U.S. and Kenyan forces were unprepared at the Manda Bay airstrip and Camp Simba when al-Shabab attacked on Jan. 5, leading to the deaths of three Americans and the destruction of six aircraft, the head of U.S. Africa Command said Jan. 30.
Al-Shabab was able to breach the base’s perimeter and penetrate the airstrip in an effective attack, Gen. Stephen Townsend told the Senate Armed Services Committee. The three Americans—U.S. Army Spc. Henry Mayfield Jr. and two contractors—were killed in the ensuing fight before the attack was repelled.
While initial reports said six aircraft were damaged, Townsend told lawmakers the aircraft were “destroyed.” Reports indicate the aircraft were mostly civilian operated, though specific airframes have not been disclosed.
Camp Simba and the Manda Bay airstrip were in an area deemed to be safe, where Kenyan forces house families. It is considered a “resort area,” he said.
“We weren’t as prepared, and we’re digging in to find out why that is the case,” Townsend said.
Since the attack, AFRICOM has deployed an East Africa Response Force of about 120 infantry soldiers to the base to shore up defenses. They’ve been “working hard since 6 January, putting in the appropriate level of defenses. I’m confident that by the time they’re done, Manda Bay will be much more properly defended,” Townsend said.
The base is home to the 475th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron. It also serves as a training site for Kenyan forces and a launching point for AFRICOM air operations in the region, especially into Somalia.
AFRICOM’s ongoing Somalia mission has two main focuses, Townsend said. First, US forces train Somali National Army soldiers to be able to provide their own effective security in the country. Second, US forces conduct counter terrorism missions targeting al-Shabab, most notably with increasing air strikes throughout the country, Townsend said.
In 2019, the command conducted 67 airstrikes, though al-Shabab has maintained its presence in the region. In the hearing, Townsend pushed back on an accusation leveled by Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) that U.S. forces are just playing “Whack-a-Mole” with the ongoing air campaign.
“We keep an eye on al-Shabab every day, looking for ways to reduce capacity wherever we can,” he said.