Somalia’s al Shabaab terrorist group early on Sunday attacked a military base in Kenya used by both US and Kenyan forces and published pictures of masked gunmen standing next to an aircraft in flames.
US Africa Command confirmed the attack on the Manda Bay Airstrip in Lamu County, which is close to the Somalia border. The Kenyan military said the attack had been repelled and that four attackers had been killed.
Three Americans – one US military servicemember and two contractors – were killed during an attack, the US military said.
The military’s Africa Command confirmed the deaths and said two other Americans who work for the US Department of Defence were also wounded.
“The wounded Americans are currently in stable condition and being evacuated,” Africa Command (Africom) said in a statement.
The attack presents another crisis for Washington just as the Pentagon grapples with a rapidly escalating standoff with Iran following a Friday US drone strike in Baghdad that killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani.
Tehran and Washington have traded threats and counter-threats following the strike, stoking fears of open conflict.
The assault by al Shabaab, which has been fighting for more than a decade to overthrow the Somali government and impose strict Islamic law, began before dawn and lasted around four hours, witnesses and military sources told Reuters.
An independent investigator matched the pictures published by the group with satellite imagery to an airfield just outside the base used by military aircraft. There was no indication the militants had managed to enter the base.
A Kenyan police report seen by Reuters said the Islamist militants destroyed two planes, two US helicopters and multiple American military vehicles during their assault.
The Kenyan military said five militants had been killed in the attack. There were no immediate reports of Kenyan casualties.
In a statement earlier on Sunday, the al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist al Shabaab claimed it had destroyed seven aircraft and three military vehicles, without providing other details. It also published pictures of masked gunmen standing next to an aircraft in flames.
Africom said fewer than 150 US personnel had been at the base, where they provided training and counterterrorism support to East African forces.
“Alongside our African and international partners, we will pursue those responsible for this attack,” said US Army General Stephen Townsend, who leads Africa Command.
Kenyan military spokesman Colonel Paul Njuguna said the base had been secured.
“This morning at around 5.30am an attempt was made to breach security at Manda Air Strip. The attempted breach was successfully repulsed,” he said in a statement.
“Arising from the unsuccessful breach a fire broke out affecting some of the fuel tanks located at the airstrip. The fire has been put under control.”
In the operation to repulse the attack, at least five militants were killed and weapons including four AK47 rifles were seized, Col Njuguna said.
The airfield is separate to another on Manda Island that is used by commercial flights to Lamu.
Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011 after a spate of cross-border attacks and kidnappings. They were later absorbed into an African Union peacekeeping force, now 21,000-strong, that supports the shaky, Western-backed Somali government. Al Shabaab has been fighting for more than a decade to overthrow the government and impose strict Islamic law.
Independent investigator Benjamin Strick, who analyses satellite imagery for open-source investigation websites such as Bellingcat, said the photos of gunmen next to a burning plane published by al Shabaab matched satellite images of buildings and a distinctive aircraft apron adjacent to the base but outside its perimeter.
Residents on the nearby Lamu Island, a haven for wealthy tourists and visiting European royalty, said a loud explosion jolted them awake before 4am. Abdalla Barghash said he later saw a large dark plume of smoke rising from the Manda Bay mainland, where the airstrip and base are located.
Another resident, Omar Ali, said that he was on the way to his farm when he heard a huge bang and saw smoke. Fellow farmers reported sustained gunfire, he said. The gunfire was still going on four hours later, a military source said.
Lamu County, which is far more impoverished than the island, is frequently targeted by al Shabaab with roadside bombs and ambushes on travellers or attacks on isolated villages. The insurgents killed three passengers when they attacked a bus in the county on Thursday.
Al Shabaab said Sunday’s attack targeted the Kenyan and American soldiers inside the military base, known as Camp Simba. It follows a similar raid in September on Baledogle base in Somalia, which is used by both Somali special forces and American troops. All the attackers were killed and the base was not breached.
The attack also comes nearly a year after al Shabaab launched a deadly suicide attack on an upscale hotel and office complex in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, killing 21 people.