Note: this is a rolling post, that will be updated as more information is released or otherwise becomes available.
All too familiar sounding details emerge
In the early morning of 27 January, 2017, reports appeared in local Somali and Kenyan media that al-Shabaab militants had attacked and overrun a Kenyan Defence Force (KDF) military base near Kulbiyow (or Kolbio), on the Somalia/Kenyan border. The attack is described has having begun with the detonation of two Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIEDs), followed by a massed ground assault involving “hundreds” of al-Shabaab militants. The details and specifics of the attack are still unverified at present. What information is available is derived from local witnesses and from an al-Shabaab claim of responsibility.
It is also worth highlighting that this pattern of attack mirrors several similar actions against AMISOM bases belonging to Kenyan, Ethiopian, Ugandan and Burundian contingents in 2015 and 2016. Key vulnerabilities that have been raised repeatedly may have again played a role in the disaster. Notably, these include a lack of proper barriers and defensive measures to prevent or mitigate SVBIED attacks; insufficient intelligence/reconnaissance measures to detect and interdict massing militant forces prior to an attack; lack of Quick Reaction Force or inter-force cooperation to assist the forces under attack.
Casualties and site exploitation
Reports suggest high casualties among the KDF force which was estimated to number as many as 200 soldiers. A figure currently circulating in the media is of 57 KIA, although that number has not been verified. It appears to come from al-Shabaab claims, though is corroborated to some extent by civilian witnesses speaking to local media. Further reports from those same local witnesses suggest the base was looted and that several vehicles were set alight. Al-Shabaab has previously shown itself to be adept at site exploitation, gathering arms, ammunition and other materiel and also taking the time to record victory speeches and macabre displays of dead AMISOM peacekeepers or Somali soldiers.
A predictable response
The KDF and Kenyan Government have issued statements denying that the base was overrun or that heavy casualties were inflicted on their forces. Kenyan media has reported that KDF reinforcements were sent (in some versions, from Mombasa) and that fighting is/was ongoing in various followup operations. It is noteworthy that reinforcements would be sent from Kenya. It draws attention to the lack of a quick reaction force for AMISOM, and a general lack of inter-contingent support more generally.
It should again be stressed that there is no reliable independent verification available of the attack at present, however, the ‘blanket denial’ approach has been taken before by KDF and other AMISOM contingents after base attacks in 2015/16. Notably, the KDF flatly denied and later continued to downplay the extent of casualties at El Adde in Gedo region on 16 January 2016. There, an estimated 150 KDF soldiers were killed when their base was overrun, reportedly by the same Saleh Nabhan brigade which conducted this latest attack.
Much of what is now known about the El Adde attack only came to light or was confirmed after al-Shabaab released video footage of the attack. It is highly likely that a similar video will be released in a month or two of this latest attack.
UPDATE: The Kenyan Ministry of Defence issued several media statements on the 27th and 28th of January regarding the Kulbiyow attack. These statements denied reports that the base had been overrun, claimed that the SVBIEDs had been destroyed before reaching the base, and claimed that KDF forces had suffered only 9 KIA and 15 WIA. Followup statements went on to claim that KDF ground forces and airpower had killed 70+ al-Shabaab militants.
KDF press releases referring to the attack.
UPDATE 2: On 30th January, al-Shabaab’s media wing, al-Kataib, released a series of stills from what appears to be a video recording of the Kulbiyow attack. Al-Shabaab fighters are shown within the base, and large numbers of KDF dead are visible. The video itself has not yet been released, and the Kenyan Defence Ministry has not responded to the imagery. Some of the images are available at The Long War Journal.
UPDATE 3: On 5 February, Daily Nation published an article about the attack, which included an interview of Major Denis Girenge, the commander of the KDF base at Kulbiyow, who is recovering from injuries at Defence Forces Memorial Hospital in Nairobi. The interview hammers home several key Kenyan Defence Ministry assertions: that the base was not overrun, that KDF forces did not suffer heavy casualties as described by al-Shabaab and civilian witnesses quoted in Somali media. In addition, Girenge specifically states that the al-Shabaab militants were detected prior to the attack, and harassed with artillery or mortar fire. Furthermore, Girenge claimed that several VBIEDs were engaged and destroyed before reaching the camp (very specifically saying one was engaged with an 84mm weapon – presumably a Carl Gustav?), but suggested that the size of the explosion caused casualties and allowed militants to approach the camp perimeter. Girenge said that he had been airlifted out of the base after airsupport arrived, and claimed the fighting had ended at that point.
Another survivor added more details that line up with the KDF/Kenyan Ministry of Defence version of events, claiming that while he lay pretending to be dead in a bunker on the perimeter, he saw several vehicles arrive and carry off what he estimated to be around 200 dead militants. Questions about his ability to estimate those sorts of figures while pretending to be dead aside, the soldier’s account includes claims that the four soldiers with him were all shot and killed during the fighting. He emphasises that the base was not overrun.
UPDATE 4: On 6 of February, Kenya NTV played a special report wherein a reporter accompanied KDF soldiers to Kulbiyow base. The journalist was walked through a simplified account of the battle, and shown wreckage of one of the VBIEDs (knocked out by mortar fire according to this account of events), and shown bloodstains where large numbers of al-Shabaab fighters were said to have been killed. Again, the point was emphasised that the base was not overrun. As evidence, the KDF released drone footage, of which a snippet was shown in the Kenya NTV footage, purportedly showing KDF soldiers in control of the base. The footage is not censored (as in, the various direction, altitude and GPS coordinates of the drone are visible) – of some use for verifying the location of the video (more on this in a future post). Less clear is whether or not the figures seen are in fact KDF soldiers. Some signs of VBIED damage and possible damaged bunkers and vehicle are visible in the video.