A little before dawn on the morning of Sunday January 5 a small column of armed militants emerged from a nearby forest to launch a deadly attack on Camp Simba, a military airstrip in Lamu, Kenya. Fighting raged for more than five hours, according to Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper and, by the time it was over, at least six aircraft were damaged and at least eight people were dead.
Five of the fatalities were gunmen aligned with al-Shabab, the Islamist militant group based in neighbouring Somalia that has committed dozens of atrocities both at home and in Kenya over the past decade. The other three confirmed deaths were of American nationals, including one soldier and two private military contractors. The Americans were there because the airstrip in question is not just a Kenyan military facility — it is also a United States military base, one of dozens of such bases that dot the African continent.
Five alleged al-Shabab militants have been arrested, while unconfirmed reports suggest that another 10 militants may have escaped through the forest.
The casualty count may have been even higher. According to a Kenyan military spokesperson, no Kenyan soldiers were killed in the attack — but given the Kenyan army’s long history of covering up the deaths of its servicemen, this statement should be treated with some scepticism.
Al-Shabab were quick to claim responsibility for the attack.
In some ways, the attack matched the typical al-Shabab modus operandi: an SUV packed with explosives was used to breach the perimeter of the base, while gunmen wreaked havoc inside. By al-Shabab standards, it was not even especially deadly: a truck bomb in Mogadishu in late December killed 85 people and left many more injured.
Nonetheless, the significance of the attack cannot be overstated. “What makes it extraordinary is that it was the first time that al-Shabab has launched an attack on the Kenyan coast on a Kenyan navy and US special forces camp,” said Rashid Abdi, an independent analyst and expert on the politics of the Horn of Africa.
Although al-Shabab has repeatedly staged attacks in Kenya before, these have been “soft” targets such as hotels, shopping malls and public transport, rather than “hard” military targets.
Abdi said that the attack was designed to send a message to the United States. “I think the signal is ‘we are here, we are much stronger than you think we are’ … This again is a message to the Americans that drone strikes alone will not halt us. A message of defiance, and to show al-Shabab is a resilient organisation.”
The US has been involved in conflict in Somalia for several decades, mostly through proxies or airstrikes. In recent years — since the election of President Donald Trump — drone strikes aimed at al-Shabab leaders and strongholds have escalated sharply. Over the past three years, the US Africa Command (Africom) says that it has carried out 148 strikes, killing between 900 and 1 000 people (figures accurate as of December 16 2019, as reported by journalist Amanda Sperber).
At least one of the surveillance aircraft used to co-ordinate these drone strikes is believed to have been destroyed in the attack on Camp Simba.
But drone strikes alone will not stop al-Shabab, warned Abdi: “If you are not going to complement military activities with required political structures, if you do not work for a more inclusive political system, if you are not stopping [internal] discord, you are going to fail. All the evidence clearly suggests that this is a political problem and al-Shabab feeds on these divisions.”
Murithi Mutiga, the International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa director, concurs. “Al-Shabab has proved to be both adaptive and resilient. Its fortunes over the decade and a half have ebbed and flowed, but even when it has suffered significant setbacks like losing urban centres such as Mogadishu and Kismayo, it finds a way to reinvent itself as an insurgency based in rural areas.
Mutiga added: “Al-Shabab will remain a major threat as long as the fundamental factors that give it strength remain in place, which is the total deficit of governance in most of Somalia. It is able to operate almost at will due to the weakness of the Somali state and the dysfunction of Somalia’s politics. It has a capacity, especially in south-central Somalia, to operate almost without hindrance, with virtual impunity, and then it is able very adeptly to export its capacities to the neighbourhood and to the capital, Mogadishu, and other urban centres in Somalia.”
Sunday’s attack on Camp Simba also highlighted the nature of the US’s extensive yet secretive military footprint in Africa. Managed from Stuttgart, Germany by Africom, the US maintains a string of small military bases and outposts across the continent — of which Camp Simba was one.
In 2018, journalist Nick Turse and the Intercept revealed the existence of at least 34 of these US military facilities in Africa, concentrated mainly in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region. The New York Times reported in December that the US department of defence is planning to draw down the number of troops operating in West Africa, but no formal plans to do so have been announced.
Neither the proposed draw down nor the Camp Simba attack is likely to effect the US position in Kenya and Somalia, said Mutiga. “Although the Trump administration has been considering drawing down its troop numbers on the continent, they have focused on West Africa as the first place where they will cut down numbers, but they appear to be determined to continue this war against al-Shabaab.”