LAMU, Kenya—One U.S. serviceman and two American private contractors were killed by the Somali militant group al-Shabab in a raid before dawn Sunday here on the coast near the Somali border, according to a statement issued by U.S. Africa Command. In the attack, launched at an airstrip used jointly by U.S. and Kenyan forces, two other American contractors were wounded. The serviceman was 23-year-old Specialist Henry Mayfield, from Chicago.
At a moment of fast-rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran, arguably the world’s most sophisticated state sponsor of terrorism, even if there was no link to the American assassination days earlier of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, the Kenya attack was a grim reminder of the many far-flung locales around the world where American soldiers can be targeted, and the ruthlessness of the forces that have them in their crosshairs.
There was another casualty of Sunday’s attack as well: a civilian. Witnesses near the Lamu County town of Hindi report that at around 3 a.m. Sunday some 20-30 men on foot were ghosting their way through farms and woods, heading east—in the direction of Manda Bay military base. Mwalimu Chengo Ponda, a resident in his mid-thirties, stepped outside to investigate the commotion to find a small group close to his home. The marauders grabbed him and whisked him away. Some hours later, neighbors found Mwalimu’s body lying in the bush, shot in the head.
From the vicinity of Hindi, al-Shabab militants advanced to the Manda Bay naval base and airfield. Even while the attack was underway, the group released a communiqué claiming that its elite “Martyrdom Brigade” had “successfully stormed the heavily fortified military base” and taken control of one area, where it had inflicted severe casualties on both Kenyan and American personnel. The attack, the statement read, was part of al-Shabab’s “Al-Quds [Jerusalem] Will Never Be Judaized” military campaign.
(Soleimani, one might note, was the head of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, but the quest to put Quds/Jerusalem is as old as Islam, and an especially common reference point for those who claim to wage jihad.)
At 5:30 a.m. that day, the Kenya Defense Forces issued a statement saying that a “security breach” had taken place at “Manda Airstrip,” but that the breach had been successfully repulsed. The statement went on to say four “terrorist” bodies had been recovered.
Witnesses in the area reported loud booms at intervals and plumes of smoke Sunday continuing at 6 a.m.
Because Lamu County’s civil-aviation airport, used by tourists, is also referred to as Manda Airstrip, confusion ensued immediately. Tour operators went into action, frantically trying to organize transport out of the Lamu Archipelago for guests. The commercial airport, much smaller and located on Manda Island, about six miles from the naval base, was not attacked.
There’s been ample speculation as to whether the Manda Bay attack had anything to do with the operation President Donald Trump ordered that killed Soleimani. Analysts say no. It would have been impossible, they note, to stage the coordinated Manda attack just two days after the U.S. drones did their work in Baghdad. The attack on the Kenyan base was, no doubt, long in the works.
It might also be pointed out that Somalia’s Muslims are Sunni rather than Shia, and al-Shabab is affiliated with al Qaeda, which also follows a Sunni current of Islam.
But in the murky world of terrorism and Iran’s covert operations, the Sunni-Shia divide is not always well defined. Soleimani’s Quds Force minions have worked with the radical Sunni Taliban, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and even al Qaeda when it suited them. Since Soleimani’s assassination, American politicians have emphasized that fact. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence claimed specifically that Soleimani was responsible for “terror attacks” in 2011 and a bomb plot in 2012 in Kenya. Alleged Iranians or Iranian agents have been in and out jail on various charges relating to plans to bomb the Israeli embassy in Nairobi. Vice President Pence tweeted, “Directed IRGC QF (Quds Force) terrorist plots to bomb innocent civilians in Turkey and Kenya in 2011.”
Al-Shabab’s focus on Manda Bay likely was a response to the U.S. use of drones, attempting to show that these death-dealing robots in the sky do not guarantee impunity for those controlling them on the ground, or feeding them intelligence.
Drone strikes worldwide have increased under Donald Trump. Last year the U.S. carried a record 63 drone strikes in Somalia—and al-Shabab is striking back.
The Manda Bay attack is the first al-Shabab has carried out on a U.S. military installation inside Kenya. It is also the first attack by Islamic militants made against a U.S. installation in Kenya since al Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in 1998, killing more than 200 people.
The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has carried out airstrikes in Somalia for a decade, and has been carrying out clandestine operations against al Qaeda in East Africa, as well as its local ally al-Shabab, at least since the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Al-Shabab attacked a U.S. special forces base in Somalia on Sept. 30 after four of its militants were killed in three airstrikes in Somalia the previous day, according to U.S. Africa Command.
Among the aircraft destroyed at the Manda Bay base were manned surveillance planes that collect data across the border in Somalia, as well as over Kenya’s dense Boni forest, about 10 miles north of the Manda Bay base, where al-Shabab is thought to be hiding.
The intelligence, including the locations of villages, Shabab leaders and members, is then fed to armed unmanned Reaper drones. In the view of recent U.S. operations, it is no surprise that the group specifically targeted surveillance aircraft on the Manda airstrip.
Also reportedly destroyed were aircraft operated by U.S. Special Operations Command and modified Havilland Canada Dash-8 spy aircraft, which carries the U.S. civil registration code N8200L.
Northeast Kenya is no stranger to al-Shabab attacks, having suffered massacres of civilians at Mpekatoni and Garissa, as well as numerous bus attacks. Al-Shabab’s operations in the region have been directed at both military and civilian targets, including many innocent bystanders like Mwalimu. Sunday’s attack marked a rare event, however: a successful incursion into a military base, and—rarer yet—a U.S. installation. (The only other such attack came in 2016, when al-Shabab penetrated an African Union base in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.)
For all its lack of high-tech apparatus, al-Shabab remains resilient. Analysts attribute the group’s success to its intelligence gathering on the ground, so very unlike the U.S. drones.
Stig Jarle Hansen, analyst and author of Horn, Sahel and Rift: Fault-lines of the African Jihad, puts it like this: “The attack shows that Shabab is still able to hit Kenya inside its borders, and proves they can strike at U.S. personnel. But perhaps the attack mainly illustrates that Shabab can put a dent in the U.S. drone campaign in Somalia.”
That’s a point worth remembering as we gird, it seems, for a new chapter in the war with terrorists.