UPDATE: It seems that Jacob Beeders over at Bellingcat scooped this one by a couple of hours: https://www.bellingcat.com/news/africa/2017/03/21/happened-kulbiyow-somalia-open-source-investigation/
Their analysis is supported here – that the Al-Kataib imagery can be matched to various parts of the NTV footage filmed after the attack (ironically in a KDF-run press tour intended to discredit Al-Shabaab claims to have overrun the base). In some places, our and Bellingcat’s specific points of analysis and verification match (for instance, stills of the makeshift church with the blue tarpaulin and of three distinctly parked vehicles). The following includes some additional material from The Nation and the NTV base tour, and further matches these sources against satellite imagery of the base, and Al-Kataib imagery.
The 27 January Al-Shabaab attack on a KDF base at Kulbiyow followed a familiar pattern for attacks on military bases in the region, in more ways than one. Not only did the initially reported details of the attack seem all too familiar (an early morning VBIED followed by a massed ground assault by militants), but conflicting media reports, claims and denials in the aftermath of the attack, also followed a recognizable pattern.
Early media reports largely repeated the basics of an Al-Shabaab press announcement (which came out on the same day as the attack). These reports were supposedly corroborated to some extent by local media through witness reports, and described the KDF base as being overrun, with heavy casualties inflicted on KDF forces. Incidentally, the Kulbiyow attack took place one year and a few days after a very similar attack on another KDF base, at el-Adde, further north in Somalia. There, Al-Shabaab fighters of the overrun with heavy casualties. There, as at Kulbiyow, the immediate response from KDF press relations, and the Kenyan Defence Ministry, was to issue denials of reports that heavy casualties had been suffered and a base overrun. In the case of el-Adde, months later, the KDF was forced to later admit that the garrison had been almost entirely wiped out (140+ KIA).
In the days following the Kulbiyow attack, Al-Kataib, the media arm of al-Shabaab, released a set of images purportedly from the attack. The KDF and Kenyan Ministry of Defence doubled down on its counter-claims that reports of heavy KDF casualties were false, and that it was the militants who had in fact suffered a beating.
Kenyan media also interviewed Major Dennis Girenge, the base commander at the time of the attack, who outright denied reports that the base had been overrun. Girenge had been evacuated for gunshot wounds. In the same article, another soldier, who was also wounded and claimed to have played dead among his dead compatriots at a machine gun post, described seeing truckloads of dead Al-Shabaab militants being carried away.
The competing accounts of the battle can be divided into two broad narratives:
- The Al-Shabaab claim, reported by some local media and supposedly corroborated by witnesses : That the base was overrun; Heavy KDF casualties; Vehicles were destroyed and equipment looted
- KDF/Def Ministry account: Base was not overrun; Light KDF casualties; Al-Shabaab VBIEDs and troop concentrations detected and destroyed.
Digging into the specifics made available in the various accounts provide a wide range of overlapping details, several minor inconsistencies that could be chalked up to misinterpretation or minor confusion. But the central points of disagreement are significant.
The imagery released by Al-Kataib appears to show a base that has been, or is in the process of being overrun. While that imagery does show several KDF casualties, it does not show the 50+ casualties claimed by Al-Shabaab. Nevertheless, it does show militants within the perimeter of the base. 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.
This then raises a question of verification: is the Al-Kataib imagery in fact from Kulbiyow?
A starting point in this regard, was to locate the base itself. As it turns out, the key was to search for the town of Kolbio, on the Kenyan border.
THE MEDIA TOUR
In the aftermath of the attack, the KDF invited media to visit the base. During tour, video footage of the base was shot from the helicopter carrying The Nation press team. A half-moon shaped collection of structures can be seen here, which was visible in the 2016 satellite imagery.
The tour itself starts with possible explosions in the background from an unknown source – disturbed carrion birds fly off and plumes of dust or smoke are visible as the soldiers look around hurriedly. “All is well, all is well” says the tour leader, Major George Osano – the new base commander.
During a tour of a crater outside the base perimeter, Major George Osano explains that indirect fire destroyed a VBIED – leaving behind the crater. Leaf springs, described by Osano as intentionally stored in the vehicle to serve as extra shrapnel, are neatly piled in a hole. This site is described as being 600m from camp – which Osano specifically claims is the closest that the militants got to the base.
MATCHING SATELLITE IMAGES TO DRONE FOOTAGE
The NTV special ends with an additional snippet of aerial imagery made available by the KDF – a short, sped-up video feed from a drone that purportedly observed the base on the day of the attack. The NTV news team mistakenly calls it “satellite video surveillance of the camp”. In the video, per KDF claims, KDF personnel are visible in the base after having defeated Al-Shabaab militants. The video itself is inconclusive in this regard (there is no way to independently verify if the figures seen in the video are in fact KDF personnel). However, this video proves to be vital for tying together the available satellite imagery to on-the-ground images from both the NTV base tour, and the Al-Kataib imagery purportedly showing Al-Shabaab militants during the attack.
- Further commonality with satellite imagery of the candidate site – the perimeter dotted with bunkers, and collection of bunkers within that perimeter again appear similar (if not conclusively so) with the satellite imagery. The major geographic points of commonality are the peculiar bodies of water within the base.
