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Hiding in the Grass: Fear and Confusion as Fighters Overran a U.S. Airfield

By Thomas Gibbons-NeffEric SchmittCharlie Savage and Helene Cooper

WASHINGTON — Armed with rifles and explosives, about a dozen Shabab fighters destroyed an American surveillance plane as it was taking off and ignited an hours long gunfight earlier this month on a sprawling military base in Kenya that houses United States troops. By the time the Shabab were done, portions of the airfield were burning and three Americans were dead.

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 brazen assault at Manda Bay, a sleepy seaside base near the Somali border, on Jan. 5, was largely overshadowed by the crisis with Iran after the killing of that country’s most important general two days earlier, and is only now drawing closer scrutiny from Congress and Pentagon officials.

But the storming of an airfield used by the American military so alarmed the Pentagon that it immediately sent about 100 troops from the 101st Airborne Division to establish security at the base. Army Green Berets from Germany also were shuttled to Djibouti, the Pentagon’s major hub in Africa, in case the entire base was in danger of being taken by the Shabab, an East African terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda.

“The assault represented a serious security lapse given how much of a target the base was and its location near the border with Somalia,” said Murithi Mutiga, the International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa project director, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Many details of the attack remain murky, and the military’s Africa Command has released only scant particulars pending an investigation. But the deaths of the three Americans — one Army soldier and two Pentagon contractors — marked the largest number of United States military-related fatalities in Africa since four soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger in October 2017. The Kenya attack underscores the American military’s limits on the continent, where a lack of intelligence, along with Manda Bay’s reputation as a quiet and unchallenged locale, allowed a lethal attack.

The deaths also signify a grim expansion of the campaign waged by the United States against the Shabab — often confined to Somalia, but in this case spilling over into Kenya despite an escalating American air campaign in the region. Kenya is a new addition to the list of countries where Americans have been killed in combat since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, joining Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

The attack is raising new and complex questions about the enduring American military mission on the continent, where more than 5,000 troops now serve, especially as the Pentagon weighs the potential withdrawal of hundreds of forces from West Africa to better counter threats from Russia and China. A Pentagon proposal to reduce the American military footprint in Africa drew sharp criticism last week from senior lawmakers of both parties, including Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is a close adviser to President Trump.

This article is based on interviews with a dozen American military officials or other people who have been briefed on the attack. Several spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss aspects of a security failure that is now under investigation.

Early on the morning of Jan. 5, Dustin Harrison, 47, and Bruce Triplett, 64, two experienced pilots and contractors with L3 Technologies, a Pentagon contractor that helps conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions around the world, were taxiing their Beechcraft King Air 350 on Manda Bay’s tarmac. They throttled down their engines, according to one person familiar with the attack. The two men reported that they saw animals darting across the runway.

American forces at Manda Bay in 2004. Special Operations units — including Green Berets, Navy SEALs and, more recently, Marine commandos — have helped train and advise Kenyan Rangers there.Credit…Simon Maina/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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 Shabab fighters were not done. In the ensuing chaos, they made quick work of a significant portion of the American fleet of aircraft — a mix of six surveillance aircraft and medical evacuation helicopters on the ground at the time. The Shabab fighters also destroyed a fuel storage area, rendering the airfield next to useless. The attack most likely cost the Pentagon millions of dollars in damages.

Specialist Henry Mayfield Jr., 23, of the Army was in a nearby truck acting as an air traffic controller when he was killed in the gunfight, according to a person familiar with the incident. His colleague inside the truck, another American, escaped and hid in the grass to avoid the insurgents. He was found hours later.

Manda Bay is at the southern edge of an archipelago of American outposts used in the fight against the Shabab in East Africa. It took about eight hours to fly the burned contractor to Djibouti for hospital-level care, according to the person familiar with the attack, underscoring a recurring vulnerability for American personnel spread across the continent. Two American service members were also wounded in the attack.

While parts of the airfield burned and some Americans who were there returned fire, roughly a dozen members of a Marine Special Operations team from Third Marine Raider Battalion based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., led the American counterattack, alongside several of the Kenyan Rangers they had been training and accompanying during their deployment. But since the team was at Camp Simba, an American enclave roughly a mile from the airfield, the insurgents had ample time to disperse.

Read more: Hiding in the Grass: Fear and Confusion as Fighters Overran a U.S. Airfield

Source: New York Times


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