Three Americans were killed as U.S. 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.
Kenyan 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.
According to a statement issued late Sunday by the U.S. Africa Command, there were three American fatalities — one service member and two Defense Department contractors — in the attack, which “involved indirect and small arms fire.”
The statement said that “reports indicate that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft were damaged to some degree.”
“Kenya Defense Forces and U.S. Africa Command repelled the al-Shabab attack,” it said.
In an earlier statement, U.S. military officials disputed claims made about the assault by al-Shabab, which asserted online that there were more than a dozen U.S. “casualties,” cautioning that “Al-Shabab has put out multiple press releases exaggerating the security situation on the ground.”
“Al-Shabab 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 that 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.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel strongly condemned the al-Shabab attack, saying it showed the group’s “clear intent to continue targeting the United States’ presence in the region.”
“The United States continues to stand in strong partnership with Kenya,” the New York Democrat said in a statement.
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 about 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 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 and Lauren Meier contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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