- The drone video feed is uncensored – telemetry reveals the altitude, orientation, and latitude/longitudinal coordinates of the drone at the time of recording. While somewhat imprecise (for unknown reasons) – they appear to put it in the general vicinity of the primary candidate base.
Notables in the drone feed images are:
Matching and verifying sources: Satellite imagery, the NTV flyover, the KDF drone footage
A 2016 satellite image of the same, with an additional possible ammunition pit in blue
Together, the satellite imagery, NTV ground and aerial video, and KDF drone video appear to show the same site. Next up: Verifying and matching the Al-Kataib imagery.
THE MORTAR PIT
During the NTV video, the news crew are treated to a (somewhat awkwardly choreographed) live-firing of a mortar to demonstrate how the weapon was employed during the attack. (As a side note, the round fired during the demonstration appears to be a live, which is somewhat concerning).
During the sequence, a shelter is visible within the mortar pit, which appears to match a similar structure seen in an Al-Kataib image.
It appears that the demonstration for the NTV crew, which is conducted with a fair amount of joviality among the KDF soldiers, and is overseen by the new camp commander, takes place quite literally in a spot where al-Shabaab militants filed a dead KDF soldier after overrunning the camp.
In another still taken from the NTV footage of the mortar pit, a blue structure is briefly seen in the background. This also appears to match a structure shown in the Al-Kataib images:
THE THREE TRUCKS AND TANKER
It is also possible to match three trucks and a water tanker, seen in the al-Kataib video, with imagery from the KDF drone feed, and from satellite imagery of the site. Tying all of these sources together further reinforces the assessments made here, that the base was in fact overrun, as per the al-Shabaab/Al-Kataib claims.
THE GREEN AND GREY ROOFS
In a The Nation article relating to the NTV visit to Kulbiyow, several stills taken by the press crew show the base on the ground and from the air. One image appeared to be a good candidate to match against the three trucks seen above – but appears to be slightly off target (and the trucks appear to have been moved in the 10 days since the attack). Nonetheless, the image shows noteworthy permanent structures, and one of the two prominent geographic features of the base – large pools of water – which are visible in the satellite image above.
Within the HESCO barriers seen in the previous imagery is an artillery piece. Two such weapons are shown in more detail below, in the Al-Kataib imagery release.
THE MACHINE GUN POST
In another The Nation still image from the NTV press visit to the base in the aftermath of the battle, some KDF soldiers are photographed manning a post on the perimeter. On the right of the structure is a Carl Gustav launcher, presumably to guard against VBIEDs. The structure also appears to be the same that was seen in one of the Al-Shabaab still images from the attack which portrayed several dead KDF soldiers:
As with the mortar pit – it is possible here to see KDF troops standing around in quite literally the same places that al-Shabaab militants stood to take pictures of dead KDF soldiers, while the new base commander leads a press tour, declaring that the base had not been overrun.
Verifying the location of the attack does not in turn automatically verify every aspect of the Al-Kataib video, or the al-Shabaab claims about the battle – but it appears fairly safe to conclude that that imagery is indeed really from Kulbiyow. That, in and of itself is interesting, since that imagery was released before the NTV piece, and interviews with the base commander.
In addition, it must be asked that, if not from Kulbiyow, where would that imagery have come from? What then was the mindset behind the KDF’s blanket denials of the authenticity of the imagery and decision to allow (and probably to lead) a press tour to reinforce their counter claims?
It should be noted that, as always, the imagery released by Al-Kataib, is fundamentally propaganda material. It is intended to convey a particular message, and could be purposefully manipulated and shaped to portray a particular narrative of events on that day. By the same token, the KDF is engaged in a military conflict, and some degree of misinformation or counter-intelligence is a natural and necessary part of that. However, the KDF claims about the course of the battle are also relevant to domestic media coverage of the conflict – and indeed, to political and civil-military oversight. If nothing else, there are serious questions to be asked about the treatment of the soldiers who were killed during the battle, and their families and loves ones in the aftermath of the fight.
At this stage, the following conclusions can be drawn: 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, and to film itself doing so.
Sometime in the coming months (following previous release timetables for post-attack propaganda by Al-Shabaab through Al-Kataib), a video of the attack will likely be released. That video will show the ground assault, probably from multiple camera angles – as al-Shabaab has done in previous attacks. It may give some clues as to the intensity of the fighting at the base perimeter, and inside the base. It may show whether KDF forces were coordinated in their defence, or not, and whether or not they retreated. 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. In the mean time, the fact that al-Shabaab is able and willing to conduct such attacks is worrisome for the state of the conflict in Somalia. However, covering up such setbacks is not necessarily the best option to take.
UPDATE: Al-Shabaab did indeed later release a video showing the attack and subsequent overrunning of the KDF base at Kulbiyow.
As predicted, this video heavily featured a propaganda sequence utilising video cut of parts of the NTV press tour, specifically where the new base commander narrates his claims that the militant VBIED was blown up 600m from the base, and that al-Shabaab did not even get close to the base perimeter. These are intercut with footage of al-Shabaab militants quite literally running through the smoldering remnants of a section of the base perimeter, that has presumably been demolished by at least one VBIED detonation. To say that the al-Kataib propaganda team places a heavy emphasis on this point is an understatement – they even include echoes of the base commander’s words while showing images of militants firing into the bodies of downed KDF soldiers. The mortar pit sequence of the NTV press tour similarly receives propaganda treatment.