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-Qaeda 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 terrorism 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.”
Haven for Islamist militants
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-Qaeda.