Dozens of Kenyan Soldiers Die in Somalia Base Horror
'The area was full of bodies'
During the early morning hours of Friday, Jan. 15, several vehicles strapped with explosives drove into the perimeter defenses of the Kenyan base in El Adde in southwestern Somalia. With the perimeter breached, around 200 militants stormed the camp and killed dozens of soldiers.
The attackers were of course members of Al Shabab, a long standing Somali Islamist group that still holds considerable territory, while the Kenyan soldiers were part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, an African peacekeeping force that has been fighting Al Shabab for years in cooperation with Somali government forces and allied local militias.
This is already the third AMISOM base that has come under attack by Al Shabab in this way in the span of a year. Two other major troop contributing countries, Burundi and Uganda, already suffered heavy casualties when their respective bases in Leego and Janaale were overrun.
War Is Boring was able to get in touch with Omar Yasin, a local of El Adde who witnessed the attack and the aftermath.
“I’m hiding in the bush with over 100 families who fled El Adde,” Omar told us via telephone. “We are about 15 kilometers from El Adde and the nearest city from here we could go to is Garbaharey which is 75 kilometers away. We are afraid to move from here because we fear airstrikes. The Kenyans are bombarding in and around the environs of El Adde indiscriminately, so we are just staying here hoping the situation will cool down so we go back to our homes. The majority people cannot go elsewhere because El Adde is their only home.”
Omar said the local population knew of a possible attack well in advance, recalling that “a day before the attack, there’s was panic that Al Shabab were just outside the town. Some people fled but I and family stayed. In the morning when the call for prayer was starting that we heard four huge subsequent explosions. Then gunfire started that sounded like a jet aircraft. It went on for over one hour and during the period I counted seven big explosions.”
“I left my house when the gunfire seemed to subside. I saw one Kenyan personnel carrier fleeing. In the base of the Kenyans I could see more than five burning army trucks and a partially burnt tank inside the camp. The area was full of bodies of dead soldiers and Al Shabab fighters were filming it.”
One of the car bombs driven into the base defenses in El Adde appeared to have been an armored personnel carrier looted from the Burundian base last year, perhaps the burned-out “tank” Omar described. Al Shabab initially claimed it had killed 62 Kenyan soldiers in the attack, but later revised this number up to 100 and claims to have taken prisoners.
At top — Kenyan soldiers in Somalia. AMISOM photo. Above — an Al Shabab fighter inspects a disabled AMISOM armored vehicle in January 2016. Al Shabab propaganda video capture
Neither the Kenyan military nor AMISOM have so far provided their own casualty estimates, instead just talking of unspecified casualties on both sides.
Two alleged Kenyan soldiers later pleaded with the Kenyan government to facilitate their release in a recording released by Al Shabab that was heard by War Is Boring. Al Shabab claims it holds 12 Kenyan prisoners, while the Kenyan government only said it is looking for some soldiers who got lost in the bush after fleeing the base.
That Al Shabab was successful for a third time in a row with the same battle plan indicates that AMISOM still hasn’t overcome its main weaknesses on a purely tactical level. Al Shabab fighters can still mass undetected in large numbers and with heavy equipment in close proximity to AMISOM bases. These bases are not sufficiently protected against this type of attack.
Despite the firefight going on for several hours according to the local population, no sufficient reinforcements arrived at the scene to aid the embattled Kenyan soldiers. So either the lines of communication didn’t work within the Kenyan command structure or there were simply no forces stationed close enough and in a state of readiness to react in a timely fashion.
Nor did AMISOM or Kenya provide any air support, likely because simply none was available. AMISOM has battled a shortage of air transport and gunships for years, and Kenya doesn’t even have a dedicated attack helicopter in its arsenal. Its only offensive air assets are U.S.-made Northrop F-5 jets, a model that was first introduced in 1962 and went out of production in 1987.
