Kenyan Troops “Hid in the Grass” During Al-Shabaab’s Airstrip Attack at U.S. Base

Kenyan troops “hid in the grass” during al-Shabaab’s January 5 attack on the Camp Simba airstrip, providing fresh doubt about the capability of the military to respond quickly and capably to high-profile terrorist attacks.

Via NYTimes:

“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 choice of many Kenyan troops to flee rather than fight may in part explain the military leadership’s claim to have avoided casualties during the attack, as one commentator pointed out.

Kenya’s Response

Senior Kenyan military officials strongly denied the allegations in the NYT and issued equally stunning criticism toward U.S. forces in comments given to the Daily Nation:

“Americans response after the attack was not swift. It is Kenyan soldiers who were the first responders to the attack during which they managed to fell five of the Al-Shabaab attackers,” a senior source at DoD said.

The officers also took a swipe at the US government for claiming to have a “capable force” yet some of its most highly trained men were unable to detect the access of the camp by the Al-Shabaab militants.”

Kenyan military spokesperson Paul Njunguna refuted claims that Kenyan staff on the base aided the attackers, but caveated that a full inquiry was in the process of being completed.

U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Kyle McCarter, also offered a full-throated defense of Kenyan forces against the allegations in the NYT piece. McCarter’s statement is puzzling because the NYT report was based on interviews with U.S. military officials, meaning that the ambassador was directly contradicting the assessment of the U.S. Defense Department.


The attack led to the death of 1 U.S. servicemember and two Defense Department contractors – all Americans. More than $20 million in damage was done to military equipment, including several spy aircraft used to target al-Shabaab militants.

The piece offers new details on how the attack emerged, including the moment the two contractor pilots thought they saw wildlife scurrying across the airstrip:

“They were wrong. The animals were in fact Shabab fighters, who had infiltrated the base’s outer perimeter — a poorly defended fence line — before heading to the base’s airstrip. As the twin-propeller Beechcraft, loaded with sensors and video equipment for surveillance, began to taxi, the Shabab fighters fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the plane, killing Mr. Harrison and Mr. Triplett. With the plane on fire, a third contractor, badly burned in the rear of the aircraft, crawled out to safety.”

The U.S. State department previously has lauded how its training has improved the capacity of Kenyan police to respond to terrorist attacks. 

Additionally, several media outlets agreed that the response of all Kenyan security forces to al-Shabaab’s January 2019 attack on the DusitD2 complex in Nairobi was markedly better than its bungled response to the Westgate siege in September 2013.

However, is the Kenyan military adequately equipped to protect sensitive locations from al-Shabaab attacks? If not, what is the sustainability of maintaining U.S. bases in vulnerable and remote locations in the country?

The NYTimes investigation draws into question whether U.S and Kenyan troops have implemented adequate force protection measures that account for each forces’ capabilities and resources.


Categories: al-Shabaab, Int'l Community in Somalia, Kenya

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