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November 15, 2018

90 days on, Kenya remembers dawn raid on El Adde KDF base

KDF soldiers in Bardere town.Photo/FILE
KDF soldiers in Bardere town.Photo/FILE

Today marks exactly three months since Somalia-based Al Shabaab militants staged the most brutal and brazen attack yet, on a Kenya Defence Forces base in El Adde, in the Gedo region near the Kenyan border.

It remains possibly, the deadliest blitz on the Africa Mission in Somalia (Amisom), surpassing the death toll of the Garissa University attack on April 2, last year.

The El Adde attack was claimed by Saleh An-Nabhani Battalion, an Alshabaab faction named after Mombasa-born Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was killed during the United States Navy SEALs raid in 2009. The group is said to comprise of specialists in suicide bombings and bush ambush.

As Kenya came to terms with the massacre, government officials including commander-in-chief President Uhuru Kenyatta, Chief of Defence, General Samson Mwathethe and Defence cabinet secretary Rachael Omamo, promised thorough investigation and a "painful lesson" to the militants.

Ninety days and tens of burials of fallen soldiers later, the Kenyan government has kept the country guessing. While the exact number of Kenyan troops killed has not been divulged, it is estimated to have been close to 200. Somali President Hassan Shiekh Mohamud put the figure at "180 or close to 200 soldiers" during an interview with a Somali TV station.

Mohamud's claim was angrily dismissed by KDF spokesperson Colonel David Obonyo, who termed it reckless. “It was a head of state who personally talked about this. I don’t know his source of information so it is only him who can clarify,” he said.

In a video posted by the militant group on Sunday, the extent of destruction is visible. The camp, in a parched grassland was overrun by the bazooka-wielding militants donning red headbands. However, it seems to be edited to only show the mayhem caused by the militants in an attempt to discredit the soldiers.

Defence experts said the El Adde attack was conducted in a style increasingly being used by Middle East-linked Islamic State, aka Isis, aka Daesh, in its attacks. For instance, Daesh fighters launched at least 27 vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) that destroyed Iraqi security forces’ defensive perimeters and crumbled multi-storey buildings. It is meant to perpetuate maximum casualties.

CDF Mwathethe in January said the attack involved "several" vehicle-borne explosive devices. On the contrary, in the video, the pre-dawn ambush starts when a young man Abduqadir Ali aka Farhan, drives a vehicle laden with explosives into the camp and detonates it.

Military sources said the VBIEDs used in the attack were made from an armoured personnel carrier (APC), captured from Burundian peace-keepers in June last year and taken to the outskirts of El Adde from Wargadud, 40 kilometres north of the Kenyan base.

Mwathethe explained that in the attack the militants used a lead vehicle as a decoy or a barrier-buster, with the intention that when stopped by security forces for inspection, a second one this time fitted with heavy explosives would come crashing into their target before detonating.

But in the video, one vehicle commandeered by Ali, rammed into the camp, shaking the ground. What followed is a long fierce gunfire by surging men, leaving the camp ablaze.

The aftermath is heartrending. Bodies of fallen soldiers are strewn all over, while those captured alive, were forced to speak into a recording camera at gun-point.

Back home in Kenya, the bloody terror attack rendered many children orphans, and many wives, widows and the sole breadwinners.

The Kenyan government promised swift action.

"To those misguided elements who think that their cowardly actions have shaken us, let me tell them today, that their actions have only made us stronger and emboldened us in our determination to defeat them,” said President Uhuru in a televised address to the nation.

"These enemies of humanity struck at brave patriots, who are in Somalia to protect our families, our nation, and the world. Our fallen heroes are returning home. As their Commander-in-Chief, and as a parent, my heart goes out to them, and to their grieving families," the head of state added.

But as days pass by, families are still mourning and many others do not know the fate of their loved ones. Soldier Abdullahi Issa Ibrahim’s family is one such example. They are puzzled as his fate remains unknown. The 52-year-old father of six was said to have been captured alive by the militants after they fled from the besieged base under a hail of bullets. Sources say he is being held together with 13 other soldiers in an undisclosed location. The sources however believe the detention centre is in Southern Somalia, near Jilib, on the main road from Mogadishu, south of Kismayo.

