In the aftermath of al-Shabaab’s latest mass raid attack against Kenyan troops, the government showed it had not effectively applied lessons learned from the January 2016 El Adde attack where over 140 soldiers were thought to have been killed.
At around 5 AM last Friday, al-Shabaab deployed two car bombs to breach the Kenyan military’s base in Kulbiyow, located on the Somalia border. The attack came just days after Kenyan forces tried and failed to capture a location 20 miles east of the town.
Al-Shabaab’s Saleh Nabhan Brigade carried out the attack, and it is one of the group’s primary vehicles for mass raids.
Just as the group had done at El Adde, Al-Shabaab exploited soldiers who were still familiarizing themselves with their new post:
“[Daily Nation] has established there were about 120 KDF soldiers in camp while 60 had gone on patrol on the night of the attack.
All the soldiers at the camp were barely three weeks into the mission having arrived at the turn of the New Year and it is believed Al-Shaabab thought they would catch them off-guard like during the El-Adde attack last year.”
In addition, Kenya’s efforts to send reinforcements were complicated by al-Shabaab’s placement of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the route to Kulbiyow, highlighting the difficulties that Kenya has encountered in border security operations.
“It took hours for a rescue team from Hulugho Camp, at least 20 km away, to reach their comrades as the militants had planted explosives on various routes…”
When the Kenyan military was responding to the El Adde attack, soldiers reportedly had to walk 175-km on foot to the camp because the road was littered with IEDs. Perhaps it was all for naught as the Kenyan military later withdrew from the base and allowed al-Shabaab to take control of the town and use it as a staging ground for propaganda.
The same kind of logistical obstacles forced first responders to go on foot for part of the route to Kulbiyow:
“A distress signal was also sent to Boni Forest and Manda camps on the Kenyan side but the response teams had to abandon their vehicles at some point and walk on foot to Kulbiyow due to landmines on the routes leading to the camp under attack. By the time air support arrived shortly before noon, the quick response teams from nearby camps had managed to repulse the attackers.”
The caution was well-reasoned. At least two Kenyan security officers were killed and four others injured when their vehicle ran over an IED en route to Kulbiyow. The challenges of reinforcements to arrive on the scene almost certainly helped al-Shabaab overrun the base.
Hints of an Imminent Attack
There is a dispute whether Kenya had prior intelligence of the El Adde raid. This time, a source told the Daily Nation that while there was threat reporting of an imminent attack, al-Shabaab took a route to the camp not known to the Kenyan military:
El-Adde was the way it was because we didn’t know. This time they only managed to reach the camp because they used a different route not that the soldiers were “not aware,” said our source.
Another report noted:
“The Kenyan army received intelligence on Friday’s attack but bosses did not make use of it, a soldier at the base has said. The soldier, who spoke to the Star on condition of anonymity, said al Shabaab were scheduled to attack the base on January 15. He said this was to mark the anniversary of their raid on a camp in El Adde on that date last year, during which at least 100 soldiers were reportedly killed and several captured. The government is yet to release details of the attack to the public.
‘That is the information we received…everybody was on the watch. The militants said they had an anniversary they needed to celebrate,’ said the source. ‘They wanted to celebrate one year since the El Adde attack.'”
Al-Shabaab claimed the Kulbiyow raid killed 66 Kenyan soldiers and that the group was going after those “who ran away into the woods.” On the other side, the Kenyan military spokesperson told Kenyan media the attack claimed the lives of only nine soldiers while fifteen others were injured. He added that the military believed it killed 70 al-Shabaab militants.
Follow-up reporting from Kenyan media assessed that out of the 120 soldiers deployed at Kulbiyow, at least 68 Kenyan soldiers died after a reported miscommunication between platoons about whether they should retreat or engage the militants.
As a result, it appears the Kenyan government continues to withhold critical information from the public, despite the fact that Kenyans are seeking a full official account of what transpired rather than relying on anonymous sources from the Kenyan press.
The Kenyan government did not give a sufficient account of what happened at El Adde, and there are still families waiting for the body of their loved ones over one year after the attack. This time around, one unfortunate family that had already suffered the loss of a family member at El Adde learned that it lost another one at Kulbiyow.
The Kenyan government still has an opportunity to improve its response to the public, but the time is quickly dwindling. On 31 January, al-Shabaab published its photos of the attack, which it has done after every successful mass raid before the release of a full-length video.
If the photos did not highlight the Kenyan government’s underestimation of casualties at nine soldiers, then the subsequent statement from Nairobi listing at least 16 deceased soldiers on 1 February would do so. The credibility of the Kenyan government’s narrative hangs in the balance as it slowly retracts its assessment about the devastation of the attack.
More importantly, unless the government can prove it can repel mass raids successfully, Kenya and other African Union peacekeeping contributors must remain prepared to face this unique threat.