Chapter 25

NOVEMBER 8, 2020



The victims can see the end of their lives.

Three thousand miles south of the Middle East, Islamic State terror reigns. Today is Sunday. Smoke fills the air from the many local homes burned by ISIS terrorists over the last three days. Young African men who have sworn loyalty to the Islamic State herd local villagers onto the town’s small football pitch. The terrorists carry machetes and wear automatic weapons slung around their necks. The playing surface is red dirt instead of grass. Dead bodies litter midfield—all murdered by ISIS killers who are now yelling “Allahu Akbar” and firing shots into the air.

The “infidels” being herded are boys and men who have refused to join the Islamic State. Many ran into the woods outside of town when the terrorists began raiding Muatide three days ago. But the killers have been thorough, searching the forests and rounding up victims one by one. Some men are shot immediately, left to die in the trees along the Lúrio River. Their wives and daughters have been allowed to live—forced to serve as sex slaves.

The men now kneeling on the dirt soccer field can see for themselves the barbaric fate that awaits them. For the dead bodies of their friends are not in one piece: heads are missing, arms and legs hacked off. Torsos have been chopped into small pieces—carrion birds are now feasting on the entrails.

The “infidels” have a choice to make: they can join ISIS and live, or they will suffer a slow beheading with a dull machete—one which might require several blows to do the job. However, should these men choose to join ISIS, they must prove their loyalty through a simple initiation rite: accept the machete and perform the beheading and dismemberment of a fellow villager.

It seems useless to resist. ISIS now controls a growing African caliphate. Their extremist Muslim faith is modeled upon that of fighters in the Middle East. Even tourists caught in their sweep through southern Africa are beheaded.

By the time the terrorists depart Muatide tomorrow, fifty local men and boys will be hacked to pieces. Local women will emerge from hiding and sort through the corpses, collecting the body parts of loved ones for burial.

But the Islamic State will never be far away. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been dead a year, but his followers are worse than ever. The world may be watching the Middle East, but Africa is now the new home of terror.

Savage death is nothing new to the people of Africa, where the terror group known as Boko Haram is a deadly menace. Once loyal to al-Qaeda, BH terrorists defected after the death of Osama bin Laden. The militants now swear allegiance to ISIS and are committing atrocities in a number of countries.*

In 2014, two thousand miles northwest of Mozambique, Boko Haram begins the most murderous year in terrorist history. The date is February 25. It is 2:00 a.m. in the town of Buni Yadi, Nigeria. Students at the Federal Government College are asleep in single-story yellow buildings with black roofs. All are between the ages of eleven and eighteen. No one stirs as the terrorists emerge from their hideout in the thick Sambisa Forest and take up positions.

Boko Haram is dedicated to its own version of Islamic purity and seeks to eradicate other faiths as well as rival Muslim sects. Its terrorists now creep out of the darkness and surround the college. There are twenty-four buildings in all. Some attackers dress in Middle Eastern fashion, wearing flowing robes and keffiyeh head coverings. Others wear battlefield camouflage, with extra ammunition strapped to their chests. Their weapon of choice is usually the AK-47 rifle, although tonight they prefer flame.

The name “Boko Haram” means “Western education is sinful.” The group believes that reading any book other than the Koran is a violation of sharia law. Its goal is to create an Islamic state in Nigeria. Its adherents have killed thousands and displaced an estimated two million Africans to make that a reality.

No atrocity is too much. Terrorists strap bombs to little girls, sending them into public markets to kill themselves and others. In fact, a US congressional subcommittee on terrorism will note: “In 2014, Boko Haram killed nearly 7,000 people—murdered is a better word than killed—making them the deadliest terrorist group in the world, even surpassing ISIS.”

The brutal Islamists have attacked more than two hundred schools all throughout Africa. These “soft targets” are chosen because Boko Haram believes they spread Western philosophy—and also because schools are unguarded. Six months ago, in a shocking mass murder, Boko Haram fanatics crept into the dormitories of an agricultural college and opened fire, murdering forty sleeping students.

