WASHINGTON — Armed with rifles and explosives, about a dozen Shabab fighters destroyed 6 American planes, killed three Americans and ignited an hours long gunfight earlier this month on a sprawling military base in Kenya that houses United States troops.
Surprised by the attack, American commandos took around an hour to respond. Many of the local Kenyan forces, assigned to defend the base, hid in the grass while other American troops and support staff were corralled into tents, with little protection, to wait out the battle. It would require hours to evacuate one of the wounded to a military hospital in Djibouti, roughly 1,500 miles away.
The brazen assault at Manda Bay, a sleepy seaside base near the Somali border, on Jan. 5, was largely overshadowed by the crisis with Iran after the killing of that country’s most important general two days earlier, and is only now drawing closer scrutiny from Congress and Pentagon officials.
But the storming of an airfield used by the American military so alarmed the Pentagon that it immediately sent about 100 troops from the 101st Airborne Division to establish security at the base. Army Green Berets from Germany also were shuttled to Djibouti, the Pentagon’s major hub in Africa, in case the entire base was in danger of being taken by the Shabab, an East African group affiliated with Al Qaeda.
“The assault represented a serious security lapse given how much of a target the base was and its location near the border with Somalia,” said Murithi Mutiga, the International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa project director, based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Many details of the attack remain murky, and the military’s Africa Command has released only scant particulars pending an investigation. But the deaths of the three Americans — one Army soldier and two Pentagon contractors — marked the largest number of United States military-related fatalities in Africa since four soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger in October 2017. The Kenya attack underscores the American military’s limits on the continent, where a lack of intelligence, along with Manda Bay’s reputation as a quiet and unchallenged locale, allowed a lethal attack.
The deaths also signify a grim expansion of the campaign waged by the United States against the Shabab — often confined to Somalia, but in this case spilling over into Kenya despite an escalating American air campaign in the region. Kenya is a new addition to the list of countries where Americans have been killed in combat since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, joining Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
The attack is raising new and complex questions about the enduring American military mission on the continent, where more than 5,000 troops now serve, especially as the Pentagon weighs the potential withdrawal of hundreds of forces from West Africa to better counter threats from Russia and China. A Pentagon proposal to reduce the American military footprint in Africa drew sharp criticism last week from senior lawmakers of both parties, including Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is a close adviser to President Trump.
Manda Bay is at the southern edge of an archipelago of American outposts used in the fight against the Shabab in East Africa. It took about eight hours to fly the burned contractor to Djibouti for hospital-level care, according to the person familiar with the attack, underscoring a recurring vulnerability for American personnel spread across the continent. Several American service members were also wounded in the attack.
At the center of the hours-long gun battle is the risky dependence of American forces on their local counterparts, especially when it comes to base security. The battle bore a striking similarity to an attack in Afghanistan in March 2019 when Taliban fighters managed to slip onto a sprawling base in southern Helmand Province with help from Afghan troops and quickly threatened a small American Marine base inside the perimeter of the larger Afghan facility.
At Manda Bay, where American forces have a smaller presence, the troops rely largely on the Kenyans to protect the airfield. “Those forces are typically not as capable as U.S. forces, and are easier for Islamic groups to infiltrate,” said Representative Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican who served in Africa while an Army Green Beret.
The performance of the Kenyan security forces during and after the battle frustrated American officials. At one point, the Kenyans announced that they had captured six of the attackers, but they all turned out to be bystanders and were released.
There are about 200 American soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines, as well as about 100 Pentagon civilian employees and contractors, in Kenya helping train and assist local forces. A large majority of them work at Manda Bay, according to military officials. But there were not enough Americans to stand perimeter security on the airfield, one Defense Department official said.
American forces have used Manda Bay for years. Special Operations units — including Green Berets, Navy SEALs and, more recently, Marine Raiders — have helped train and advise Kenyan Rangers there.
The Kenyan Rangers, alongside their American commando counterparts, often operate in the border region pursuing Shabab fighters. Surveillance aircraft, flying from the airstrip at Manda Bay, watch the border between Somalia and Kenya, a region of unforgiving terrain that has hindered ground operations. In recent months, the border missions against the Shabab have dwindled, and military officials have sought to end the American Special Operations presence at Manda Bay.
Why the base was not better protected is unclear. Surveillance aircraft, much like those destroyed in the attack, are valuable assets, especially in Africa, where extremist groups seek to exploit the vast expanses and porous borders to avoid detection. Even to shuttle a single aircraft from one part of the continent to another often requires approval from a four-star general, and losing a surveillance aircraft, one Defense Department official said, means the loss of hundreds of hours of reconnaissance flights until it is replaced.
The Shabab have typically avoided American outposts and the technological superiority of the American military, instead of attacking more exposed Kenyan and Somali troops in the hinterlands.
On Nov. 5, the Shabab released a 52-minute video narrated by the group’s leader, Abu Ubaidah, in which he called for attacks against Americans wherever they are, saying the American public is a legitimate target.
Source: Newyork times
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