Three Americans were killed recently in a 5 January attack on Camp Simba in Kenya. Responsibility was claimed by the Islamic Fundamentalist group Al-Shabaab, who have intensified their efforts over the past few months. Just a week prior, they conducted a car bombing in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu that left 79 dead. Camp Simba is a Kenyan military base home to over 100 American servicemen, who work there as part of the United States military’s partnership with the country.
Al-Shabaab declared that it had inflicted 17 casualties on American forces, killed 9 Kenyan soldiers, and destroyed several aircraft. This was contradicted, however, by an official statement by the U.S. Africa Command that three Americans – one service member and two contractors – had been killed in the assault, and several civilian aircraft damaged. Of the three Americans killed, one was Army Specialist Henry Mayfield Jr., who was just 23 years old. His aunt, Tawanna Cottenfinner, stated that, “At this time, we would like to say thank you for all your kind words that we have received…We will miss him tremendously. He brought joy to everyone he came into contact with. We will miss that joy. At this time, we are asking for time to grieve in privacy.” In response to the attack, U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend of Africa Command declared, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of our teammates who lost their lives today. As we honor their sacrifice, let’s also harden our resolve. Alongside our African and international partners, we will pursue those responsible for this attack and Al-Shabaab who seeks to harm Americans and U.S. interests.”
Attacks such as the bombing in Mogadishu and assault on Camp Simba have become more frequent in the past few years as the Kenyan and the United States military continue their pursuit of Al-Shabaab. The United States Command, more commonly known by the acronym AFRICOM, was created in 2007 under the Bush Administration and has overseen operations within Africa ever since. 2019 has been a particularly bloody year for U.S. involvement in Somalia, with a record 64 strikes launched and roughly 1000 estimated militant casualties according to a report by New America. The brazen attack on Camp Simba will likely escalate the conflict and further entangle the U.S. in East Africa. Since 2017, AFRICOM has expanded its role in Africa to the point where it now operates 34 bases across the continent. With its loosely-defined goals however, this already 17 year-long engagement has the potential to become another endless undertaking like the continuing mission in Afghanistan. An expansion of the already highly-visible U.S. role in African conflicts runs the risk not only of American casualties but of inciting resentment from local populations, who have sometimes become collateral damage of counter-terror operations in the past.
Al-Shabaab rose to power during the ongoing Somali Civil War, where it waged a bloody insurgency against the secular forces within Somalia. It succeeded in gaining control over much of the country until Kenyan forces invaded in 2011 under the pretext of creating a buffer zone against them and assisting the United States in the Global War on Terror. Kenyan forces have been embroiled in the Somali Civil War ever since, with withdrawal unlikely in the near future. Although Al-Shabaab’s territorial holdings have withered under the pressure of Kenyan and U.S. forces, the body count on both sides continues to climb as Al-Shabaab launches reprisal attacks within Kenya against both soldiers and civilians.
Time will tell whether or not the effort to eliminate the terrorist group will bear fruit. Even if the threat posed by them is eliminated, the question remains what power will rise to take their place and will the United States’ presence in East Africa become a permanent arrangement. The current goals of AFRICOM are to neutralize Al-Shabaab and transition power to the Somalian government, contain instability in Libya, fight Boko Haram, work with local partners to intercept illegal activity in the Gulf of Guinea and central Africa, and to pursue humanitarian missions within the continent. In addition, AFRICOM’s 2019 posture statement to Congress emphasized an impetus to counter Russian and Chinese influence in developing African countries. With so many engagements, the United States could be looking at an extended stay, one which is likely to only see more cases like that of Army Specialist Henry Mayfield Jr. For now the country walks a fine line between that of a military advisor and a participant in active conflict. How long it can continue to play both roles and what that will cost, in lives and capital, remains to be seen.