Two months before that, in July, the group attacked a dormitory in the town of Mamudo, Nigeria, killing forty-one young college students with grenades and machine guns.*

But tonight will be far worse in Buni Yadi.

The attackers surround the dormitories. Working quickly, they throw grenades into the rooms and set fire to those buildings housing male students. Phone lines have already been cut, so there is no chance Nigerian government soldiers can be summoned. As flames consume the dorms, students throw open doors and windows and try to make a run for it.

Most are cut down. Several terrorists fire at once, ensuring that each victim has multiple gunshot wounds. Throats are then slit.

Boko Haram is in no hurry. As the night sky is lit by fire, terrorists watch the dormitories burn. Dozens of dead male students lie in the dirt parking lot, puddles of blood forming around them. Others die in their beds, many burned to ashes. By sunrise, all twenty-four buildings comprising the college will be destroyed.

Fifty-nine male students are murdered. Approximately fifty female students are captured. Executions are reserved for the boys. Radical Islam is a patriarchal society that values masculine authority and the subjugation of women. So instead of being killed, the girls are ordered to return to their villages to marry. Should the young ladies fail to do that, Boko Haram reminds them of the brutality that will happen.

Two months later, on the night of April 14, 2014, the terrorists keep their promise.

The world will simply call them “our girls.”

Boko Haram prefers to call them sex slaves.

Another night, another school. Boko Haram fighters surround the government girls’ secondary school in the northern Nigerian town of Chibok. The raid takes place under a bright half moon instead of total darkness. The girls are Christians, which could result in grave consequences if they are taken captive.

This is not a surprise attack. The phone lines are not cut. Nigerians from miles away have been calling the school all evening, warning that caravans of heavily armed Boko Haram fighters are filling the roads, most likely headed for the girls. Due to the terror threat, schools throughout the region have been closed. But now is the time for final examinations. The secondary school has been shut for weeks but reopened so that students can take their tests. All the girls are between sixteen and eighteen and in their last year of secondary education. Boko Haram knows this and sees the chance to score a decisive victory.

The government of Nigeria has adopted a tactic of arresting family members of Boko Haram leadership in an attempt to bring the band to heel. “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women,” terror leader Abubakar Shekau has announced.

The threat on the girls’ school is payback. However, a small force of Nigerian soldiers is waiting for the Boko Haram vehicles. Both sides are weaponized, armed with grenade launchers and automatic machine guns. Confusingly, the terrorists are wearing stolen government military uniforms tonight, making it difficult to distinguish between the two sides.

The battle rages for five hours. But the Nigerian government refuses to send reinforcements. The terrorists eventually overrun the soldiers and descend upon the school, shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “We are Boko Haram.”

The frightened girls are rounded up. A terrorist leader makes an announcement: “If you want to die, sit down here. We will kill you. If you don’t want to die, you will enter the trucks.”

Sobbing, 276 young women choose to live. They board the trucks, allowing themselves to be taken prisoner. There are so many girls that some are forced to walk for several miles until other trucks can be brought in to carry them.

A fortunate fifty-three girls seize an opportunity to slip away—they will testify to the abductions.

Quickly, there is international pressure to find “our girls.” The United States and Britain take the extraordinary step of flying manned aerial patrols over the thick jungle along the border of Chad and Nigeria where the girls are thought to have been taken.

The Nigerian government seeks to defuse the worldwide outrage by claiming all the female students are safe and on their way home.

This is a lie.

No act of terror committed by Boko Haram before or since the kidnapping has brought the terror organization as much publicity. Despite the best efforts of satellite and drone technology, the girls simply vanish.

On May 5, three weeks after the raid, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau makes a chilling video announcement. “Allah instructed me to sell them,” the middle-aged terrorist proclaims. He is a thickset man with a long beard. Shekau is rarely seen without his camouflaged uniform and automatic weapon. He continues: “I will carry out his instructions.”

The abducted girls are forced to convert to Islam, then sold as brides. The price is just $4 for a member of Boko Haram. For the men of nearby Chad and Cameroon, who cross the border, the price is $12.

