death of three American soldiers as well as his own.
Where is Niger anyway?
Niger is a landlocked, west African country bordered by Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad. Since its independence from France in 1960, it has experienced military rule, countless coups and now a democratically elected government. The current president of Niger is Issoufou Mahamadou.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. Food production isn’t keeping up with the population growth due to the arid climate, the lack of arable land and the high fertility rate. Niger however is rich in natural resources and Islamic terrorists have targeted Niger in order to hurt its economy. Uranium mines, which are abundant in Niger, have been the target of recent terrorist attacks aimed at undermining the democratically elected government.
Why were U.S. troops in Niger and when did they get there?
U.S. troops started arriving in Niger in 2013. During this time, extremists were on the rise in northwest Africa. The French had intervened in Mali in 2012 when an al-Qaeda affiliated group and other tribal groups took control of the northern part of the country. In addition, Boko Haram continued its assault on Nigeria through bombings and killings.
Former president Barack Obama deployed 40 U.S. military personnel to provide support to the French forces. This brought the total number of troops in Niger to 100 in 2013. However, the small troop numbers were grossly insufficient to deal with the complexity of the insurgency and Islamic terrorist activities. The number of U.S. troops in Niger has since ballooned to 800. In a letter to the House speaker at the time, Obama claimed,
“This deployment will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region.”
Currently, troops are assisting the U.S. Embassy in Niger’s capital of Niamey, while others are working on construction efforts at Air Base 201 in Agadez, according to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
What does the White House want to say happened on October 4 in Niger?
On October 4, four soldiers died in Niger “as a result of hostile fire while on a reconnaissance patrol,” according to the Defense Department. According to the Pentagon, twelve American soldiers were attending a routine patrol in the area when they were ambushed by up to 100 Islamic militants who engaged in a fierce firefight with the patrol. Four American soldiers died that day and the first three identified were Army Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, Army Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39 and Army Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29. The fourth soldier identified was Sgt. La David T. Johnson, 25 – the soldier whose widow President Donald Trump called and the source of the controversy between President Trump and Representative Frederica Wilson.
Although Johnson is said to have died on October 4, his body was found over a mile away from the site of the Islamic militant’s ambush and it took a whole 48 hours to retrieve his body, according to the Defense Department. According to a New York Times report, the Pentagon has been trying to determine whether American forces involved in the deadly ambush in Niger diverted from their routine patrol to embark on an unapproved mission, according to military officials. American and Nigerien soldiers on the patrol have given conflicting accounts about whether they were simply ambushed or were attacked after trying to chase Islamic insurgents, according to military officials from both countries. One of the main problems with the timeline in Niger is that the area which was alleged to have been patrolled by U.S. forces was familiar to the soldiers and had not been deemed to have required additional security. The area had been patrolled numerous times with no incident.
However, according to the survivors of the ambush, Johnson’s body was found a good mile away from the point at which Islamic militants launched their ambush. In response to media queries why it took so long to recover Johnson’s body, an irate Secretary of Defense, James Mattis said to the media,
“The U.S. military does not leave its troops behind, and I would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once.”.
John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff, said on October 19 that more was known about events than has been reported in the press but that he would not disclose it. That “more” is precisely what led to the controversy when President Trump called the widow of Johnson and said “he knew what he signed up for.”
What can’t the White House say?
According to a senior White House official who was privy to the discussions between the Pentagon and the Oval Office regarding the Niger ambush and requested anonymity, part of the reason that President Trump took four days before he could publicly comment on the death of the American soldiers is that Johnson was the one who had leaked the position of the patrol to Islamic militants who then launched the ambush, which killed three of Johnson’s fellow soldiers.
The White House was incredulous that a betrayal from an exemplary soldier was possible and they spent four long days trying to confirm what the Pentagon was claiming happened. The bigger question was whether to admit that Johnson had betrayed his squad – no matter how you spun this information – there would be no winners, only losers. Ultimately, the decision was taken to cover up the fact that Johnson had betrayed the position of his squad to Islamic terrorists. Understanding why Johnson, who was highly regarded by his military peers, would do such a thing was far more complex.
Who is La David Johnson?
La David T. Johnson was a husband and father to a 2-year-old son and a 6-year-old-daughter and was set to welcome his third child in January. According to MilitaryTimes.com, Johnson joined the Army in January 2014 and was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) at the Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina.
Highly regarded by his military peers, Staff Sgt. Dennis Bohler, a close friend of Johnson’s who was also Johnson’s supervisor at Fort Bragg, said Johnson rose through the ranks rapidly – from a private to a sergeant in less than three years. According to Bohler,
“He caught on quickly. You tell him once, and it’s complete, any task.”
“He was just that one soldier that always wanted to better himself every day. Every day, he wanted to do better than he did yesterday.”
Lt. Col. David Painter, commander of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), said in a statement that,
“The Bush Hog formation (the Battalion nickname) was made better because of Johnson’s faithful service and we are focused on caring for the Johnson family during this difficult period.”
