Kenya terror attack aimed at blunting US surveillance capacity

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi

Posted on Monday, 6 January 2020 11:27
In an image distributed by al-Shabaab a militant holds up the group's flag next to a burning aircraft, said to be at the Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya on 5 January, 2020. Al-Shabaab/Handout via Reuters

An attack on an American base in Kenya by Somali terror group Al-Shabaab has left one US service member and two military contractors dead and wounded two others, the US Africa Command said on Sunday.

“The attack on the compound today involved indirect and small arms fire. After an initial penetration of the perimeter, Kenya Defence Forces and US Africa Command repelled the Al-Shabaab attack,” US Africom said in a statement.

The attack at Manda Bay military base, which was aimed at the hangar and not the barracks themselves, also damaged six aircraft.

Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack, and claimed that there were “17 US and 9 Kenyan casualties”, and that they had destroyed seven aircraft in the process.

The US Africom, in several statements on Sunday, dismissed the claims of extensive attacks and instead said Kenyan and American forces had repelled the attack.

Although initial communication from both the US and Kenyan military downplayed the extent of the attack, security sources told The Africa Report that the base had been hit with the aim of destroying US surveillance planes.

A report seen by the Associated Press showed that two fixed-wing aircraft, two helicopters and multiple vehicles had been destroyed.

The attack begun just before daybreak, and by morning multiple images showed a thick plume of smoke coming from the airfield after a series of explosions.

  • The Manda Bay airfield, located 450kms from Nairobi by air, is used by both the Kenyan and US military for training and monitoring Al-Shabaab activities.
  • The airfield is known colloquially as “Camp Simba”.

On 29 December, US Africom conducted airstrikes on Al-Shabaab positions in Somalia that left at least four combatants dead. The airstrike came just a day after the terror group killed at least 79 people in Mogadishu with a car bomb in what Somalia’s president described as a “a heinous act of terror.”

What this means

Kenya fears that the worsening situation in the Middle East, after the United States assassinated Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, will bolster Al-Shabaab’s activities. Analysts fear that Iran could work with the Somali terror group to target US interests in the Horn.

This was the second attack in Lamu, a region of Kenya bordering Somalia, in a week.

In the first attack, on Thursday, five Al-Shabaab militants ambushed a bus and left three people dead and two others injured.

The security situation has affected road use to Manda, which is the main route by plane or boat to Lamu Island, a popular tourist destination and World Heritage Site.

The latest bus attack forced the government to close schools in the area and issue security alerts. Government spokesperson Cyrus Oguna said: “Security has been restored and is stable, but because some of these elements may sneak in, we do not want them to affect transport and other socio-economic activities. So currently, we are escorting road users in the area.”

For years, Kenyan security forces have been trying to clear a forest in Lamu that Al-Shabaab uses for operations.

The Kenyan military entered Somalia in 2011, and was integrated into the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) a year later.

AMISOM’s term in Somalia is expect to end by the middle of this year, with significant troop reductions beginning next month.

The targeted attacks over the past week may put withdrawal plans on hold, especially as the world watches for Iran’s retaliation to the United States’ actions.

  • Somalia, whose relationship with its southern neighbour has been fraught with suspicion lately, is scheduled to hold its first universal suffrage elections this year, which could escalate the security situation further.

For Kenya, Al-Shabaab’s resurgence means that it might have to maintain, and even possibly bolster, its military presence in Somalia. At home, it has heightened its security as it tries multiple counter-terror measures to prevent another attack in the country.

The most recent attack away from the border regions was the invasion of an upmarket office and hotel complex in Nairobi in January 2019 that left more than 20 people dead.

Kenya would also need to lean on its relationship with the United States, which could endanger its interests as Iran seeks allies across the world to target US interests. “Kenyan officials have been worried ever since tensions built up between Iran and US.

“An Al-Shabaab that forges relations with Iran is nightmare scenario. A Houthi-style upgrade – rockets and drones – could significantly alter asymmetric warfare terrain in Horn,” Rashid Abdi, a researcher and analyst, said in a tweet.

But others don’t see any enthusiasm for an alliance.

Kenya has also been investing in the Lamu region to counteract the socioeconomic mess that fuels recruitment, government spokesperson Oguna pointed out at a press conference last week. “Some of the boys are from that region. The question is: why are they crossing over? It is because there is no sufficient livelihood for them,” he said.

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