Words: Africa Uncensored Team
Audio: Andrew Franklin, Security Analyst
Today marks six months since the Somali based militant group Al-Shabaab killed dozens of Kenyan Defense Forces troops. Striking at the crack of dawn, the militant group overran the camp and brutally massacred men in uniform who were mostly in their prime. It was said the attackers carried out an explosion at the gate and what followed was sustained gunfire. The mayhem lasted for hours and some of the KDF soldiers bled to death in the remote, parched hamlet of El-Adde.
As the Internet went abuzz with news of the assault, the security bosses back in Kenya gave a no indication of how many soldiers had met their death in El Adde. But as the sun illuminated the surroundings, residents of neighbouring villages reported dozens of dead bodies lying in the camp while the Al-Shabaab media wing posted a number of grisly photos as if to ‘validate’ the heinous act.
The undisclosed figure
The true number of fallen soldiers has been subjected to an avalanche of speculation and unverified theories. While the KDF and top Government officials remained mum and continue to do so, the Al-Shabaab and security analysts provided their own figures.
The militant group claimed it killed over 100 Kenyan troops in the morning attack. Weeks later, the group released video account showing how the group’s fighters stormed the base. In one clip, a KDF soldier is shot as he raised his head from the deck of an armoured tank. In another clip, a KDF soldier is summarily executed even though he was not armed at the time. The video further displays how the militants seized military hardware such as vehicles, weapons and ammunition. Andrew Franklin, a Kenya based security analyst and former U.S Marine, believes that the El-Adde attack was Al-Shabaab’s most successful assault on AMISOM troops to date.
“The concentration on numbers has obscured the fact that this was a major defeat. Al-Shabaab killed at least anywhere from 115-120. AMISOM has been strangely quiet. They (AMISOM) said nothing about why there were no reinforcements from any of the other AMISOM camps in Sector 2 or from the Ethiopians in Sector 3,” said Franklin from his office in Nairobi.
In an interview with a Somali TV station, Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud condemned the attack but estimated death toll at 200. The President would later retract his statement after the Kenyan authorities vigorously disputed the figure. Journalists and bloggers were warned against sharing the gory pictures that were circulating on social media networks, and save for a news article on American News Channel CNN which put the number of dead at 143, the conversations about EL Adde were tentative, betraying the kind of sensitivity around the issue within the KDF.
President Uhuru Kenyatta conveyed a message of condolence to the families and saluted the Kenyan troops who were killed in combat, saying they did not die in vain. Despite underlining Kenya’s, and AMISOM’s commitment to beating the Al-Shabaab, he too steered clear of any description of the scale destruction the terror group’s fighters left. Media houses have been left to report on funerals of soldiers who died in EL Adde as a means to putting a number, and perhaps some finality on the worst attack that Kenyan troops have suffered since they crossed into Somalia.
Miscommunication and lessons
Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) military tanks rolled into Somalia on the 16th of October 2011. The government at the time said it was doing this to curtail and end the attacks and kidnapping of foreign tourists inside its borders. The military operation code named “Operation Linda Nchi” loosely translated to mean “defend the country” opened the floodgates of a prolonged military mission. Kenyan troops joined the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) on the 22nd of February 2012 under United Nations Security Council Resolution 2036.
The reasons for Kenya’s crossing the border into Somalia have been challenged by critics of the operation, with doubts about the validity of claims that terror attacks in the country were imminent if Kenya didn’t pursue the Al Shabaab. However, 2011 itself would be a year in which kidnappings of tourists would lend weight to the push to go into Somalia.
There are four documented kidnappings on Kenya soil. In September 2011, an attack at a coastal beach resort left a Briton dead; the gunmen who were believed to be from Somalia also took hostage his wife. On the 1st of October 2011, Marie Dedieu, a 66- year old French woman was kidnapped in Lamu by men on a speedboat who took her towards Somalia. Two Spanish aid workers were also kidnapped from a refugee camp in Northern-Eastern Kenya.
The Government of Kenya blamed this on the militant group Al-Shabaab. Although the Military operation pushed the Al-Shabaab out of a number of towns in southern Somalia including its stronghold of Kismayo, the attacks on Kenyan soil escalated. Grenade and gun attacks were witnessed in Garissa, Mandera, Wajir, Lamu, Mombasa and Nairobi. The frequency of attacks has reduced since mid last year with the curtailing of Al-Shabaab operations inside Kenya and in Somalia. However, the El-Adde attack remains the worst against the Kenyan troops in recent years.
The gaps that made the El-Adde attack Possible:
The commander of the Somali troops in the Gedo region of Somalia where the attack occurred told the Voice Of America a few days later that the Kenyan unit commander was notified of a possible attack. Kenya on her part refuted this claim. Anecdotal evidence from residents of the El-Adde suggests that members of the militant group were seen in the vicinity prior to the attack.
“It’s extremely important to have accurate casualty counts to reinforce the notion that we have a modern military organization that can keep track of people and also that every one of the KDF soldiers lives matters equally. That’s very important but it is also very important to be able to say this will never be allowed to happen again and then explain what we are doing about making sure this never recurs,” says Andrew Franklin.
In a new report by Professor Paul D Williams of George Washington University, the El-Adde attack is largely attributable to operational challenges. Key among them is the fact that the KDF contingent that was attacked had only been in the camp for three weeks and therefore had not acclimatized to their new environment.
A poor working relationship between the KDF and SNA soldiers based at El-Adde is another problem Professor Williams addresses.
“It is not clear how much interaction occurred between SNA and KDF troops or, for example, whether liaison personnel were embedded in each others’ camp,” he says.
The expert also views poor configuration and design of the base as another hurdle the soldiers encountered. He says the El-Adde base is nearly a kilometer long and kilometer wide and hence “too big for a company-plus formation to defend.”
There are more than 3000 Kenyan troops in Somalia. It is still unclear how many Kenyan soldiers died in the El-Adde attack and whether any lessons have been learnt from this tragedy.