“(Johnson) had some pretty good upbringing. He didn’t do any drinking. He didn’t do any smoking. He was a family-oriented soldier.”
“There was a sense that Johnson didn’t feel like he knew what he was fighting for anymore.”
Johnson hated Donald Trump and thought that he was a white supremacist and a racist and made that clear in conversations with other soldiers. Whereas before, Johnson was more than happy to serve under former president Barrack Obama, the thought of serving under President Donald Trump was something that he had not prepared for.
Then came Charlottesville and the Colin Kaepernick controversy flared up. According to another soldier deployed in Niger with Johnson and who also requested anonymity,
“There was Charlottesville and then there was the whole Colin Kaepernick thing and that really set David off.”
“He was furious that the president would speak in defense of white supremacists and he questioned what he was still doing out here instead of being with his family.”
What really happened on October 4 in Niger?
Eventually, after talking to the village chief, the troops got into their vehicles to return to their base, a two-hour drive. But less than five minutes after they drove out of the village, the convoy was ambushed by a group that outnumbered them two to one.
According to a Nigerian official, about 100 armed insurgents, many of whom were on motorbikes – two or three people a bike – as well as others in about 10 sport utility vehicles, surrounded the Americans. They were armed with heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft weaponry as well as rocket-propelled grenades, and a firefight lasting about two to three hours ensued.
During this time, two or three vehicles in Johnson’s convoy were destroyed and part of the convoy became separated when at least one of the Land Cruisers became stuck in the mud. According to the New York Times, Johnson was in the vehicle that had gotten stuck, along with Nigerian soldiers who also died, but new evidence now suggests that Johnson’s betrayal was in fact discovered by his fellow Special Force soldiers and he was executed, stripped naked, bound and tied and left for dead.
However, American forces who survived the fight described one Land Cruiser driving away from the ambush at high speed in the opposite direction of the convoy. That Land Cruiser was driven by Johnson and was the only Land Cruiser that contained Nigerian soldiers and no other French or American soldiers. According to one survivor who spoke on condition of anonymity as investigations are still ongoing,
“As we came under heavy fire, I looked up and saw Johnson jump into one of the Land Cruisers and speed off in the other direction. That Land Cruiser was manned by the Nigerian soldiers who were with us, so I thought it was weird that he would do that instead of providing covering fire.”
Nigerian officials shared intelligence with the American forces in Niger that the meeting with the Tongo Tongo village chief had been arranged by Johnson and that he had leaked the information of the size of the squad and the convoy that would be at the village that day. This gave the Tongo Tongo village chief ample opportunity to stall for time as the Islamic militants brought down overwhelming firepower on the unsuspecting American soldiers. Johnson, who had intended to flee all along would have succeeded if not for the fact that he was shot and killed by a member of his own convoy.
Which is why the American forces in Niger were extremely reluctant to return to pick up Johnson’s body. The bodies of the Nigerian soldiers in the Land Cruiser with Johnson were picked up on the day of the deadly firefight, but it took the Americans a whole 48 hours to reconcile Johnson’s betrayal before they decided to return and pick up his body.
When Johnson’s personal effects were gathered, a letter was found to Johnson’s wife, which spoke at length about how he no longer felt that it was justifiable to put himself in harm’s way for a “racist president” and that he would “find a way out, no matter what.”
President Trump’s phone call with Johnson’s widow
President Trump was well aware of Johnson’s betrayal, but decided ultimately that in the interest of keeping the nation united, it would be best to let Johnson’s betrayal go unmentioned, after all, his death was punishment enough – no need to go any further. However, true patriot that President Trump is, he struggled in the phone call to Myeshia Johnson – La David T. Johnson’s widow.
During the call, President Trump told Myeshia Johnson that her husband “must have known what he signed up for,” according to an account from Wilson, who was riding in a limousine with the soldier’s family when the President called. What Representative Wilson did not know, was that President Trump was struggling with speaking kind words for a soldier who had committed the ultimate sin, betraying his fellow soldiers. According to a senior White House communications aide who asked not to be named and was standing next to the President during the phone call,
“The President really struggled.”
“He wanted to provide comfort to Johnson’s widow, but at the same time, the knowledge that he was saying kind words about a traitor, that was too much for the President, which is why he said Johnson ‘must have known what he signed up for’.”
Ultimately, Johnson’s betrayal and death are a mere reflection of the division that is tearing up this country. An unsettling trend is sweeping across the country, where vows are no longer sacred and symbols are no longer respected and it has reached such a point where it’s even undermining the integrity of our military. Johnson may have been a deserter, but he did not need to be a traitor and it was his traitorous act which resulted in the loss of three other loyal American soldiers who were in country to do their job – defend our freedoms. As Johnson is buried today as a hero, the true heroes are the ones who chose to let him be remembered that way, because it is better he died as a symbol of unity, then that he expose the truth about the division which plagues our democracy.