Multiple failures contributed to deadly 2020 Manda Bay attack in Kenya


Inadequate force protection, inadequate understanding of the threat, inadequate security force preparation, and problems with mission command were some of the contributing factors that led to the deadly January 2020 al Shabaab attack on Manda Bay in Kenya, the US Department of Defence has said.

On 10 March, the US Department of Defence (DoD) announced the findings of US Africa Command’s (Africom’s) investigation as well as an independent review into the 5 January 2020 attack at the Cooperative Security Location in Manda Bay, which killed one US Army soldier and two US contractors.

Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin directed the independent review to provide added insight, perspective, and the ability to assess the totality of the event, the DoD said. Both the Africom investigation and the independent review found the proximate cause of the loss of life and damage to property was the attack by a massed force of 30 to 40 determined, disciplined, and well-resourced al Shabaab fighters.

“We were not as prepared at Manda Bay as we needed to be. Security on a key part of the base proved inadequate, with a security force that was insufficiently prepared for their mission,” General Stephen J Townsend, the commander of Africa Command, said in a video presentation of the findings at the Pentagon. “For a number of successive years, there was complacent leadership and command and control at the tactical level, and poor oversight at the operational level,” Townsend said.

“The investigation and independent review further found that no single point of failure resulted in the loss of life and damage to property, and no single act or omission would have avoided the attack. However, several causal factors contributed to the attack, including inadequate force protection focus, inadequate understanding of the threat, inadequate security force preparation, and problems with mission command,” the DoD stated.

The report found that “certain senior officers contributed to the inadequate force protection posture at Manda Bay, and allowed a climate of complacency and poor understanding of the threat.” Eight officers and enlisted personnel were disciplined for their actions or their failure to act, the US Air Force said.

The attack killed one US Army Soldier, Specialist Henry J Mayfield, and two US contract personnel, Bruce Triplett and Dustin Harrison. The attack also wounded three additional US personnel and one Kenyan soldier, and destroyed $71.5 million of US government resources, including aircraft.

Lieutenant General Steven L Basham, the US Air Force’s deputy commander for Europe and Africa, told the media that in the early morning of 5 January 2020, two US service members driving a small truck along a runway at Manda Bay saw thermal images of what they initially thought were hyenas, but were in fact al Shabab fighters hiding in the vegetation. The fighters fired two rocket-propelled grenades at the truck. One exploded, killing Mayfield, but the other service member in the truck was able to get out.

The al Shabaab combatants then fired rockets at an aircraft on the ground, which caught fire, killing pilots Harrison and Triplett, who were contracted by L3 Technologies. Al Shabaab fighters destroyed five fixed and rotary wing aircraft and damaged another – all belonged to contractors. One of the destroyed aircraft was a highly modified Bombardier Dash 8 STAMP (SOCOM Tactical Airborne Multi-Sensor Platforms) surveillance aircraft, which was apparently being used to track down terrorists in the region.

A separate group of al Shabaab fighters fired on Camp Simba, adjacent to the Kenyan Navy base where US forces are housed. Marines at Camp Simpa got to the Manda Bay airfield (Magogongi Airfield) about 20 minutes after the attack started; around half a dozen al Shabaab fighters were killed. Fighting continued throughout the day, and it was only in the evening that the area was declared secure.

Following the attack, US Africa Command directed a series of measures to improve force protection at all locations on the continent as identified by the Africom and independent reviews.

The DoD said US forces use Manda Bay to provide training to African partners, respond to crises and protect US interests. Africa Command assigns responsibility to US Air Forces-Africa for the integration of base support including force protection at Manda Bay. Following the 2020 attack, various security upgrades were implemented including the clearing of vegetation around the airfield; establishing 360-degree defence; improving defensives, fighting positions and indirect fire protection at Camp Simba; increasing Kenyan participation in security operations; increasing frequency and range of patrols; and improving the communications function and capability of the base defence operation centre.

The US military has been operating from Camp Simba/Manda Bay since at least 2004, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). By 2012, the base had been considerably upgraded and the runway extended. The base hosts on average 200–250 personnel, and reportedly more than 500 during surges. In addition to using the airstrip as a launch point for aerial reconnaissance over neighbouring Somalia, American forces have used the main base as a training base for both Kenyan and Somali forces. In 2017, the US Air Force took responsibility for Camp Simba/Manda Bay, and established the 475th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron to oversee activities at Manda Bay.

“Service in parts of Africa can be challenging, even dangerous at times,” Townsend said last week. “The threat from al Shabab remains dangerous and real. Al Shabab is the largest and most lethal arm of al Qaida, an enemy America knows all too well for its ambitions and appetite for destruction. What we do with our African international partners to counter violent extremism in Africa is more important than ever. We hold a responsibility to Spc Mayfield, Mr Triplett and Mr Harrison, and work every day to learn from this tragic event and to keep an attack like this from happening again.”