For a time, Shekau is among the most famous terror leaders in the world, achieving the sort of notoriety once enjoyed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But soon Boko Haram splinters as a result of intramural fighting. The faction that wins the civil war is called the Islamic State West African Province, or ISWAP.*

With little control over vast expanse of jungle, most African governments cannot defeat Boko Haram on their own. But because of the untapped mineral wealth of Africa, the world’s superpowers are now getting involved. Armies of the United States, China, and Russia are on the ground, monitoring the terrorist situation. American Special Operations Forces comprised of US Navy SEALs, US Army Green Berets, and US Marine Corps Raiders operate covertly in twenty-two African nations.

The American presence in Africa is largely kept secret, but these warriors serve at the invitation of African governments. The US mission is to “advise, assist, and accompany”—AAA—African soldiers to combat the Islamic State and Boko Haram, which are now operating together.

These shadow campaigns are not without peril. It is exceedingly dangerous to operate in territory not under government control. That’s what happens in 2017, when Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken, a thirty-eight-year-old senior chief petty officer, is killed while on an AAA mission in Somalia, shot dead by the militant Islamist group al-Shabab.

The fact is that US Special Forces are now being directed to the most dangerous places on earth.

Like Niger.

Tourists do not vacation in Niger.

The landlocked nation is twice the size of Texas but offers no big cities and very few conveniences. Niger (pronounced NEE-zhair) is considered the poorest country in the world by the United Nations. Few of its citizens can read or write. French is the national language, but the people more often speak in tribal dialects. The terrain is arid and sprawling, suitable for subsistence farming but offering no prospect of industry to the population of sixteen million.*

Most notably, the former French colony has been independent for sixty years but is unable to establish a democratic system of government and is now under military rule.

But “rule” is an arbitrary term. Niger is a lawless haven for smugglers and terrorists. No one is in charge. Guns rule.

The date is October 4, 2017. Eleven members of the US 3rd Special Forces Group known as Team 3212 stop in the village of Tongo Tongo, in western Niger. These Green Berets are still new to the area, joining the eight hundred Americans on the hunt for Islamic terrorists.

Niger is infested with militant factions: ISIS controls land to the north, al-Qaeda owns territory to the west, and Boko Haram has a powerful presence to the south and southeast. This is one of the most hostile regions on the planet, with forty-six terror attacks in the last twenty months.

Special Forces Team 3212 is exhausted, having stayed up almost all night. They travel in three vehicles, a Toyota Land Cruiser and two four-wheel-drive pickup trucks. Two machine guns are mounted in the pickups; they are called “technicals.” Also on patrol with the Americans is a thirty-man group of soldiers from the Nigerien army who travel in five large trucks—one of which was provided by the Central Intelligence Agency.

At first, the mission is routine, starting out as a daylong journey to meet local tribal leaders in a show of goodwill. But when that job is complete and the team is on its way back to base, it is suddenly diverted. A raid on the hideout of a known Islamic State commander is in motion. A team of American commandos is being flown several hundred miles by helicopter to lead the attack. The French air force will provide cover. Team 3212 is charged with backing up the operation.

American intelligence has intercepted a phone call from a local ISIS leader named Doundoun Cheffou. He is a suspect in the kidnapping of American aid worker Jeffery Woodke in October 2016. Cheffou is known for raiding into Niger with his group, then retreating back across the border into Mali, where he hides in a dense forest. This is an opportunity to arrest Cheffou and maybe bring Woodke home.*

The Green Berets are told that Cheffou is a “TST”—time-sensitive target. Speed is vital.

But the weather does not cooperate. Dusty winds cancel the helicopter insertion before the commando strike team ever leaves the ground. The French air support is also scrubbed.

Yet the mission is not canceled. The lightly armed Green Beret and Nigerien force will conduct the search alone. The Americans take a short nap, sleeping until 2:00 a.m., then approaching the ISIS camp in darkness. Team 3212 enters the location cautiously, checking for jihadis hiding in the forest and rocks.

The camp is abandoned. Just a camouflage uniform, spent shell casings, leftover rations of tea and sugar, and a motorcycle are found. Ominously, the tracks of other motorcycles can be seen leading away from the location.

But no jihadis.

