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.