NAIROBI — After Sunday’s attack by al-Shabab fighters on a military airstrip in which three Americans were killed, Kenya’s top security officials issued a raft of fervent refutations. They claimed no Kenyans died, no militants escaped, and the attack lasted no more than a few hours.
At 9:30 a.m. Sunday, the spokesman for Kenya’s military, Lt. Col. Paul Njuguna, said “the attempted breach was successfully repulsed” and “the airstrip is safe.”
But even as he made that proclamation, the siege was ongoing. And later Sunday, Njuguna’s statement would be discounted by a statement from U.S. Africa Command acknowledging that one U.S. service member and two American private contractors had been killed, and that six aircraft used by the U.S. military had been damaged or destroyed.
Interviews with local community members and officials cast doubt on the other assertions by Kenyan officials about the attack on the Kenyan coast, not far from the Somalia border. Locals say one Kenyan civilian was killed by gunfire and that at least 10 militants escaped during the attack and moved through nearby villages.
Mwalimu Chengo Ponda, a farmer in his 30s, was struck and killed by six gunshots in his village of Chomo, about a quarter-mile from the airstrip, his neighbor Suluba Kenga Kazungu said in a phone interview.
Around 7 a.m., Kazungu had climbed up a palm tree to pick coconuts when, suddenly, gunfire erupted beneath him.
“I heard my neighbor scream,” Kazungu said. “There were at least 10 armed men. I can assure you they were not the military. It was my neighbor’s bad luck that he came into the path of these men.”
Ponda’s cousin, Karani Kigombe, said police were aware of what happened, even coming to the house around two hours later, where they collected the spent shell casings lying about.
Irungu Macharia, the county commissioner in charge of the area that encompasses Ponda’s farm as well as the military airstrip, said he knew of Ponda’s death and was aware that at least 10 militants were at large, contradicting Njuguna’s statement that no militants had escaped. The Kenyan military claims five bodies of militants were recovered after the attack.
“While the al-Shabab militants were escaping from that scene, they encountered [Ponda] and shot him as they escaped,” he said.
Ponda’s family members and neighbors said that they and many farmers in the area had fled to nearby towns after hearing the raging gun battle both at and near the airstrip that they say started around 3 a.m. and lasted until 1 p.m.
Their accounts indicate that the al-Shabab attack lasted around nine hours. Information provided by the Kenyan military on the nature of the attack has been scant, although a statement from the U.S. military referred to “indirect and small-arms fire” and “an initial penetration of the perimeter” of the airstrip.
The White House has not commented on the attack or on the deaths of the Americans.
The Kenyan government and military have been criticized in the past for their characterization of attacks, even while they are ongoing. When al-Shabab attacked the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, and again when the group attacked the DusitD2 hotel and office complex last January, Kenyan officials declared the attacks over even while journalists at those scenes reported continuing explosions and gunfire.
After 300 al-Shabab militants overran a Kenyan military base in El Adde, Somalia, in January 2016, Kenyan officials refused to release an official death toll even after independent reporting found at least 141 Kenyan soldiers were killed.
That history has led many to be cautious with the veracity of Kenyan official statements in the aftermath of al-Shabab attacks. The doubt was compounded by a tweet by Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he referenced Kenyan deaths in Sunday’s attack.
“An attack on this scale on a base that represents such an obviously attractive target to al-Shabab will raise questions about the security lapses that occurred for the militants to gain access into the facility, and Kenyan officials will need to engage in a thorough accounting of the facts to ensure attacks like these don’t occur in the future,” said Murithi Mutiga, a Kenya analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Al-Shabab, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, controls most of rural southern and central Somalia and regularly attacks Mogadishu, the capital. The group seeks to impose a strict version of Islamic law and to expel foreign troops from the country. On Dec. 28, the group bombed a busy intersection in Mogadishu killing at least 80 people.
The U.S. military stations around 200 soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines in Kenya, and works alongside around 100 American private contractors. Together, they train Kenyan soldiers and assist in intelligence gathering. U.S. forces carried out 63 drone strikes in Somalia last year, almost all targeted at al-Shabab, in a continued uptick since the Trump administration loosened limitations on the use of force nearly three years ago.
“We will pursue those responsible for this attack and al-Shabab, who seeks to harm Americans and U.S. interests,” Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the head of the Africa Command, said in a statement on Sunday. “We remain committed to preventing al-Shabab from maintaining a safe haven to plan deadly attacks against the U.S. homeland, East African and international partners.”