Just as well. Though trained to execute an attack on a terror compound, the Green Berets and their Nigerien counterparts are not equipped to confront a large terrorist presence. Most of the Americans carry M4 carbines, while the Nigeriens are armed with medium machine guns. The vehicles are not bulletproof, and the teams are not armed with heavy weapons such as mortars. The original mission was supposed to be so low-key that only one American soldier thought to bring along a grenade launcher. It is clear that the ISIS fighters who once lived in the camp are much better armed.

With a sense of relief after seeing no targets, the team begins the journey back to base, one hundred miles away.

The stop in Tongo Tongo, a hamlet on the borderlands of Niger and Mali, is meant to be brief. The plan is to eat breakfast, refill hydration bladders from the village well, meet with local leaders, and then return to base near the town of Quallam. When the local chief says some of the village children are sick, the Green Berets offer medicine. The Nigerien soldiers are relaxed, taking their time to eat. They have previously visited Tongo Tongo nineteen times, never once having an issue with the local population. This calms the weary Americans, still learning the ways of Niger.

The time is 10:30 a.m.

But unbeknownst to the Americans, Islamic State fighters have been tipped off about their location. Terrorists wielding automatic weapons race toward Tongo Tongo to set up an ambush. They travel in a caravan of more than a dozen “technical” vehicles and twenty motorcycles, speaking openly of decapitating any Americans they find. There are about fifty of the jihadis, a strong force. They stop one hundred yards outside of town and take up positions in the woods lining both sides of the road.

Inside Tongo Tongo, the Americans grow suspicious. Their meeting with the local chieftains was meant to last thirty minutes but has now lasted almost an hour. In fact, the chief’s cell phone contains the phone number for Doundoun Cheffou, and the two men are in touch—but the Green Berets don’t know that. They do see young men from the village driving out of town on their motorcycles for no apparent reason. The Americans sense a setup and quickly end the meeting. Along with the Nigerien soldiers, they enter their vehicles and drive out of town in a single-file line. Home base is ninety miles away.

The time is 11:35 a.m.

The Green Berets are cautious. The Sahel desert, in the Tillabéri region of Niger, is almost without vegetation, but the land just outside Tongo Tongo marks the beginning of a wide forest of scrub and small trees. The road is dirt, the terrain thickly wooded. The Americans keep eyes left, where the trees are thickest, watching for signs of terrorist movement.

They don’t have to wait long. After thirty seconds of driving, the convoy takes fire. The ambush comes from the left, as predicted. A deafening volley of automatic-weapons fire strikes the convoy. Rocket-propelled grenades fill the air. The soldiers exit their vehicles and return fire.

The team’s commander, Captain Mike Perozeni, is hit and wounded. Radio operator Sergeant First Class Brent Bartels is also struck by gunfire—but not before sending a message to base that the Green Berets are under fire.

The battle rages. ISIS fighters can be seen trying to surround the American force. The Green Berets and their allies return to their vehicles to make a run for it. The fight is now twenty-five minutes old, and the time is just after noon. A red smoke grenade is thrown to conceal the retreat. One by one, the American vehicles egress at a high rate of speed.

But in the chaos, three Green Berets are left behind. Staff Sergeants Dustin Wright, Jeremiah Johnson, and Bryan Black are pinned down, taking cover behind their black SUV. Wright is a former football player from the small town of Santa Claus, Georgia. Johnson is a specialist in chemical warfare from Springboro, Ohio. Sergeant Black is a nationally ranked chess player from Washington State who actually planned his own memorial service before going to Africa—just in case—asking that the Irish folk song “Finnegan’s Wake” be played.

All three soldiers now work together to survive, determined not to die on the desolate desert sands of Niger.

Sergeant Wright drives while the other two jog along the far side, shielded from terrorist gunfire. Every man wears a helmet cam, so the events soon to play out will be clearly visible: the dust, sound of gunfire, and hand signals are recorded.

