Kenya Defence Forces commanders in Somalia were summoned to Nairobi on Friday evening to explain the Kulbiyow carnage as military top brass began to confront the enormity of the losses from the attack.
The summonses to all commanders in charge of Kenya’s contingent in Somalia — including the Central Sector responsible for Kulbiyow — come in the wake of fresh revelations that many Kenyans died of explosions ignited by an armoured truck that rammed into the logistics centre of a poorly defended KDF camp.
The deafening explosion alone — wrecking anything within the radius of half a kilometre — is said to have killed at least 42 soldiers while about 25 others were felled by militants in trucks and on foot who poured into the wasted camp firing rockets and machine guns.
The Standard on Sunday has established that the overrun camp may have contained dozens of Kenyan soldiers operating outside the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom). KDF’s initial account of Friday’s events put the figure of the dead at nine and separated the soldiers (two) from the servicemen (seven) in a possible bid to scale down the atrocity.
Yesterday, CORD leader Raila Odinga acknowledged the horror of Friday’s attack, even as the country’s Commander-in-Chief, President Uhuru Kenyatta, maintained a studious silence.
“We have now established beyond doubt that tens of our soldiers died in the line of duty in Somalia following an attack by militants,” Raila said in a message of condolence to the families, relatives and friends of the fallen soldiers. He described the attack as a “senseless horror” and bemoaned the loss of brave men and women “who had their whole lives and careers ahead of them in service of our homeland.”
The commanders are said to have arrived in Nairobi on Friday evening to meet officials at the Department of Defence (DOD) headquarters. Close to two dozens of the troops, among them two armoured personnel carrier drivers, are said to be still missing since Friday.
Kenyan officials have provided little information on the attack. Al Shabaab itself has claimed it killed more than 50 soldiers.
Sources in Amisom suggested that the camp attacked is not under it, hence the reluctance of Kenyan officials in Somalia and Nairobi to share details about the attack.
About 2,841 KDF men were absorbed into Amisom when KDF integrated its troops with the rest of African troop-producing countries in 2012. Unconfirmed reports say there are about 4,500 other soldiers operating inside Somalia and Kenya’s border regions on a bilateral arrangement with either the Somalia government in Mogadishu or powerful militias fighting Al Shabaab in Somalia’s lower Juba region. Separate sources indicated to The Standard on Sunday that after the morning raid, the militants escaped before reinforcements from a KDF camp nearby could arrive.
“They retreated hours before support from the nearest detachment came in,” says the report.
It was also not clear by yesterday why the KDF’s defences collapsed so quickly and whether there was any pre-attack intelligence. Kenya’s forces in Somalia are deployed in three sectors — Northern Sector, with its main base at Busar, Central Sector based at Dobley, and the Southern Sector, based in Kismayu.
Al Shabaab militants had been gathering for weeks in areas surrounding Kulbiyow, prompting an alert on impending attacks by the US government on January 14, a day before the first anniversary of the El Adde attack in which Kenya lost about 165 soldiers to Al Shabaab.
Like Friday’s, the El Adde attack began with an explosion and swarming of the camp by militants in trucks and on foot, firing machine guns and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG).
There are about 250 Kenyan soldiers in camps around Kulbiyow and they include units from an artillery unit from Mariakani near Mombasa, which were deployed in the region early January.
Following the attack, KDF commanders are said to be worried about the morale of Kenyan forces under Amisom, who are grappling with other unsolved issues like delayed allowances, lack of equipment, misconduct of commanders and, increasingly, the intractable nature of the KDF’s occupation of southern Somalia.
“In military terms, it appears the contingent was blind, hence vulnerable to infiltration, unable to detect the impending attack,” a retired military officer with sources inside the Kenyan contingent in Somalia told The Standard on Sunday.
He said summoned commanders will be required to explain whether troops manning the three sectors applied any lessons from the El Adde attack or if pre-attack intelligence was received.
The former officer said that although Kenya’s military is highly trained, its soldiers are not suited for the kind of asymmetrical war tactics employed by insurgents. Constant attacks in a war that never seems to end or embody clear objectives also affects their morale, he says.
According to the Amisom official based in Kismayu, the attack and its success could only happen because the attackers knew the layout of the camp, location of key installations and capacity for the soldiers to respond, possibly after studying the behaviour of the Kenyans for a long time and after infiltrating the camp.
He said after wrecking the camp, the attackers appear to have inflicted a psychological blow on a separate Kenyan camp in the vicinity, either dissuading them from advancing to rescue their compatriots or preventing a rescue through Improvised Explosive Devices on routes leading to the Kulbiyow camp.
“The Kenyans must examine the conduct of the military mission to find out if commanders are observing laid down standard procedures of protecting their defences, screening all who visit their camps and find out whether the equipment used is up to date and relevant for the war effort,” one source said.
The source, who is a trained soldier and has served with KDF in Somalia, said Al Shabaab has improved its skills and training in explosives and asymmetrical warfare after losing most towns and capturing heavy vehicles and heavy weapons from Uganda, Burundian and Kenyans forces in past invasions.
They have also received more arms from friendly states and non-state actors in the region and the Middle East.
The expert says Kenyans ought to improve their strategy and tactics to adapt to Al Shabaab and in the short term boost and integrate civilian and military surveillance and reconnaissance in Kenya and Somalia.