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How complacency aided Al-Shabaab attack on US military base in Lamu

It was at dawn – 5.20am to be exact – on January, 5, 2020. The cool Indian Ocean breeze and the quietness of Camp Simba had been disrupted by the deafening crack of thunder from shadowy figures.

Camp Simba was thought to be the safest place in Kenya’s Manda Bay. It was not. On this Sunday morning, it was under a daring attack from Al-Shabaab fighters, who despite the mayhem they have caused over the years, have never been listed as a terrorist organisation under Security Council Resolution 1267 – thanks to push back by aid groups and foreign diplomats who worry that doing so could cripple humanitarian aid deliveries to Somalia.

While details of what happened have been dropping in trickles, the US Department of the Army has, finally, released the unclassified report on what happened in Manda that dawn when the base was overrun by 30 to 40 of the Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.

Before they were driven away, they had left Sh7 billion damage, especially at the unsecured airport where six US and one Kenya aircraft were destroyed.

While questions had been raised why the airport was unfenced, it is now apparent that while they were digging, to erect a concertina wire fence, they encountered archaeological artefacts and possible sites. So they stopped the project on December 26, 2019 awaiting further instructions. But that was not the only reason – Manda Bay was a sitting duck.

Located near the Kenyan coast, Camp Simba is described as a “base within a base” and this is where the US forces in Kenya are housed and work. There are two other facilities within the vicinity – the Kenya Naval Base Manda Bay and the Magagoni Airfield, located 1.6 kilometres south of Camp Simba and which is jointly used by the US and the Kenya Air Force.

At first, according to the report, the Al-Shabaab terrorists “began the attack by fixing Camp Simba with indirect fire, while near simultaneously concentrating a ground attack on the airfield.”

Henry “Mitch” Mayfield, 23, was on duty that morning when his truck was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). A member of ‘Operation Octave Shield’, the name for the mission based at Manda Bay and which targets militant groups in Somalia, Mayfield was with two Department of Defense (DoD) contractors when the camp was attacked with mortars and small arms fire. His mother, Carmoneta Horton-Mayfield, was always worried about his son going to Somalia.

“We discussed him not having to go to Somalia and he told me everything was good and safe at his base,” she later told NBC 5 in Chicago. “He told me everything would be okay. Those were his last words to me.”

It was the first time that the Al-Shabaab had attacked US forces inside Kenya and at the staging point for their operations into Somalia.

During his burial at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Chicago, the Northern Illinois University graduate was described as a cool person. “Everybody was cool with him,” said his classmate Gregory Hoy. “And he was cool with everybody.”

Camp Simba is home to the 475th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron (EABS), which raised its flag at Manda Bay on August 26, 2019 to “symbolise the permanency of our mission and our dedication to our partners” – according to Lt. Col. Cody Smith, 475th EABS commander, in a public statement.

At the Manda camp, they train the Kenyan soldiers “who are out on the frontlines” and provide administrative, medical and law enforcement training to the Kenyan navy.

“By having that symbol flying every day on the camp, it provides a rallying point. It’s a constant reminder of your sacrifice and why you’re here,” said Cody Smith after the flag went upon August 26, 2019.

Four months later, the Al-Shabaab knocked in.

Dustin Harrison, a pilot and private military contractor, and Bruce Triplett, 64, another private military contractor, were taxing for take-off when their plane was hit – perhaps with a mortar and it went up in flames. An employee of L3 Technologies, the US media reported, that Harrison was seven days away from calling it quits after doing a series of aerial survey jobs in his twin-engine Beechcraft King Air 350 equipped with cameras and sensors. After working in Afghanistan and Kenya, he had hoped to join his family.

“He was ISR — intelligencer, surveillance and reconnaissance,” his wife, Hope Harrison, was quoted saying – but bitter that contractors are not fully recognised. The US military normally contracts some security tasks to civilians for a growing multi-billion dollar military industry.

Bruce Triplett, also a contractor with the U.S. Navy and with a degree in Nuclear Engineering Technology, was with co-pilot Dustin Harrison that morning when their plane was hit. At 64, he was mourned as “an adventurous spirit” with immense “love of motorcycles, sky diving, hang gliding, scuba diving, and skiing.”

For 20 minutes, the investigation report says, the Al-Shabaab were not challenged and continued to rain mortals and shoot.

Still under attack, “a small team of US Marines…manoeuvred south from Camp Simba and made initial contact to assess the situation. Over the course of the ensuing several hours, a combined ad hoc formation of US Marines, US Airmen, and Kenyan armed forces conducted a deliberate counter-attack to repel the Al-Shabaab fighters.”

For the next nine hours, the new report says – the battle for Manda Island raged and finally, they were able to kill eight attackers and drive the remaining from the airfield. That evening, more troops were sent from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, to reinforce the Manda Camp. Djibouti hosts the USAFRICOM East Africa Response Force (EARF), the only dedicated response force on the continent and commanded by the Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa – well-known by the acronym CJTF-HOA – which was created by President George W. Bush to safeguard the US interests in Africa.

While the initial investigation into the attack was completed a year ago by US Africa Command, another investigation was ordered last April by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, which was led by Gen Paul Funk, commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command.

Ever since it was established as a base for US military, Manda Bay feigned safety. But after becoming a full-time airfield in 2016 and with increased personnel, aircraft and other sensitive operation, the reports say that the military never adjusted to the expanded use.

“As accurately discussed in the initial investigation, the fundamental issues in the outcome of the attack were complacency, poor decision-making, and lack of oversight which contributed to insufficient force protection at Magagoni Airfield. This made the airfield a vulnerable target,” concludes the report. The airfield had “no fence or barrier around the perimeter”.

Other factors highlighted by the DoD is that there was lack of discipline, standards, leadership decisions and lack of rehearsals. These are highlighted as “the most significant contributing factors to the results of this attack”.

On the day of the attack, according to the report, Manda was designated Force Protection Condition – Charlie – which in the military circles meant that an imminent terrorist was possible. While Kenya “had been at FPCON C since 2017 and Manda Bay had not been attacked in 16 years, also informs judgement on the reasonableness of the operations at Manda Bay,” says the redacted report. It reasons that “prolonged implementation of measures in this FPCON may create hardships and affect the activities of the unit and its personnel.”

“I concur with the initial investigation’s finding that while Camp Simba was reasonably well-defended, the protection measures at Magagoni Airfield were neither reasonable nor appropriate based on the FPCON level and threat information available to leaders at echelon prior to the attack, nor were they appropriate based on the air assets on the airfield at the time of the attack,” says the report.

The investigation also found that the relevant threat information was “not provided to the leaders responsible for force protection at Manda Bay. This reflects a flaw in the intelligence architecture which was in place at (Camp Simba) Manda Bay. The result of this flaw was that the relevant threat information was not provided to the commander (EABS), to allow her the opportunity for consideration of the sufficiency of the force protection plan in place”.

Thus, Manda Bay operated under a false sense of security since it had not been attacked for 16 years “and its personnel were generally authorised passes into the village and a nearby beach. While I concur that complacency was one factor, it was neither the sole factor nor the most material factor in considering the threat picture.”

While the report said that the security forces on that day “failed to respond appropriately” , it adds that a “culture of complacency permeated every echelon for several years”. The names of the personnel who were negligent in their duties are redacted.

But the much bigger issue is that there has been persistent failure to list Al-Shabaab as a terrorist organisation – and deal with it at that level. Kenyan diplomats have been pushing for that and, frustratingly so, with little success. The US should learn from Manda.     BY DAILY NATION    

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