Two security analysts independently studying video footage and other evidence from Kulbiyow in Somalia say they believe that Al-Shabaab militants overran a Kenya Defence Forces base earlier this year, killing dozens of soldiers before withdrawing from the area.
This contradicts Kenyan top officials who insisted that the base perimeter was never breached and only nine of their soldiers were lost in the fight.
Somali militants attacked the Kenyan base at Kulbiyow early on the morning of January 27th, hurling at least two vehicle-borne bombs at the base and following up with a massed ground assault. Accounts differ as to the outcome of this attack.
Al-Shabaab’s propaganda arm Al-Kataib immediately released images that showed militants in control of the base and tens of Kenyan casualties. In response, the Kenyan army, defense ministry and the presidency doubled down on their denials, saying the Al-Shabaab images came from elsewhere and were not authentic video footage from Kulbiyow.
Kenya’s army also invited a video crew from Kenya NTV television to access the Kulbiyow base ten days after the attack, and released a short clip taken from drone footage, purportedly showing KDF troops in control of the base on January 27th.
“At no point was our camp overrun. The KDF remained in control of that camp… it was not breached in any way,” said State House Spokesperson Manoah Esipisu. In the meantime, Kenyan media detailed a successful, albeit frantic defense of the base.
So where does the truth lie? Did Kenya suffer a military setback at Kulbiyow? Or did it beat back the attack and inflict heavy casualties on a desperate enemy? How many of the roughly 120 Kenyan soldiers defending the base managed to survive? How many gave up their lives for the country?
Many of these questions have yet to be answered – but it is increasingly clear that the base was at least partly overrun, according to two Western analysts who looked at the publicly available information about the attack.
Conway Waddington, a PhD candidate and writer for African Defence Review, points out that the NTV video and the Al-Shabaab propaganda video show many of the same buildings and scenes in Kulbiyow, which means that both videos were shot on the same location, only at different times. On the basis of this, he draws the following conclusion: “The KDF did not handily fend off the Al-Shabaab attack as it claims. The perimeter was indeed breached – and sufficiently so to allow the Al-Shabaab militants to loot the base.”
Waddington reasons, “The imagery released by Al-Kataib appears to show a base that has been, or is in the process of being overrun… If the base is not completely overrun, then the images of flags being raised over burning vehicles and bunkers, while militants wander about, carrying away arms and ammunition, must at least suggest a base’s perimeter was breached and defensive forces were suppressed, for at least some period of time. That would run contrary to the main thrust of the narrative put forward by the KDF – that the attack was comprehensively defeated.”
However, the researcher says he thinks that Kenyan troops later returned to the base and retook it, whether by means of a counter-attack or because the Somali militants had already withdrawn. “Some media accounts, citing anonymous KDF personnel, claimed that portions of the defensive force retreated from the base, and presumably later returned. Such a scenario would best match what appears to be evident so far,” he writes.
Another analyst, Jacob Beeders, says that a significant number of photos released by Al-Shabaab match with locations seen throughout the Kenyan government’s drone footage of the Kulbiyow military base.
“This shows that rather than being repelled by the defenders, al-Shabaab was able to breach the base’s perimeter and move freely within. Al-Shabaab took photos at various points across the entirety of the base… not just concentrated within one sub-section,” writes Beeders, a graduate of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London who now researches terrorism and counterterrorism policy.
He adds, “As the photoset contains dozens of corpses of KDF soldiers, it challenges the government assertion that only nine soldiers were killed.” Neither of the analysts is able to say for certain how long the Somali militants controlled the base. Beeders suggests from drone imagery that Al-Shabaab withdrew after stealing several military vehicles.
The significance of the Kulbiyow attack lies in its similarity to the attack last year at El-Adde, where KDF lost more than a hundred soldiers in very similar circumstances. The two cases points to a military and political culture that seems to avoid accountability and is reluctant to openly discuss past mistakes and learn from them.
One of the major lessons from El-Adde was the need for more military engineers at the KDF/AMISOM bases to construct defenses that could not be easily breached by vehicle-borne bombs. “The mission has lacked the engineering capabilities to provide more sophisticated defenses for its troops in forward operating bases like El Adde,” pointed out the thinktank International Peace Institute (IPI) in a recent report. Al-Shabaab’s use of the same tactics at Kulbiyow – with similar results – indicates a failure to learn from past mistakes and adapt defenses accordingly.
The Kulbiyow base was also strikingly similar to the El-Adde base in terms of its size – both were manned by only a company or company-plus sized force. This is in spite of recommendations after the El-Adde attack that AMISOM cease deploying smaller units like companies alone in remote areas owing to their vulnerability.
Beeders suggests that another similarity between the two attacks lies in the handling of the public relations aspect after the fact: “As in the case of the el-Adde, much of the information on the attack on Kulbiyow came from anonymous firsthand accounts and al-Shabaab propaganda. The continued obfuscation on details regarding major al-Shabaab attacks by the Kenyan government allows al-Shabaab to seize the narrative of events.”
“Additionally, it stifles attempts at accountability that could potentially mitigate future risks to Kenyan soldiers,” contends Beeders. “The Kenyan government’s refusal to acknowledge publicly the large numbers of soldiers killed, or tactical shortfalls in major battles, precludes their willingness for investigations and accountability.”
Beeders’ and Waddington’s assessment is corroborated by some Kenyan media reports. For example, a soldier recalled to the Kenyan Daily Nation, “After the explosion of the third VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device), our defence was rendered hopeless. Al-Shabaab militants were running all over. We started running for our dear life.”
KDF’s commander at the scene tells a different story. Major Denis Girenge, who himself was wounded in the attack, told the Daily Nation, “I was at the camp until the last minute. If it was overrun I would not be here right now talking to you. I would be somewhere dead. We defended the camp to the last minute. It is Al-Shabaab who ran away.”
Kenyan and allied officials have praised the KDF troops at Kulbiyow for their heroism. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson cited the “decisive response” of KDF troops saying they “displayed exemplary levels of bravery in responding to the attack.”
The episode at Kulbiyow is the latest in the long-running Kenyan intervention in Somalia dating to 2011. As part of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), Kenyan forces have responsibility for “Sector 2”, comprising the southern regions of Lower and Middle Juba.
President Uhuru Kenyatta last week visited Kenyan troops in Somalia to boost morale and inspect defenses. The president is also stepping up political efforts to bolster the Somali government, a key ally in the fight against Al-Shabaab, including by meeting his counterpart President Mohamed Farmajo this week.
“Analysis of competing claims about the January 2017 Al-Shabaab attack on the KDF base at Kulbiyow,” by Conway Waddington, March 22nd, 2017
“What happened in Kulbiyow, Somalia: An open source investigation,” by Jacob Beeders, March 21st, 2017