The leader of an ill-fated team of American soldiers in Niger last fall warned before the mission that his troops did not have the equipment or intelligence necessary to carry out a kill-or-capture raid against a local militant, according to preliminary findings of a continuing Defense Department investigation.
In a departure from normal lines of authority, the report concludes, the Oct. 4 mission was not approved by senior military officials up the chain of command in West Africa and Germany. Instead, it was ordered by a junior officer, according to two Defense Department officials. Four American soldiers and five Nigeriens were killed when the unit was ambushed.
The two officials said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, are troubled that low-level officers are being blamed for the botched mission instead of senior commanders who should be aware when American troops are undertaking a high-risk raid.
The mission began as a routine patrol before Operational Detachment-Alpha Team 3212 was redirected to the operation against the militant, Doundoun Cheffou, who has been linked to the Islamic State.
The orders to the unit normally would have been issued by senior military officers up the chain of command — from Niger to Chad to Stuttgart, Germany, where United States Africa Command is based. If they were issued by a junior officer — the same rank as the leader of Team 3212 — it would signal a systematic breakdown in a mission that has ignited widespread criticism of the United States’ shadow war in Niger.
The two Defense Department officials, both of whom have knowledge of the preliminary findings, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation has not yet been released. One official cautioned that the findings could change as Mr. Mattis and General Dunford review them.
“This is not consistent with the approval for this type of re-mission,” said Brig. Gen. Donald C. Bolduc, who retired shortly after handing over command of Special Operations forces in Africa in June.
“Captains do not have this authority,” said General Bolduc, referring to the rank of the junior officers. “Plus, if the ground commander pushes back on the mission, this should be a red flag for everyone in the chain of command.”
A third Defense Department official said the leader of Team 3212, Capt. Michael Perozeni, had filed a “concept of operations” document — or Conop — that showed he planned only a daylong trip to meet with tribal elders when he and his soldiers left their base in Ouallam, Niger, on Oct. 3.
Instead, the team was rerouted miles away, toward the Mali border. Its repeatedly changing overnight mission targeted Mr. Cheffou, a former cattle herder believed to be involved in the kidnapping of an American in Mali.
The preliminary findings, according to the first two Defense Department officials, imply that senior officers up the chain of command believed Team 3212 was embarking only on the daylong reconnaissance mission, as Captain Perozeni outlined in his Conop document. That trip, of 11 Americans and some 30 Nigerien soldiers, described a “civil reconnaissance” mission meant for “key-leader engagement meetings.”
Before he left Ouallam, those officials said, Captain Perozeni received the order to join the kill-or-capture mission against Mr. Cheffou, to be led by a separate assault force flying out of the town of Arlit. The order came from another junior officer, who was filling in for a regional commander on paternity leave.
Captain Perozeni pushed back against the change of mission, citing concerns over insufficient intelligence and equipment available to his team on the high-risk raid. But he did not resist orders to back up the separate assault force, the officials said.
As it turned out, that mission was later scrapped because of bad weather. Team 3212 was still on its reconnaissance mission, near the town of Tiloa, when American intelligence officials concluded that Mr. Cheffou and a handful of fighters had left their desert encampment near the border with Mali. The team was ordered to press on to that location, hoping to collect any information left behind that might offer clues about Mr. Cheffou’s hide-outs and network.
But the preliminary investigation indicates that senior officers at the Africa Command headquarters and its Special Operations component in Stuttgart were not informed of the change of plans. Nor were senior leaders at a Special Operations regional command in Chad, according to the findings.
However, according to the third Defense Department official, a lieutenant colonel in Chad had already approved both the helicopter raid based from Arlit, which was scrapped, and Team 3212’s original reconnaissance mission, which had taken it just 15 miles from the ambush site outside the village of Tongo Tongo.
Additionally, that official said, Col. Bradley Moses, the head of 3rd Special Forces Group in Germany, was informed of the two missions. The official was not authorized to discuss the missions or the investigation publicly.
Current and former military officials said they found it highly surprising that the captain who was filling in for the regional commander in Niger — Maj. Alan Van Saun — would have been empowered to redirect Team 3212 without higher approval. They also said it would be extraordinary that senior officers and their staffs, in Chad or in Germany, would not have been aware of or involved in that decision.
Had it changed missions, the team would have been required to send in new routes — in part to be protected with medical evacuation support or other assistance if needed. Through a communications channel that was tethered to commanders at a base in Niamey, Niger’s capital, the team’s position would have been sent by either a satellite radio or phone and typed into a chat room monitored by the chain of command stretching from Niger to Germany. The team’s GPS tracker would also be monitored in Germany.
In short, the mission change should have been duly reported — and noted — by military officials from West Africa to Stuttgart.
Team 3212 came under fire on Oct. 4, as the soldiers headed back to Ouallam from Mr. Cheffou’s encampment. After stopping in Tongo Tongo for water, the American and Nigerien forces were ambushed and overpowered by militants who officials believe were linked to the Islamic State.
Captain Perozeni and Sgt. First Class Brent Bartels, the radio operator for Team 3212, were shot and wounded early in the Oct. 4 ambush. Four Americans — Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson and Sgt. La David Johnson — were killed.
Initially, Pentagon officials said the results of the lengthy inquiry would be released in January to Congress, the American public and the families of the slain soldiers.
Speaking last week with reporters traveling with him to the Middle East and Afghanistan, Mr. Mattis said he expected aides to provide him with answers to several of his questions by no later than Monday. The secretary said he was also expecting General Dunford’s advice on the report soon.
In December, two months after the ambush, a separate team of Green Berets operating in a different part of Niger killed 11 Islamic State militants in a firefight. That battle was reported last week, by The New York Times, as one of at least 10 other previously undisclosed attacks on American troops in West Africa between 2015 and 2017.
Together, they indicate that the deadly October ambush was not an isolated episode in a nation where the United States is building a major drone base. No American or Nigerien forces were harmed in the December gun battle.
The American military did not disclose the December firefight or the others until pressed by The Times. “We don’t want to give a report card to our adversaries,” said Dana W. White, the Pentagon press secretary.