Key Updates to Al-Shabaab’s Attack on U.S. and Kenyan Forces

One day after al-Shabaab’s attack on the Camp Simba airstrip in Kenya, many more details are emerging about the casualties and retaliatory responses.

Most importantly: Nine years after invading Somalia to confront al-Shabaab, Kenya has failed to secure its border. Due to the threat of al-Shabaab mass raids, the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) have pulled many of its forces in Somalia back to forward operating bases close to the border.

Yet, al-Shabaab still crosses the border at will. One of the biggest enablers to this security gap is the rugged terrain of the Boni Forest. The rugged terrain makes it difficult for security forces to navigate, and the Kenyan government is often at odds with local communities who have been marginalized for decades.

All these ingredients provide a safe haven for al-Shabaab to execute small-scale attacks —  like the Lamu bus raid days ago — or high profile ones like the airstrip attack.

Notable News Updates

  • Al-Shabaab cut power in the town of Hindi prior to the attack.
  • Eight hours after the attack, locals reported seeing wounded al-Shabaab militants “speaking fluent Swahili” seeking medical help.
  • Garowe Online noted commentary from VOA journalist Harun Maruf on the issue of whether the al-Shabaab attack can be connected to a response by Iran to the killing of Quds for commander Qassem Soleimani. While there are indirect ties between Al-Shabaab and Iran in the nebulous world of the weapons and charcoal trade, there is no demonstrated proof of direct cooperation between the two entities who already stand ideologically divided. Al-Shabaab’s spokesperson has explicitly denied any such link.

Responses in the field:

  • Al-Shabaab reportedly launched another attack on KDF forces in Kulbiyoow area of Lower Jubba, near the Kenyan border. In 2017, an attack at the same base resulted in the deaths of more than 70 KDF personnel and heavy damage to dozens of military vehicles.
  • At least three people were killed and 3 others injured after the Kenyan military reportedly shelled an area near Diif, Somalia, according to the town’s mayor Ahmed Salaad Ahmed. In other occasions after al-Shabaab attacks, the KDF has reacted with retaliatory strikes that have allegedly injured or killed Somali civilians.
  • Some Kenya civilians are fleeing their homes in Lamu county to avoid al-Shabaab attacks or clashes between militants and security forces, according to VOA.

Responses in the Press:

The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) announced an updated list of casualties and damage from the attack.

  • 1 U.S. servicemember (Spc. Mitch Mayfield) and 2 U.S. defense contractors (including L-3 pilot Dustin Harrison) were killed
  • 2 other Defense Department personnel were injured
  • 6 contractor-operated civilian aircraft were damaged

The Aviationist has an interesting breakdown of the potential aircraft that were destroyed in the attack. At minimum, al-Shabaab may have incurred at least $20 million in damages to two aircraft alone, according to a rough estimate of their costs. (See here and here). This obviously does not take consideration of the vehicles and fuel tanks that were also damaged.

Despite the seriousness of the attack, it has still not attracted the social media attention of U.S. President Donald Trump, who continues to be consumed by his impeachment and Iran tensions.

Contrastingly to the U.S., the Kenyan military has not reported any casualties but has a history of underreporting those injured and killed in terrorist attacks. The KDF earlier had claimed there were no U.S. casualties, but the U.S. statement later corrected this claim.

In fact, WaPo reported that “locals say one Kenyan civilian was killed by gunfire and that at least 10 militants escaped during the attack and moved through nearby villages.”

This is one of the few reports that shines a light on how many fighters were involved – which is at least 15 counting the five fighters that died during the shootout. The article also cites locals who say the battle lasted from 3am to 1pm – about five hours longer than initially reported.

Lastly, Kenya is tracking other suspected efforts to case sensitive locations for attacks.

  • On the same day as the Camp Simba airstrip attack, three “terrorist suspects” tried to break into the British army camp in Nanyuki. The men —  identified as Kelvin Katitu Maweu, Joseph Karuri Kihonge, and Evans Kangara Wanjiku — were not arrested during the attempt. However, photos captured on CCTV enabled them to be spotted later walking near a police station in town.
  • On 6 January, Kenyan police arrested a Somali-Canadian named Abdinasir Abudule who was taking pictures around the Kenyan Air Force compound in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood.


Categories: al-Shabaab

Tags: , ,

3 replies


  1. Weekend Note: Al-Shabaab and Kenya’s Tit-for-Tat Destruction of Telecom Infrastructure
  2. Kenyan Troops “Hid in the Grass” During Al-Shabaab’s Airstrip Attack at U.S. Base

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