In January, Mwathethe said the captured soldiers are being used as human shields.

"We have not heard anything from the government apart that he suffered injuries on his limbs. Efforts to seek information has been painstakingly painful," said his brother Adan Issa Ibrahim.

Abdullahi who has been serving under the artillery battalion of the Gilgil barracks, was enlisted in the force in 1986. "We are clinging to hope that he is alive will released," said Aden.

Sources at the Defence headquarters said the families of killed soldiers, received salaries for January and February but not for March. A Memorandum of Understanding signed between the African Union and the mission-contributing countries, stipulate that families of deceased soldiers receive compensation of US$50,000 (Sh5 million). However, sources said this has not yet been initiated.

Soldiers across Kenya honoured their colleagues with 21-gun salutes, blowing of the cornet and folding of flags.

Rophus Nzai and Margaret Tunje buried their son Private Amani Lwembe, 26, on February 19.

Corporal David Muthuri was also buried at Karachi village in Tigania East, Meru county, on February 3.

As late as last week, more soldiers were still being buried across the country.

The delay was occasioned by non-identification of their bodies. The militants made sure to blow off the faces of the soldiers who died. This made it difficult for KDF to identify them, relying on DNA testing which took up to six weeks to conclude.

The families that have not received any word are keeping faith that their missing loved ones will surface alive.

 What is the government's position on the matter?

 In an analysis in the Daily Maverick, a South African online newspaper, defence experts, Dickie Davis and Greg Mills, said Kenya may be justified in holding on to the death figures, for a number of reasons including the "impact on domestic inter-ethnic relations, or the reflection on the competency of those involved".

Davis and Mills, a retired British Major General and and a member of Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation respectively, are also co-authors of the book "A Great Perhaps? Colombia: Conflict and Convergence"

"But warfare is as much about perception as it is about reality, and Al-Shabaab have gained much from their quick release of images. Bad news generally does not get better and in the absence of information, people make it up to be generally worse than it is," the authors who have extensive experience in Afghanistan argued.

"The Kenyan government needs to get accurate information into the public domain as soon as the families of the casualties have been informed,"

To take an example from another counter-insurgency campaign, the Colombian military, the experts argued, used its humiliation in Mitu in 1998, when Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas overran an army battalion and police unit, killing 150 personnel and capturing more than 40 soldiers, to reorganise. Farc was involved in the continuing Colombian armed conflict since 1964.

"Mitu was evidence of the strength of their foe and the relative weakness of the Colombian state. This realisation led to a rapid increase in the size of the armed forces, better equipment, improved intelligence collection and fusion, and inter-operability between the army, air force, navy and marines, and the police,"

Dr Mustafa Ali, a peace and conflict resolution expert based in Nairobi, said the process of disseminating information to the public in times of war is "very challenging".

"In El Adde, the attack was ghastly. It was that kind of attack that any government will not rush to give details because details are scanty. State actors must find the best way to respond especially to families. It is very difficult to account what happened. Doing so will become speculative which is a no-no in times of war," he said.However, where there are information gaps, Ali said, especially one which leads to the attack in El Adde, renders materials of propaganda, a success.

"Informations gaps are fertile grounds for terrorist propaganda. How to tackle such propaganda must involve ideological push-back and information asymmetrical claw-back," he said.

The videos by the groups, he said, is meant to intimidate and legitimise their actions. Alshabaab has released videos of all their attacks, in an attempt to brag about their success and attract financiers for a "job well done".

In the latest propaganda video by the insurgents, at least five soldiers are shown, forced to "send a message" to the government.

The officers are visibly in excruciating pain after suffering injuries in the attack.

In the 48-minute clip, Alshabaab through its media wing-Al Kataib, allege that the said injured soldiers later succumbed to their injuries.

Perhaps, the number of casualties in the El Adde attack, will forever remain a puzzle but the memories will forever be etched in our minds.

Davis and Mills said herein lies a lesson for tack in government approach, including the treasury, social services, foreign ministry, police, intelligence services.

Ultimately, they argued, some hard choices in terms of resources, will have to be made as to where to concentrate on and which equipment and machinery to invest in. The foreign ministry will have to play its part in acquiring international support to fund, train and equip the security forces.

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