US team in Niger was collecting intel on terror leader

(US Defense Department)

The US Army team that was ambushed in Niger was gathering intelligence on a terrorist leader operating in the area when it was attacked, two military officials told CNN on Tuesday.

The officials said the unit was not under orders to conduct a kill or capture mission on the leader, since such missions are typically reserved for other elite special operations forces teams.

The new details come a day after Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters that the troops were on their way back to their operating base when they were ambushed by 50 ISIS fighters.

Four US and five Nigerien soldiers were killed and two Americans were wounded in the attack that occurred on October 4, but details of what happened remain murky more than two weeks after the incident as investigators work to determine precisely what happened, a US official has told CNN.

CNN also learned Tuesday that the Green Beret team was on one of their first patrols in the country after arriving just weeks earlier, according to two US defense officials.

One of the officials said the team was on their first patrol when they were ambushed, while the second official said it was either their first or second.

Previously the military has said there had been 29 similar patrols without incident but the officials have clarified those 29 patrols were conducted by the task force as a whole, not by this specific unit that came under attack.

During Monday’s Pentagon briefing, Dunford told reporters that there is no indication that the US troops were operating outside their orders at the time of the ambush.

“I don’t have any indication right now to believe or to know that they did anything other than operate within the orders that they were given,” Dunford said. “That’s what the investigation’s all about. So I think anyone that speculates about what special operations forces did or didn’t do is doing exactly that, they’re speculating.”

Still, Dunford said the military will be investigating if the planned reconnaissance mission changed.

“It was planned as a reconnaissance mission. What happened after they began to execute, in other words, did the mission change? That is one of the questions that’s being asked. It’s a fair question but I can’t tell you definitively the answer to that question. But, yes, we’ve seen the reports, we’ve seen the speculation,” he said.

A defense official told CNN on Tuesday that the chief of staff to the commander of US Africa Command, Major Gen. Roger Cloutier Jr., is leading the formal investigation into the deadly ambush.

One US soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson, was separated from the 12-member team as it was ambushed by 50 ISIS fighters, and his body was recovered 48 hours later nearly a mile away from the central scene of the ambush in Niger, four administration officials familiar with the early assessment of what happened had told CNN on Friday.

Dunford said Monday that he could not definitely confirm reports that Johnson was found nearly a mile away but that those details would come to light as part of the investigation.

“I think we owe the families and American people transparency,” Dunford said.