An official version of events released Thursday by the Pentagon described a harrowing scene in which Johnson and two of his partner soldiers from Niger were attempting to get back in their vehicle to flee enemy fire, only to end up running into the brush as Islamic State fighters blocked them from escaping and pursued them to their deaths.
The 11 American soldiers in Johnson’s unit were traveling with a larger group of Nigerien partner forces when they were ambushed on the way out of a meeting with local leaders in the village of Tongo Tongo. Islamic State affiliates were known to operate in the region, but U.S. forces were unaccustomed to having direct contact with them, let alone with an organized group including about 100 combatants.
“They had never seen anything in this magnitude — numbers, mobility and training,” Marine Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said in a briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday. “It was a total tactical surprise in how that took place.”
In the middle of the ambush, Johnson was caught under enemy fire with three other members of his U.S. team and about 25 partner Nigeriens, as Islamic State fighters began to envelop them from the east and south, according to a summary of the Pentagon investigation of the incident.
As it became increasingly clear that the troops were overwhelmed by the enemy, the U.S. team’s commander gave an order to break contact and retreat.
By then, according to the Pentagon, Johnson had emptied a vehicle-mounted M240 machine gun on the Islamic State fighters and switched to an M2010 sniper rifle while taking cover at the rear of his vehicle. He acknowledged the order before attempting to climb into the driver’s seat and get away with two Nigerien partner soldiers.
But as the other vehicles in the convoy took off, the three soldiers found themselves pinned down. They “were driven back to their prone positions by accurate and heavy enemy fire,” the Pentagon report said. “Unable to reach the vehicle and with enemy forces rapidly closing on their position, they were forced to evade on foot.”
In other words, they set off running. Islamic State fighters were in pursuit.
The first Nigerien soldier ran west for about 460 meters before he was gunned down by the combatants. The second Nigerien soldier made it another 110 meters but was also picked off.
Johnson continued running, eventually finding cover under what the U.S. military described as a thorny tree three-fifths of a mile from the vehicle.
But Johnson was outnumbered. First, the enemy fighters fired on him with a vehicle-mounted heavy machine gun. Then, they zeroed in on the young sergeant with smaller firearms, killing him alone in the West African brush some 5,300 miles from his Florida home.
On Thursday, the Pentagon sought to dispel earlier accounts in the media, including The Washington Post, offered by Nigerien villagers suggesting that Johnson had been captured alive or found with his hands tied.
“The enemy did not capture SGT L. Johnson alive,” the report said. His “hands were not bound and he was not executed but was killed in action while actively engaging the enemy.”
A U.S. military official with knowledge of the investigation said that investigators based the conclusion that Johnson was not bound or executed on several pieces of evidence, including an examination of his remains. No ligature marks were found on his wrists or hands, and they were not bound when his remains were recovered by U.S. troops, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the investigation.
The official said Johnson was shot as many as 20 times, including at least once in the head. The military based its conclusion that he was not executed on a lack of powder burns to the head, which would have indicated that he was shot with a gun to his skull.
But the official acknowledged that Johnson was indeed killed at a relatively close range as Islamic State fighters closed in on him. Video released by the militants appears to show them shooting at least one other U.S. soldier in the head at close range after he had been hit by gunfire, though it wasn’t clear which shots were fatal. The video was captured on a helmet camera of one of the Americans killed.
Senior U.S. military officials did not provide that level of specificity Thursday during a news conference, but Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., the senior investigating officer, said Johnson’s body was “treated like all the other remains, both U.S. and Nigerien.”
“His serviceable equipment was stripped and taken from him,” Cloutier said. “But he was never in enemy hands alive. They did have access to his remains and took his equipment.”
The U.S. military said its investigators interviewed 143 witnesses, including survivors of the attack, in researching the report. It cautioned that the depiction of Johnson’s final moments wasn’t based on witness accounts but rather “solely on evidence recovered during the course of the investigation.”
A national scandal erupted after Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, expressed her concerns about her phone call with Trump. But what also made Johnson’s case so exceptional was the time it took the U.S. military to locate his body after the attack.
A Nigerien quick-reaction force identified the remains of the three other American troops who died in the ambush the same day and immediately transferred them to American custody. The militants had attempted to take their remains away in vehicles, but abandoned the effort when French fighter jets roared overhead in a show of force, according to U.S. military officials.
Nigerien and American forces continued to search for Johnson through the night of the attack until nearly 6 a.m. the following morning, but they couldn’t find him and returned to their base.
Rumors started circulating that the Islamic State fighters might have taken someone hostage north of the village. The U.S. military was still looking for signs that Johnson was alive or possibly captured.
“There was some reporting that indicated there could be a soldier held hostage somewhere north of Tongo Tongo,” Cloutier said. “Of course, that report was taken seriously and assets began looking there for signs of life or anything like that. It turned out to be an errant report. But the search for Sergeant La David Johnson never stopped.”
According to the Pentagon, Johnson was found about 48 hours later. Cloutier said the Army sergeant had run a long way — some 960 meters — from where he was last seen by his fellow soldiers, complicating the efforts to determine the whereabouts of his remains.
After the attack, Tongo Tongo’s chief and another man from the village provided accounts of the aftermath of the ambush to The Washington Post. They said they found Johnson’s body with his hands tied behind his back. The U.S. military disputed that at the time, saying there was no evidence his hands were tied.
Reached by phone late Thursday, the two villagers — Mounkaila Alassane and Adamou Boubacar — stood by their story but declined to say more.
The military reemphasized its account on Thursday, saying his body wasn’t treated any differently from the bodies of other soldiers killed in the attack.
Aspects of what happened to Johnson’s remains are still unclear. The Pentagon did not address Thursday why, more than a month after he was killed, it announced last November that more human remains of Johnson had been found separately.
Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D.-Fla.), who is close with Johnson’s family, said in an interview Wednesday that they were told he was shot 16 times, including several times in the back, probably while he was fleeing. When Army officials first notified the Johnson family about the attack in October, they told them that he might be held captive, she said.
Efforts to reach Johnson’s family in recent days have been unsuccessful.
The Pentagon removed all references to Johnson’s recovery in a video recreation it released to the media Thursday. When the unclassified video was shown to Congress earlier, it was about 21 minutes long. But it was cut by about half before publication Thursday, defense officials acknowledged under questioning. As presented, it ends with Johnson’s death, rather than his recovery.
Waldhauser said the longer video “goes into a lot of specific activities right there on the ground.”
As for why the Pentagon withheld it, Waldhauser said it might have been “too much information” for the briefing Thursday, leaving less time for questions.
The video, however, was not shown during the news conference at all. It was shown before it, in a separate setting.
Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo contributed to this report.