Al Shabaab Raid on Manda Bay – January 2020

On January 5, 2020 militants from al-Shabaab attacked the U.S. airfield and base at Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya. Three Americans died in the attack. In addition, several aircraft were destroyed or damaged to include U.S. special operations aircraft. Two other Americans were wounded in the attack.

Despite losing fighters – estimated at five – in the attack, the insurgents likely consider this raid on Manda Bay a significant victory. Al Qaeda linked groups have been using social media to capitalize on the Manda Bay attack by Al Shabaab. Posters have been released in several languages congratulating the attackers of the Manda Bay raid.

A Successful Raid

Most press accounts reflect the prevailing view that this was a very successful attack by the terrorist group. On January 6, 2020 AFRICOM acknowledged that “the enemy achieved a degree of success in its attack.” The attackers took advantage of a fairly undefended base perimeter. The small base had been considered an ‘out of the way’ installation that seemed to not be at risk of attack. [1]

The attack began early on a Sunday morning on January 5th when it was still dark. Al-Shabaab fired mortar rounds onto Camp Simba while attacking the nearby airfield. Al Shabaab forces operate in some of Kenya’s dense forests just miles away from the base. However U.S. defense officials believe the attacking force originated from within Somalia’s borders. There are also indications that the attackers were supported by a component inside of Kenya. The size of the attacking force is not known – but it probably was in the range of 15 to 30 personnel. The attackers would have to transit over 50 to 70 miles once across the Somalia border to reach Camp Simba.

Americans Killed. Army Specialist Henry Mayfield Jr. and two U.S. Department of Defense contractors died in the attack. Two other defense contractors were injured. Specialist Mayfield, age 23, was working as an air traffic controller from a truck on the airfield. He was assigned to the 58th Aviation Regiment based at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Mayfield was deployed in support of Operation Octave Shield. Dustin Harrison and Bruce Triplett were private pilots for L3 Technologies. They were killed when their aircraft was hit with a rocket as it was taxiing on the runway.

One of the aircraft destroyed at Manda Bay Airfield
(Photo credit al Shabaab, January 5, 2020 – screen grab Twitter).

Aircraft Destroyed. Six contractor-operated aircraft were destroyed in the attack. A few were highly sophisticated surveillance aircraft used by the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). One of the destroyed aircraft include a modified Havilland Canada Dash-8. The Dash-8 is believed to be equipped with wide-area sensors to carry out surveillance missions in support of SOF units. Some news reports indicate that one of the other destroyed aircraft was a MC12W used for ISR missions in support of SOF. Two or three helicopters are reported to be destroyed. One news report indicated the value of the equipment and aircraft destroyed is believed to be above $20 million. [2]

Where is Manda Bay?

Camp Simba is a very small outpost about a mile away from the Manda Bay Airfield. It is situated on the Kenya coast and near the Somali border. The camp and airfield are located on the Kenya Defense Military Base at Manda Bay. The small complex was established in 2004 as the United States established regional staging areas to combat terrorism around the world. If you do a check on the Internet you will find two airfields. One associated with Camp Simba and the other – just to the south – handles commercial and civilian air traffic.

Why is the U.S. at Manda Bay?

The U.S. military is in Kenya training the country’s military and conducting counterterrorism operations in the region. The U.S. is also assisting the Kenyan security forces in the fight against al-Shabaab. Camp Simba and the Manda Bay Airfield are used as a base and staging area for U.S. surveillance aircraft and for U.S. SOF working alongside Kenya security forces in the porous border area between Kenya and Somalia to the north. It is also a staging point for operations into Somalia.

Members of the 475th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron conduct a flag-raising
ceremony, signifying the change from tactical to enduring operations,
at Camp Simba, Manda Bay, Kenya.
(Photo by SSgt Lexie West, USAF, August 26, 2019.)

