In pre-dawn darkness, a Toyota Land Cruiser skidded off a bridge in North Africa in the spring, plunging into the Niger River. When rescuers arrived, they found the bodies of three U.S. Army commandos — alongside three dead women.
What the men were doing in the impoverished country of Mali, and why they were still there a month after the United States suspended military relations with its government, is at the crux of a mystery that officials have not fully explained even 10 weeks later.
At the very least, the April 20 accident exposed a team of Special Operations forces that had been working for months in Mali, a Saharan country racked by civil war and a rising Islamist insurgency. More broadly, the crash has provided a rare glimpse of elite U.S. commando units in North Africa, where they have been secretly engaged in counterterrorism actions against al-Qaida affiliates.
The Obama administration has not publicly acknowledged the existence of the missions, although it has spoken in general about plans to rely on Special Operations forces as a cornerstone of its global counterterrorism strategy. In recent years, the Pentagon has swelled the ranks and resources of the Special Operations Command, which includes such units as the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force, even as the overall number of U.S. troops is shrinking.
At the same time, the crash in Mali has revealed some details of the commandos’ clandestine activities that apparently had little to do with counterterrorism. The women killed in the wreck were identified as Moroccan prostitutes who had been riding with the soldiers, according to a senior Army official and a U.S. counterterrorism consultant briefed on the incident, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, which is conducting a probe of the fatal plunge off the Martyrs Bridge in Bamako, the capital of Mali, said it does not suspect foul play but has “not completely ruled it out.” Other Army officials cited poor road conditions and excessive speed as the likely cause of the 5 a.m. crash.
U.S. officials have revealed few details about the soldiers’ mission or their backgrounds, beyond a brief news release announcing their deaths hours after the accident.
In many countries, including most in Africa, Special Operations forces work openly to distribute humanitarian aid and train local militaries. At times, the civil-affairs assignments can provide credible cover for clandestine counterterrorism units.
But in Mali, U.S. military personnel had ceased all training and civil-affairs work by the end of March, about a week after the country’s democratically elected president was overthrown in a military coup.
The military’s Africa Command, which oversees operations on the continent, said the three service members killed were among “a small number of personnel” who had been aiding the Malian military before the coup and had remained in the country to “provide assistance to the U.S. Embassy” and “maintain situational awareness on the unfolding events.”
Megan Larson-Kone, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Mali, said the soldiers had stayed in Bamako because they were “winding down” civil-affairs programs in the aftermath of the coup while holding out hope “that things would turn around quickly” so they could resume their work.
Two of the soldiers, Capt. Daniel H. Utley, 33, and Sgt. 1st Class Marciano E. Myrthil, 39, were members of the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion, 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, which is based at Fort Bragg, N.C.
For two months after the crash, the U.S. military withheld the identity of the third soldier killed. In response to inquiries from The Washington Post, the Army named him as Master Sgt. Trevor J. Bast, 39, a communications technician with the Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir.
The Intelligence and Security Command is a little-known and secretive branch of the Army that specializes in communications intercepts. Its personnel often work closely with the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees missions to capture or kill terrorist suspects overseas.
During his two decades of service, Bast revealed little about the nature of his work to his family. “He did not tell us a lot about his life, and we respected that for security purposes,” his mother, Thelma Bast of Gaylord, Mich., said in a brief interview. “We never asked questions, and that’s the honest truth.”
U.S. counterterrorism officials have long worried about Mali, a weakly governed country of 14.5 million people that has served as a refuge for Islamist militants allied with al-Qaida.
With only 6,000 poorly equipped troops, the Malian armed forces have always struggled to maintain control of their territory, about twice the size of Texas. Repeated famines and rebellions by Tuareg nomads only exacerbated the instability.
About six years ago, the Pentagon began bolstering its overt aid and training programs in Mali, as well as its clandestine operations.
Under a classified program code-named Creek Sand, dozens of U.S. personnel and contractors were deployed to West Africa to conduct surveillance missions over the country with single-engine aircraft designed to look like civilian passenger planes.
In addition, the military flew spy flights over Mali and other countries in the region with longer-range P-3 Orion aircraft based in the Mediterranean, according to classified U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
In what would have represented a significant escalation of U.S. military involvement in Mali, the Pentagon also considered a secret plan in 2009 to embed American commandos with Malian ground troops, diplomatic cables show.
