NAIROBI – Al-Shabab militants launched a predawn attack Sunday on an airstrip used by U.S. and Kenyan militaries, located on Kenya’s coast near the border with Somalia, killing one U.S. service member and two American private contractors, according to a U.S. military statement.
Two other American contractors were wounded and were in stable condition, the statement said.
The attack marked a rare successful incursion by al-Shabab into a foreign military compound, let alone one outside its usual operating grounds in Somalia and one used by U.S. Special Forces and other defense personnel.
Residents and tourists in the Lamu region reported seeing a plume of smoke and hearing gunfire at 3:30 a.m. that continued until midmorning. It was unclear exactly how the attack unfolded, but pictures of the aftermath indicated that al-Shabab was able to detonate explosives where U.S. military equipment such as helicopters and other aircraft would have been stationed.
The U.S. military statement said reports indicated damage to six “contractor-operated civilian aircraft.”
U.S. forces train Kenyan soldiers at a base attached to the airstrip, known as Camp Simba, and use the airstrip for aerial missions against al-Shabab in Somalia. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) had said in an earlier statement that the attack had been repelled, with the cooperation of Kenyan forces. It was unclear whether there were any Kenyan casualties.
Kenyan Defence Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Njuguna said the bodies of five attackers were found.
Al-Shabab said it had inflicted “severe casualties” on both American and Kenyan forces and confirmed it had destroyed U.S. aircraft and vehicles.
In the U.S. statement, Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of AFRICOM, said that the United States would, along with its African and international partners, pursue the perpetrators of the attack.
“We remain committed to preventing al-Shabaab from maintaining a safe haven to plan deadly attacks,” he said.
Al-Shabab, which is affiliated with al-Qaida, has mounted a string of attacks in Kenya recently, including ambushes on passenger buses traveling in the region close to the Somali border. On Dec. 28, the group bombed a busy intersection in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, killing at least 80 people. Almost a year ago, al-Shabab staged its most daring attack on Kenyan soil in half a decade when gunmen stormed a luxury hotel and office complex in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, holding it in a 20-hour siege in which at least 21 civilians were killed.
Al-Shabab controls most of rural southern and central Somalia and regularly attacks Mogadishu. The group seeks to impose a strict version of Islamist law and to expel foreign troops from the country. In addition to about 500 U.S. personnel in Somalia, the African Union sponsors a coalition of about 20,000 troops, mostly from Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.
The group gets most of its funding from an extensive protection racket that functions like a parallel taxation system throughout the country. It is paid tens of millions of dollars a year by farmers, business owners and others who are threatened with death if they don’t pay up.
The U.S. military has led a largely aerial campaign against al-Shabab for the better part of the past decade. In 2017, President Donald Trump loosened the U.S. military’s rules of engagement in Somalia, allowing for greater offensive use of force. Since then, the U.S. military has ramped up drone strikes and carried out a record 63 strikes in 2019, in which it claims to have killed hundreds of al-Shabab fighters.
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Rael Ombuor in Nairobi contributed to this report.