Even if the Kenyan air force would have been able to scramble one in time, it wouldn’t have been able to engage with the accuracy necessary in such a situation.
If anything, it was Al Shabab that learned from experience. While last year’s attacks on the Burundian and Ugandan contingent were carried out by its Ahmed Abdi Godane brigade, named after an Al Shabab leader killed in a U.S. drone strike, this time the Saleh Nabhan brigade claimed responsibility.
So at least two units within Al Shabab now have displayed the capacity for operations of this type, complexity and scale. That Al Shabab’s leadership chose the Saleh Nabhan brigade is also interesting on another level. As the Somalia Newsroom points out, the two earlier high-profile attacks attributed to this unit, which is named after a Kenyan-Somali field operative killed by the United States in 2009, were both carried out abroad. They included the 2010 Kampala World Cup bombings and the December 2014 attacks on a Kenyan quarry, both claiming dozens of victims.
Kenyan soldiers stand in front of Al Shabab’s black flag painted on the wall of Kismayo Airport on Oct. 2, 2012. AMISOM photo
Choosing this unit to attack Kenyan troops of course carries a certain symbolism designed to appeal to potential supporters and recruits, as well as enemies, in Kenya rather than in Somalia. It highlights Al Shabab’s capacity to strike both at home and abroad despite being pushed out of most of its former urban strongholds.
And while Al Shabab continues to display internal cohesion and cooperation across individual units and factions, its enemies are still relatively divided. While the forces fighting Al Shabab have all come together under the mantle of AMISOM, actual cooperation on the ground remains nonexistent.
For Uganda and Burundi, engagement in AMISOM is primarily an exercise to garner prestige and profit from the generous compensation that soldiers receive courtesy of the African Union and its international donors. Kenya and Ethiopia, on the other hand, both have very particular interests linked to their presence in Somalia.
Ethiopia, whose forces control primarily the mutual border and a buffer zone within Somalia, still suffers from the trauma of the 1977 Ogaden war. Somali dictator Siad Barré, dreaming of the creation of a “Greater Somalia” started the invasion of Ethiopia to occupy the Ogaden territory which is mainly inhabited by ethnic Somali people.
Only the disapproval and subsequent change of allegiance of the Soviet Union, which provided massive quantities of military aid to Ethiopia, as well as 15,000 Cuban combat troops were able to turn the tide and force a complete withdrawal of Somali forces. A main objective of Ethiopian foreign policy has since been to undermine the formation of a strong central state in Somalia.
Kenya shares these priorities. Like Ethiopia it is home to a significant Somali minority. The Kenyan-Somali borderlands are essential real estate for Kenya’s development plans, as they are the logical route for a transport corridor running from South Sudan’s oil fields to a planned deepwater port on the Kenyan coast.
One of the main objectives of Kenya’s 2011 entry into the conflict was therefore the implementation of a buffer zone inside Somali territory. The presence of Kenyan troops and international pressure forced the Somali government to accept the establishment of an autonomous region, called Jubaland, along the Kenyan border.
Ironically, Kenya’s most important local ally and leader of Jubaland is Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed “Madobe” Islam, a former member of Al Shabab and warlord who later switched allegiances.
Madobe’s Ras Kamboni milita was essential to Kenya’s quick initial invasion of southern Somalia. The Kenyans handed Madobe control over the profitable coal and sugar exporting port of Kismayo and the presidentship for Jubaland as a thank you. But, as the attack of El Adde demonstrates, neither Kenya nor one of its local or international partners has made great strides in controlling the hinterlands and rural areas that Al Shabab freely uses to stage attacks.
AMISOM members have also shown little interest in curbing Al Shabab’s economic activities. On the contrary, Kenyan officers were accused of turning a blind eye on charcoal smuggling from the port of Kismayo, one of Al Shabab’s main revenue streams and were implicated in smuggling rings of their own.
Additional reporting and research for this story was provided by Hassan Mohammed, a Somali writer, freelance journalist and researcher.