New survivor testimony revises death toll of Kenyan army’s El Adde defeat

Kenyan soldiers serving under AMISOM man their position at El-Adde in Somalia on January 22, 2016. (AMISOM Photo/ Abdisalan Omar)

As many as 280 Kenyan soldiers were deployed at an African Union base in El Adde in Somalia when it was overrun by Al-Shabaab terrorists last year in what is now remembered as a major military defeat, according to a new survivor account.

The revised figure is higher than earlier estimates of the number of soldiers at the base. Some of the soldiers at the base survived – either as prisoners or by escaping on foot through the bush – but the number who did so is still unclear.

Kenya’s army has not disclosed how many troops it lost in the assault on the base belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which was manned by a company-plus sized group of Kenyan troops.

Estimates last year generally put the death toll below 200. For example, two officials familiar with the recovery operations told CNN for a report published in May 2016 that the Kenyan army lost “at least 141” troops.

However, as pointed out in an editorial in the Saturday edition of the Daily Nation, “Twelve months on, it is unclear how many Kenyan lives were lost and exactly what operational failures were overlooked by commanders in the setting up of the base.”

One of the problems in determining how many soldiers died is lack of clear public information about how many soldiers were present at the El Adde base when it was attacked.

According to new survivor testimony published by The Standard newspaper today, “There were about 300 soldiers assigned to the camp. But when it was overrun on January 15, [2016], about 20 were reportedly on leave or on other assignments, leaving 280 to take on the Al Shabaab insurgents.”

The newspaper report further details that about 180 of the assigned 300 were from the Eldoret barracks and another 120 soldiers “mostly possessing specialized skills other than combat,” were drawn from barracks at Gilgil and Lang’ata.

Out of this number, there were 32 or more survivors, judging by earlier media reports. In the immediate days after the attack it was revealed that a group of four wounded soldiers who escaped were flown to Nairobi for treatment while another 16 unhurt but exhausted soldiers was separately sighted also arriving in Nairobi.

This makes for 20 confirmed survivors who made it back to Kenya, with the possibility that others also made the journey but their survival went unreported. Separately, some Somali media reported that 12 Kenyan soldiers were captured. At least one of these appeared in an Al-Shabaab propaganda video.

All told, this means that if 280 were present – as claimed in the new survivor account – then the death toll could be as high as 248 men. The survivor himself, however, estimates that “at least 210 died, or were captured” in the morning assault.

Such estimates are closer to the tally offered by Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud last year who was quoted as saying that “180 or close to 200 soldiers” were killed in the attack.

However, the survivor’s account contradicts figures that were reportedly held by AMISOM itself as to the number of Kenyan soldiers based at El Adde. A confidential source cited in a report by the International Peace Institute (IPI) said that AMISOM’s official register listed 209 troops assigned to El Adde “in a company-plus formation,” while other AMISOM sources suggested thersomalia-11feb16-mape were only 160 KDF troops in El Adde on 15 January.

Some details in the new testimony could help explain the discrepancy. Mark, the pseudonym used for the anonymous soldier, said that a roll call was taken on the eve of the attack. The fact of a roll call may imply that the Kenyan commander on site was unsure of his own troop strength and needed to update records.

The survivor pointed out also that Kenyan soldiers did not view records kept “at the gate” in the base as accurate, without elaborating on this point: “When we see only about 105 [names] listed at the gate, we always wonder what happened to the rest of the names.”

Whatever the exact casualty figure, what is clear is that the attack on the AMISOM base resulted in a major loss of life and represented a setback for the terrorist-fighting mission. AMISOM has made changes since the attack to prevent similar assaults from succeeding; an Al-Shabab attack on an Ethiopian-manned base later in the year was repulsed.

According to the IPI study, the El Adde base was “was much too big for a company-plus formation to adequately defend.” AMISOM have since reconsidered deploying smaller units like companies alone in remote areas.

Other lessons learned from the attack include the need for better fixed defenses around the AMISOM bases. “The mission has lacked the engineering capabilities to provide more sophisticated defenses for its troops in forward operating bases like El Adde,” the IPI report pointed out.

On the occasion of the first anniversary of the attack this Sunday, several Kenyan news outlets called for greater transparency around what happened at El Adde and for memorialization of the Kenyan war dead. “There is no harm in embracing a policy of greater transparency,” wrote the Daily Nation in its commemorative editorial.