There are a variety of training courses conducted at the Manda Bay complex. These include anti-piracy, human trafficking, explosive detonation, vessel boarding, and search and seizure. At first the US part of the camp was extremely small but in 2012 it was upgraded considerably with new facilities. [3]

For many years the base was relatively quiet with a small maritime training mission in place. There were at times no more than a dozen U.S military personnel with some DOD contractors. With the growth of the U.S. involvement in the fight against al Shabaab in Somalia, Manda Bay has increased in size. In 2017 the small camp started a base operating support-integrator (BOS-I) mission. Training, medical, and administrative support is provided to Kenya partner forces – Kenyan Rangers, law enforcement organizations, and the Kenyan Navy. [4]

A U.S. Air Force C-130J Super Hercules lands at Camp Simba, Kenya on August 26, 2019.
The aircraft was transporting cargo and personnel. (USAF photo by SSgt Devin Boyer).

One of the units based at Manda Bay Airfield is the 475th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron. The airfield serves as a launching location for air operations in the region – including Somalia. There are about 350 Defense Department personnel in Kenya at various locations.

U.S. Unprepared for Attack

Several news accounts stated that the base was lightly defended and unprepared for an attack. There very likely was a reliance on Kenyan security forces to provide overall security.

“I think it’s self-obvious we were not as prepared there at Manda Bay as we needed to be. Al-Shabab managed to penetrate onto that airfield . . . They were able to get access to that airfield, kill three Americans, and destroy six aircraft there. So we weren’t as prepared, and we’re digging into that to find out why that’s the case.”

General Townsend, Commander of AFRICOM, January 30, 2020 while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

U.S Reaction to Attack

Initial Response. A Marine special operations team of about a dozen Marines located in Camp Simba responded to the airfield attack alongside some Kenyan Rangers. Al-Shabaab suffered at least five fatalities in the attack. At least one Marine Raider was injured in the fighting. The responding Marines were from the 3rd Marine Raider Battalion based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. An AFRICOM statement said “. . . a timely and effective response to the attack reduced the number of casualties and eliminated the potential for further damage.” MARSOC has been sending Marine Raiders to Kenya on Foreign Internal Defense (FID) missions to train up the Kenyan Rangers for a number of years.

Additional Reinforcements – EARF. The Manda Bay facilities were quickly reinforced with U.S. troops. The responding unit were members of the U.S. Africa Command’s East Africa Response Force (EARF). They were deployed to the Manda Bay Airfield to augment security. Currently the EARF are comprised of soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. They were transported to Manda Bay via a C-130J Super Hercules assigned to the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron on January 5, 2020. It is unknown how long these additional forces will remain at Manda Bay. A small Special Forces contingent arrived at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti as well. There are no details on the composition of this element at this time.

EARF Mission. The mission of the EARF, a company-sized element, is to protect U.S. citizens, diplomatic locations, and conduct other missions as appropriate. They are a combat-ready, rapid deployment force. While in theater they operate out of Djibouti under the control of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (HOA).

Senior Commanders Visit. Senior U.S. Africa Command officials visited the Manda Bay Airfield and Camp Simba on January 9, 2020 to meet with troops and commanders on the ground about details of the attack by al-Shabaab. One of those was Major General Michael Turello – the commander of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). Turello is a long-time Special Forces officer with previous deployments to the Horn of Africa. [5]

New Security Measures in Place. About 120 American infantrymen were securing the Camp Simba and Manda Bay Airfield area in the period immediately after the attack. Efforts are being made to upgrade the defense posture to ensure the small base can be properly defended. This will likely include additional troops to guard the two facilities (airfield and camp) and to patrol the immediate area. Patrols would likely be joint with units of the Kenyan security forces.

MG Mike Turello, commander of CJTF-HOA, participates in a handover ceremony
of six MD-530F Cayuse Warrior helicopters at a ceremony at Embakasi Barracks,
Kenya on January 23, 2020. (Photo by USAF Tech. Sgt. Ashley Nicole Taylor).

