- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2020

American and Kenyan military forces repelled an al-Shabab terrorist group attack Sunday at a key base in Kenya that U.S. officials use to provide counterterrorism support for East African partners, the Pentagon said.

Local officials in Kenya said several U.S. aircraft, including two helicopters and other vehicles stationed at the base, were destroyed in the attack, but it was unclear Sunday if any Americans or Kenyans were killed.

Officials said at least five attackers from al-Shabab — an al Qaeda-linked group operating out of neighboring Somalia — died in the assault on Kenya’s Manda Bay Airfield.

U.S. officials acknowledged the attack, but the Pentagon disputed claims made about the assault by al-Shabab, which asserted online that there were more than a dozen U.S. “casualties.”

A statement by U.S. Africa Command said an assessment of damage and casualties remained underway late Sunday and cautioned that “Al-Shabaab has put out multiple press releases exaggerating the security situation on the ground.”

“Al-Shabaab resorts to lies, coercion, and the exertion of force to bolster their reputation to create false headlines,” said Army Maj. Gen. William Gayler, U.S. Africa Command director of operations, in the statement. “It is important to counter al-Shabab where they stand to prevent the spread of this cancer.”

There was little immediate reaction Sunday from Trump administration officials in Washington, although analysts noted the assault marked the first time that al-Shabab terrorists had carried out an attack against U.S. forces in the East African country.

The U.S. Africa Command statement said American and Kenyan forces “repelled the attack,” but described the security situation as “fluid.”

“Al-Shabaab is a brutal terrorist organization,” Gen. Gayler said. “It is an al Qaeda affiliate seeking to establish a self-governed Islamic territory in East Africa, to remove Western influence and ideals from the region, and to further its jihadist agenda. U.S. presence in Africa is critically important to counterterrorism efforts.”

Sunday’s attack came roughly a week after the U.S. military had launched an airstrike against al-Shabab targets in Somalia in response to a massive truck bombing by the terrorist group that killed more than 80 people in Mogadishu.

The Pentagon does not reveal the location from where U.S. airstrikes against al-Shabab are launched. But officials say a key contingent of American counterterrorism forces are operating from within Kenya.

The U.S. military’s Camp Simba, which is adjoined to Manda Bay Airfield, was established more than a decade ago and has under 100 U.S. personnel, according to Pentagon figures. A U.S. flag-raising at the camp in August signaled its change “from tactical to enduring operations,” the Air Force said at the time.

The Associated Press noted Sunday that Kenya is a key base for fighting al-Shabab.

The latest developments underscore challenges facing the Trump administration, which has inherited a decades-old U.S. counterterrorism war against al-Shabab. Analysts say the terrorist group controls roughly 20% of Somalian territory and boasts at least 5,000 trained fighters.

The U.S. has waged an intensive air campaign against the group for years and conducted dozens of airstrikes in Somalia during 2019 against al-Shabab, as well as Islamic State-affiliated targets in the country, according to Pentagon figures.

But al-Shabab continues to have the capability to carry out car bombings and other assaults.

In claiming responsibility for Sunday’s attack inside Kenya, al-Shabab said in a statement circulated online that there were 17 U.S. “casualties,” nine Kenyan soldiers killed and seven aircraft destroyed at Manda Bay Airfield.

A large plume of black smoke rose above the airfield Sunday and residents said a car bomb had exploded. A local Kenyan county commissioner told The Associated Press that five suspects had been arrested and were being interrogated.

An internal Kenyan police report seen by the news agency said two fixed-wing aircraft, a U.S. Cessna and a Kenyan one, were destroyed along with two U.S. helicopters and multiple U.S. vehicles.

The report said explosions were heard at around 5:30 a.m. Sunday from the direction of the airfield. It said al Shabaab terrorists likely entered the airfield “to conduct targeted attacks.”

The attack came days after a U.S. airstrike killed Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iran has vowed retaliation, but al-Shabab is a Sunni Muslim group and there is no sign of links to Shiite Iran or its proxies.

An al-Shabab spokesman told AP on condition of anonymity that Sunday’s attack was in “no way related” the U.S. strike that killed Soleimani in Iraq last week.

One analyst, Rashid Abdi, tweeting about the attack agreed, but added that Kenyan security services have long been worried that Iran was trying to cultivate ties with al-Shabab.

When asked whether the U.S. military was looking into any Iranian link to the attack, U.S. Africa Command spokesman Col. Christopher Karns said only that “al-Shabab, affiliated with al Qaeda, has their own agenda and have made clear their desire to attack U.S. interests.”

⦁ Ben Wolfgang contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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