Help is on the way. Realizing their mistake after making a successful exit, the other Green Berets return to the battlefield. But though they kill more than a dozen terrorists, they cannot get through to their three trapped comrades. In the attempt, a simple mistake will cost Sergeant La David Johnson his life—he also becomes separated from the team. Sergeant Johnson and two Nigerien soldiers are quickly surrounded by the ISIS attackers. They are a half mile from the original ambush site. Before long, the three are shot to death.

And it looks like there will be no escape for any of the Green Berets. They are surrounded, spread out over a square mile of desert and scrub. Puffs of red from smoke grenades waft through the air. The afternoon is hot and windy.

On one part of the battlefield, Sergeants Wright, Johnson, and Black are finally overwhelmed and shot dead. They fight until the very end. ISIS fighters approach the bodies and mutilate them. The gruesome footage of the Americans’ final moments will be placed on the internet as an Islamic State recruiting tool.

The surviving seven Green Berets are now fighting desperately. With their trucks bogged down, they are now on foot. The Americans and twenty Nigeriens form a defensive perimeter, tending to their wounded. A final radio call is made back to headquarters, stating that they are surrounded. Then the radios are destroyed so they will not fall into terrorist hands. The Nigeriens get on their knees and pray. The Americans use their private phones to message loved ones back home, saying good-bye.

But it is not all over. French Mirage fighter jets suddenly fly low over the battlefield. Within minutes, the terrorists flee. They leave behind twenty-one dead.

French Puma helicopters soon land to rescue the remaining Americans and Nigeriens and to evacuate the bodies of the dead. Sergeant La David Johnson of Miami Gardens, Florida, who was once known as “Wheelie” because as a teenager he traveled around the city on a bike with no front wheel, is nowhere to be found. It will be a week before children will come upon his remains and notify the Americans.

The fight makes Tongo Tongo the worst battlefield incident since the infamous Black Hawk down tragedy in Somalia more than twenty years ago.*

The slain Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson enjoyed being known as a man who did his job well and did not want glory. In fact, he left word with relatives that if tragedy should ever befall him on the battlefield, his name was not to be mentioned in the papers.

After the ambush in Tongo Tongo, a reporter calls his mother, asking for comment.

But Debbie Gannon will not go on the record.

“I’m going to honor his wishes,” is all she will say.

The date is June 28, 2021. The leader of the US Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, is talking to reporters almost four years after the Tongo Tongo ambush. The USAC no longer speaks of defeating terror, preferring to use the term “containing.” American troops are being pulled out of Africa, and US air strikes against terror groups have ceased altogether.

At the same time, ISIS and al-Qaeda have recruited a new group of terrorists all across the African continent. Just three weeks ago, in the nation of Burkina Faso, which shares a border with the terror-troubled countries of Nigeria and Mali, 132 civilians were brutally murdered. Jihadists entered the village of Solhan late on a Friday night, burning homes and slaughtering innocent people.

The level of atrocity has grown so high across Africa that citizens are becoming desensitized to the threat. It is now common for terrorists to intermarry into local tribes, insert themselves in local politics, and attempt to impose a caliphate.

The terrorists seem to be unstoppable. Nowhere in Africa is this more apparent than in Mozambique. On March 24, 2021, in the resort town of Palma on the Indian Ocean, terrorists invade by land and sea. Many are teenagers. They number two hundred. The group is called Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah—and has sworn loyalty to ISIS. The young terrorists rampage for days, killing indiscriminately, until local beaches and city sidewalks are covered in headless bodies.

The sophistication of the attack shows military precision. Banks, police stations, the local airfield, and an army barracks are destroyed. Palma is home to hundreds of foreigners working for a nearby French natural-gas plant, many of whom barricade themselves in a hotel for almost two days waiting for rescue—only to have terrorists enter the building and behead those they capture. Thousands of locals flee into forests and coastal mangroves to hide.

The Islamic State’s news agency, Amaq, broadcasts the slaughter to the world. And though the terrorists leave Palma, their accomplishments are clear. The Mozambique government was unable to stop the raid. Just as in Syria and Iraq a decade ago, radical Muslim forces are now capable of terrorizing entire countries.

As General Townsend bluntly states: “ISIS and al-Qaeda are on the march. If ISIS can carve out a new caliphate, or al-Qaeda can, they will do it.” *

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