Under that program, code-named Oasis Enabler, U.S. military advisers would conduct anti-terrorism operations alongside elite, American-trained Malian units. But the idea was rejected by Gillian A. Milovanovic, the ambassador to Mali at the time.
In an October 2009 meeting in Bamako with Vice Adm. Robert Moeller, deputy chief of the Africa Command, the ambassador called the plan “extremely problematic,” adding that it could create a popular backlash and “risk infuriating” neighbors such as Algeria.
Furthermore, Milovanovic warned that the U.S. advisers “would likely serve as lightning rods, exposing themselves and the Malian contingents to specific risk,” according to a State Department cable summarizing the meeting.
Moeller replied that he “regretted” that the ambassador had not been kept better informed and said Oasis Enabler was “a work in progress.” It is unclear whether the plan was carried out.
Since then, however, security in Mali has deteriorated sharply. After the coup in March, extremist Muslim guerrillas in northern Mali declared an independent Islamist state. They have imposed sharia law and have begun enforcing strict social codes that include compulsory beards for men and a ban on television.
In the fabled desert city of Timbuktu, al-Qaida sympathizers have destroyed ancient mausoleums and attacked other shrines as part of a religious cleansing campaign. Western aid workers have abandoned the northern half of the country after a string of kidnappings.
Thousands of Malians have fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
The three soldiers riding through Bamako in April had rented their 2010 Toyota Land Cruiser from a local agency, according to written statements provided to The Post by the Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.
Bast was in the driver’s seat and was headed south across the Martyrs Bridge. Preliminary investigative results determined that he lost control of the Land Cruiser, which broke through the bridge’s guardrail and landed in the river below.
Also in the vehicle were three Moroccan women, according to the Army’s statement. Contributing factors in the accident, the Army said, were limited visibility and “a probable evasive maneuver on the part of the vehicle’s driver to avoid impacting with slower moving traffic.”
The soldiers died of “blunt force trauma” when the vehicle landed upside down in the shallow river, crushing the roof, the Army said.
The Special Operations Command said it could not answer questions about where the soldiers were going, nor why they were traveling with the unidentified Moroccan women, saying the matter is under investigation.
Larson-Kone, the embassy spokeswoman, said the soldiers were on “personal, not business-related travel” at the time, but she declined to provide details. Officials from the Africa Command also said that they did not know who the women were, but they added in a statement: “From what we know now, we have no reason to believe these women were engaged in acts of prostitution.”
Coincidentally, the incident occurred less than a week after President Barack Obama’s visit to a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, where U.S. military personnel and Secret Service agents became embroiled in a scandal involving prostitutes.
At least two of the soldiers in Mali had been trained as communications or intelligence specialists.
Bast, the master sergeant, was a ham radio hobbyist who originally joined the Navy before switching to the Army several years ago. An Army spokesman described him as a “communications expert” and said he was posthumously given the Meritorious Service Medal but declined to say why.
Myrthil was a native of Haiti who joined the Army two decades ago. Military officials released virtually no details about his service record.
Utley, the captain, was a Kentucky native who joined the Army in 2002 to work as a signals and communications officer but later transferred to the Special Forces.
Friends said he had expected to deploy to Afghanistan last summer but received last-minute orders to go to Africa instead. His Mali assignment was scheduled to end this spring but was extended, they said.
Three weeks after the coup, on April 11, Utley sent a brief email to a friend from college, Chris Atzinger, to report that he was all right and that he would write more later.
Atzinger said he and other friends of Utley’s were frustrated that the Army hasn’t given a clearer explanation of how he died. “Those little details don’t seem to add up,” Atzinger said. “All of us are resigned to the fact that we won’t ever know.”
Utley, an alumnus of the University of Louisville, was a McConnell Scholar, part of a leadership program named after Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader. Less than a week after the fatal crash, McConnell gave a eulogy to Utley on the Senate floor, calling him “an American hero and patriot.”
Gary Gregg, director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, called Utley a star student and “just a terrific kid.” But he said the official account of the crash didn’t make sense.
“It seems really dubious that six people died in a single-car accident. It’s just very fishy,” Gregg said in a telephone interview.
Dana Priest and Julie Tate contributed to this report.