NAIROBI, Kenya -- Al-Shabab extremists on Sunday overran a key military base used by American counterterrorism forces in Kenya, killing three U.S. Defense Department personnel and damaging or destroying several U.S. aircraft and vehicles before they were repelled, U.S. and Kenyan authorities said.
The predawn attack on the Manda Bay Airfield was the al-Qaida-linked group's first against U.S. forces in the East African country, and the military called the security situation "fluid" several hours after the assault.
Five attackers were killed, Kenyan military spokesman Paul Njuguna said.
Al-Shabab, based in neighboring Somalia, claimed responsibility for the assault.
One U.S. serviceman and two contractors with the U.S. Defense Department were killed in the fighting, according to a statement issued late Sunday by the U.S. Africa Command.
Two other American contractors were wounded and were in stable condition, the statement said.
The attack on the compound "involved indirect and small arms fire. After an initial penetration of the perimeter, Kenya Defense Forces and U.S. Africa Command repelled the [al-Shabab] attack," said the U.S. Africa Command statement. "Reports indicate that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft were damaged to some degree. Manda Bay Airfield is utilized by U.S. forces whose missions include providing training to our African partners, responding to crises, and protecting U.S. interests in this strategically important area."
In the statement, Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, 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-Shabab] from maintaining a safe haven to plan deadly attacks," he said.
Al-Shabab claimed that there were 17 U.S. casualties, nine Kenyan soldiers killed and seven aircraft destroyed. The U.S. Africa Command dismissed the al-Shabab claims as exaggerated and said U.S. and Kenyan forces repelled the attack.
Kenya is a key base for fighting al-Shabab, one of the world's most resilient extremist organizations. A large plume of black smoke rose above the airfield Sunday and residents said a car bomb had exploded. Lamu County Commissioner Irungu Macharia told The Associated Press that five suspects were arrested and were being interrogated.
An internal Kenyan police report seen by the AP 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 at the military airstrip. The report said explosions were heard about 5:30 a.m. local time from the direction of the airstrip.
The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority said the airstrip was closed for all operations.
The military's Camp Simba in Lamu County, established more than a decade ago, has under 100 U.S. personnel, according to Pentagon figures. U.S. forces at the adjoining Manda Bay Airfield train and give counterterrorism support to East African partners. 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.
According to another internal Kenyan police report seen by the AP, dated Friday, a villager that day said he had spotted 11 suspected al-Shabab members entering Lamu's Boni forest, which the extremists have used as a hideout. The report said Kenyan authorities didn't find them.
Al-Shabab has launched a number of attacks inside Kenya, including against civilian buses, schools and shopping malls. The group has been the target of a growing number of U.S. airstrikes inside Somalia during President Donald Trump's administration.
The latest attack comes just over a week after an al-Shabab truck bomb in Somalia's capital killed at least 79 people and U.S. airstrikes killed seven al-Shabab fighters in response.
Last year, al-Shabab attacked a U.S. military base inside Somalia, Baledogle, that is used to launch drone strikes but the extremists reportedly failed to make their way inside. The extremist group also has carried out multiple attacks against Kenyan troops in the past in retaliation for Kenya sending troops to Somalia to fight it.
This attack marks a significant escalation of al-Shabab's campaign inside Kenya, said analyst Andrew Franklin, a former U.S. Marine and longtime Kenya resident.
"Launching a deliberate assault of this type against a well-defended permanent base occupied by [Kenya Defense Forces], contractors and U.S. military personnel required a great deal of planning, rehearsals, logistics and operational capability," he said. Previous attacks against security forces have mainly been ambushes on Kenyan army or police patrols.
IRANIAN LINK MULLED
The Sunday attack came days after a U.S. airstrike killed Iran's top military commander and Iran vowed retaliation, but al-Shabab is a Sunni Muslim group and there is no sign of links to Shiite Iran or proxies.
"No, this attack was no way related to that incident" in the Middle East, an al-Shabab spokesman told the AP on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
One analyst, Rashid Abdi, in Twitter posts discussing the attack, agreed, but added that Kenyan security services have long been worried that Iran was trying to cultivate ties with al-Shabab.
"Avowedly Wahhabist [al-Shabab] not natural ally of Shia Iran, hostile, even. But if Kenyan claims true, [al-Shabab] attack may have been well-timed to signal to Iran it is open for tactical alliances," he wrote.
But a former member of the U.N. committee monitoring sanctions on Somalia, Jay Bahadur, said in a tweet that "the attack is far more related to [al-Shabab] wanting a do over on their spectacular failure at Baledogle four months ago."
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-Qaida, has their own agenda and have made clear their desire to attack U.S. interests."
The al-Shabab claim of responsibility said Sunday's attack was part of its "Jerusalem will never be Judaized" campaign, a rarely made reference that also was used after al-Shabab's deadly attack on a luxury mall complex in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, in January 2019.
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 the group.
Information for this article was contributed by Abdi Guled, Tom Odula and Cara Anna of The Associated Press; and by Max Bearak and Rael Ombuor of The Washington Post.
A Section on 01/06/2020
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