The Pentagon on Monday refused to verify the authenticity of a propaganda video posted by the Islamic State that includes footage allegedly shot through the helmet camera of one of the four US soldiers killed in a deadly ambush in Niger last fall.
A Pentagon spokesperson warned reporters that they would be "complicit" with the terrorist group if they publicized it. The video ends with a chilling scene when ISIS fighters open fire at close range on the wounded soldier whose camera recorded the video.
“We ask the media and the public and all responsible entities not to aid these terrorists in recruiting efforts by viewing or bringing to attention these images, these videos,” Col. Rob Manning said Monday.
“You are complicit in amplifying ISIS propaganda if you do that,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. He did not directly answer why the military can’t authenticate the video, asserting that it “can’t confirm something we didn’t produce.”
Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, and Sgt. La David Johnson of the 3rd Special Forces Group were killed Oct. 4 when their 12-man team and roughly 30 Nigerien soldiers were ambushed near the village of Tongo Tongo. La David Johnson’s body was not recovered until 48 hours after the firefight.
The video surfaced on Telegram on Sunday. The nine-minute video opens with West African militants pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before cutting to what it alleges are scenes from the ambush.
Initially, the video shows three US soldiers taking shelter behind a slow-moving unarmored SUV as reddish clouds from smoke grenades drift across the scene. The three then are overwhelmed by a larger group of militants armed with grenades and machine guns. While one of the US soldiers drives, the other two jog behind the vehicle and try to fire back.
One of the US soldiers is shot and goes down. Two others pull him to safety before running to take cover in shrubs nearby. At the end of the video, the soldier wearing the helmet camera goes down as well, and eventually stops moving. In a brutal final shot, the militants come into view of the fallen soldier whose helmet is still filming and shoot him at point-blank range.
“Number one, this is terribly difficult on the families, the images alone,” Manning said. “Number two, this is an ISIS-produced and developed propaganda video. The [Pentagon] cannot verify … at this current time any portion of it.”
The video surfaces at a complicated moment for the Pentagon. Five months after the ambush, the Pentagon still has not answered many questions about why the US troops found themselves facing a hostile force or what precisely happened. Military officials have attributed that delay to the need to get things right, no matter how long it takes. Initially, the investigation was meant to take 30 days, then it was delayed till January. The investigation has still not been released, though the Pentagon said Monday that the investigation is completed, is being reviewed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, and will be made public after it's been shared with the families and Congress. Now it looks like Americans may look to answers from the video before they get them from the government.
If the video is authentic, it shows clearly that the US unit was isolated and exposed in the chaos of the ambush. That conforms with other reports that there was no aerial surveillance available to pick up the preparations for the ambush and that there was no nearby air support to respond to an attack or to evacuate the wounded. When help arrived, in the form of French Mirage fighter bombers, it was two hours after the intense firefight began.
Screenshots of what purported to be video from the ambush first surfaced in January, when a Twitter user claimed he had the footage. At the time, the Pentagon said it was determining the veracity of the tweet and the photos.
The US military initially said that the unit was ambushed while on a low-risk mission, a meeting of village elders for what the military calls KLE, or key leadership engagement. But that assertion was contradicted by what was known to be happening in the region before the attack. The area the US troops were patrolling had been under a state of emergency for months and the village where they were was known to be sympathetic to ISIS affiliates. Local officials said that US and Nigerien forces were set up by residents.
Despite the Pentagon’s opposition, some news outlets posted parts of the video, CBS News on Sunday, and SOFREP, a military news outlet focusing on special operations, posed the helmet camera footage in full Monday.
“The footage illustrates some hard facts and dispels many myths about the ambush that had not previously been brought to light,” SOFREP wrote in the article accompanying the video. “The video is very hard to watch but serves to educate anyone who does not fully grasp the reality of war, violence and combat … We honor these men by watching their last stand, not by turning away; they were true warriors to the end.”
It said it had posted the video without the sound "because it features a typical Islamic State extremist propaganda soundtrack paired with added false screams."
In a statement after the video was released, the Pentagon said it “demonstrates the depravity of the enemy we are fighting."
There are about 800 US troops in Niger, according to the Pentagon.
Vera Bergengruen is a Pentagon reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Vera Bergengruen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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