Cameras picked up two white trucks carrying bombs and fighters to Somalia’s most secure military base, home to US Special Forces, foreign trainers and Somali Special Forces they mentor.
The alarm was raised. By the time al Shabaab insurgents were close to the perimeter of Baledogle military airfield, Danaab – Somalia’s elite commandos – were waiting, trainers next to them.
One truck bomb detonated far from the perimeter fence. Eight attackers in uniforms jumped from it but Danaab soldiers gunned them down, said a Somali security official.
The second truck was hit by a US air strike. The explosion captured on video footage was provided to Reuters.
Al Shabaab, an Islamist militant group, launched complex attacks in the past two months on Somali security forces, African Union peacekeepers and – on Monday – European Union and US forces.
Local and international security officials dismissed Monday’s attack on Baledogle – which followed a separate bomb attack on an Italian military convoy – as a high-profile stunt rather than a serious assault.
“This is a publicity stunt,” said the Somali security official who provided details of the attack on condition of anonymity. “Baledogle military airfield is highly defended. It’s not easy to attack. You can try, but you will not succeed.”
The attacks are unlikely to influence the commitment to training Somalia forces or a review of the US military presence in Africa as it focuses attention on China and Russia, a US defence official said.
There are between six and seven thousand US troops in Africa, with about 6 500 there currently, the official said. Potential troop reductions do not include Somalia, now home to between 650 and 800 US troops. The review is expected to be completed this month and will then go to the secretary of defence and chairman of the joint chiefs.
Despite persistent attacks, Somalia’s international partners are more concerned with rising political tensions between the federal government and member states and reducing corruption among Somali troops they are training to take over from an African Union peacekeeping force.
Partners struggling to cut graft in the Somali army built a payroll system based on biometric data. In December 2017, the US government suspended aid including food, fuel and stipends for around 18 months to units not directly supervised until accountability was strengthened.
ATTACK RAPIDLY OVER
The attacks came as Somali soldiers and African Union forces took over villages in Lower Shabelle around Mogadishu. Some have been under insurgent control for 10 years, a security expert told Reuters. In response, al Shabaab launches attacks on bases from the countryside.
Three Somalia-based security experts described Monday’s attack as a bid to grab headlines rather than a concerted attack on Baledogle.
Ten fighters was too few for a serious assault on the heavily defended base, said the Somali security source. The base is home to US Special Forces, Somalia’s Danaab and Washington DC-based Bancroft Global, with a US government contract to train Danaab. The Somali National News agency said the attack lasted 10 minutes.
“I don’t think they thought they would succeed,” the Somali official said. “There are military gains happening in Lower Shabelle and across the country. This is to show ‘we are still here; we are still alive,’ to get attention.”
Photos provided to Reuters by other Somalia-based security experts show men in camouflage uniforms in the dust or piled in the back of a pickup truck, injuries consistent with gunshot wounds.
Weapons recovered included grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, light machine guns, Kalashnikov-style rifles and belt loads of ammunition. The attackers packed food supplies, including milk and apples.
After the attack, an al Shabaab statement said they killed 100 foreign soldiers and destroyed five aircraft, including drones and helicopters. No evidence to support the claims was provided.
As al Shabaab attacks continue, Somalia’s internal politics cause concern. There is deepening suspicion between states and the presidency, a spat partly grounded in rivalries for access to international security funds and worsened by the federal government’s perceived interference in regional elections.
In December, government imprisoned Muktar Robow, a popular former al Shabaab commander who defected and ran for leadership in South West state. The arrest sparked protests and when the United Nations protested the use of deadly force to quell demonstrations, Somalia expelled its envoy.
In August, Ahmed Madobe, leader of southern Jubbaland, was re-elected despite federal opposition. Neighbouring Kenya, involved in a spat over oil rights with Somalia, supported Madobe.
The bad blood between government and regions means local security forces do not share intelligence with federal forces, one regional intelligence official told Reuters.
Local forces are often better equipped than federal soldiers posted to the regions and more successful at fighting al Shabaab in their home area, although the Danaab units – better- paid and better-trained than regular soldiers – are the elite.