MD-530F Helicopters for Kenya. On January 23, 2020 – just days after the January 5 raid on Manda Bay – the United States delivered six Cayuse Warrior helicopters to Kenya security forces. Another six MD-530Fs are programmed for delivery in the future. The MD-530F’s will replace aging MD-500 utility helicopters currently in use. The small, agile attack helicopters carry machine gun pods, M260 rocket launchers, and other armament. The helicopters are ideal for scouting, reconnaissance, attack, and close air support for Kenya Defense Force ground operations. The U.S. has provided a number of MD-530F helicopters to the Afghan Air Force. The delivery of the helicopters are very likely not related to the Manda Bay raid and had been a long time in the planning process. [6]

US-Funded JTTF. Kenya has been chosen as the site for the first US-funded Joint Terrorism Task Force that will be located outside of the United States. Kenyan investigators will attend a 12-week intensive counter-terrorism course at the U.S. FBI Academy. They will form the nucleus of Kenya’s JTTF. The assistance provided is in response to the growing threat to Kenya posed by al Shabaab. [7]

Impact of the Raid

Immediate Impact. The successful raid by al-Shabaab will have some consequences. Of course the most important impact will be on the families of the three Americans who lost their lives. An immediate result of the raid will be the diversion of time and energy of some of the Americans based at Camp Simba and the Manda Bay Airfield from their normal responsibilities and duties to that of base defense and force protection. In addition, the complex will need to be augmented with additional personnel taken from their jobs somewhere else (Europe, Camp Lemonier, etc.) to heighten the security posture.

Strategic Impact. This raid took place at a time that the Department of Defense is attempting to reduce the number U.S. personnel based in the AFRICOM area of responsibility. The raid also points out the vulnerability of small bases from which U.S. SOF and conventional personnel are conducting training with partner mission forces and counterterrorism missions. While DOD is likely focused on cutting back its engagement in West Africa; there is the possibility that the mission in the Horn of Africa could also be downsized.

Future Prospects for Manda Bay?

Ugrading Security. AFRICOM, CJTF-HOA, and SOCAfrica are all very likely reviewing their force prevention plans, quick reaction force posture, MEDEVAC procedures, and personnel recovery plans. It is likely that some locations where training is conducted or CT missions supported from in Africa will be eliminated due to force protection concerns.

U.S. Will Remain in Manda Bay. The importance of Manda Bay cannot be overstated. The base is small, far from a U.S. military facility, and a long way from PR assets. However, it is an important base for the training of Kenya ground and maritime units. In addition, it is a staging base for mounting a variety of counterterrorism missions against al-Shabaab in the region. Camp Simba and the associated airfield will likely be reinforced with security personnel and the security and force protection posture will be significantly increased.

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Footnotes:

[1] An article by Katie Bo Williams provides more information about the lightly defended perimeter of the Manda Bay Airfield in “Kenya Base ‘Surprisingly’ Undefended During Attack, US Officials Say”, Defense One, January 29, 2020.

[2] For a detailed analysis of aircraft destroyed read an article published in The Aviationist.

[3] Read more in “US Military Base at Camp Simba Bay in Lamu”, Kenyans.co.ke, January 15, 2020.

[4] See “The U.S.’s overlooked counter-terrorism outpost in Kenya”, Conflict Geographies, November 29, 2016.

[5] “Senior U.S. Africa Command Officials Visit Troops at Manda Bay”, United States Africa Command, January 9, 2020.

[6] See “United States delivers MD-530F helicopters to Kenya Defense Force“, CJTF-HOA, January 23, 2020.

[7] See “Kenya, FBI partner on first anti-terror task force outside US”, The East African, February 11, 2020.

References:

[1] Camp Simba Attack, Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_Simba_attack

[2] Al Shabaab, Congressional Research Service (CRS), January 16, 2020.
https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10170

[3] “Between Blackhawk Down and Simba”, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, January 12, 2020.

[4] “U.S. Using Local Soldiers to Fight al-Qaida Allies in East Africa”, NTI, March 11, 2013.

Photo: EARF lands at Manda Bay Airfield following al-Shabaab attack in January 2020. Photo by USAF January 6, 2020.


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