WASHINGTON—Poor training, complacency and a culture of excessive risk contributed to the deaths of four U.S. soldiers during an operation in Niger in October, according to a classified Pentagon report.
The report, described by officials familiar with its contents, details a series of missteps and describes a disregard for military procedures and for the chain of command.
Among other things, the report discloses that low-level commanders, determined to make a mark against local jihadis in the West African nation, took liberties to get operations approved through the chain of command.
In the ill-fated October mission, at least one officer copied and pasted orders from a different mission into the so-called concept of operations to gain approval, the officials said.
The officials who described the report said it wouldn’t recommend punishment for anyone. Ultimately, the Army and the Special Operations Command have the authority to pursue court-martial charges or other disciplinary proceedings against those involved.
Family members of the four fallen soldiers are being briefed this week on the report, which is more than 6,000 pages long.
The investigation stemmed from an Oct. 3, 2017, mission in which about a dozen U.S. soldiers and special-operations force members, along with roughly 30 Nigerien soldiers, set out on what began as a planned meeting with local officials. But by the next day, the troops instead were assigned to another part of the country to search the suspected abandoned house of an associate of Adnan abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, an affiliate of the extremist movement.
They later returned to a village near Tongo Tongo, and after conducting their meeting with local officials, were ambushed by roughly 50 attackers, a two-hour attack that killed two Green Berets, two soldiers assigned to assist special-operations forces and five Nigerien soldiers.
The attack put a spotlight on the expanding U.S. footprint in Africa, with most of the efforts aimed at training local forces battling Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated groups. There are roughly 6,000 U.S. troops spread across the continent, according to the Pentagon, including 800 in Niger.
In the months since the ambush, the U.S. military has moved some of the troops tasked with advising local forces in Africa away from the front lines and back into command centers.
Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, left, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright and Sgt. La David Johnson were killed during a two-hour firefight in Niger on Oct. 4. Photo: U.S. Army Special Operations Command/Reuters
U.S. officials said earlier this month that those changes weren’t the result of the Niger incident, but to increase the safety of military personnel operating in those environments, where there is limited support if troops come into contact with enemy forces.
The report didn’t find fault with the relaxed military operational authorities granted under President Donald Trump. He approved recommendations from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others to allow commanders at lower levels to have decision-making power, according to officials. There is no indication that the rules changes contributed to the incident, said officials who saw the report.
The report includes a series of directives from Mr. Mattis that will apply broadly across the military to provide guidance on training, operational discipline and to reinforce normal protocols within the chain of command. The aim is to avoid a repeat of the missteps leading up to the Niger operation and reduce the chances that such incidents happen again, the officials said.
The Special Operations Command, U.S. Africa Command and the Army all will be given approximately 10 “primary directives” from the Pentagon chief, the officials said. Those organizations will have four months to demonstrate their efforts to solve problems highlighted by the report.
The report will include separate memos with conclusions and assessments from Mr. Mattis, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and from the Africa Command. The report’s release was delayed several times as various Pentagon offices weighed in on the review.
The report has been months in the making, and includes diagrams, maps, testimony from dozens of individuals and other supporting material, including video taken from cameras attached to the soldiers’ helmets, the officials said.
Two copies of the classified version of the report have been provided to two reading rooms on Capitol Hill for lawmakers. A declassified version will be released publicly in coming days after family members are briefed on its contents and following briefings to lawmakers.
One of the four Americans killed, Sgt. La David Johnson, was missing for nearly two days after the attack. Army Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright also died during the attack. The four slain soldiers’ actions during the operation and under ambush were considered valorous, the officials said.
The final military briefing, for Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow, is expected next week, according to officials. She is expected to be accompanied by Rep. Frederica Wilson (D., Fla.), a friend of the family.
Mr. Trump’s condolence phone call to Mrs. Johnson sparked a controversy last fall. Ms. Wilson, who was in the car with Mrs. Johnson when she received the call, said that the president was insensitive to the widow, and that the call upset her. Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, said during a White House appearance that Ms. Wilson had politicized the call. Ms. Wilson stood by her account of it.
Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com and Nancy A. Youssef at Nancy.Youssef@wsj.com
Appeared in the April 26, 2018, print edition as ‘Report Hits Military Over Deaths in Niger.’