In the early hours of January 5, 2020, roughly a dozen militants from al-Qaeda’s East African affiliate, the Somalia-based al-Shabaab, sneaked onto a discreet U.S. airfield nestled among the mangrove forests of eastern Kenya. The ensuing firefight at the base in Manda Bay lasted for hours, killing three Americans and destroying a U.S. surveillance plane.1 The assault was overshadowed in international media by the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq two days prior, but it marked a significant inflection in al-Shabaab’s long efforts to expel “infidel” forces from East Africa as a means of establishing an Islamist state.
The group had attacked Kenya numerous times and had killed two American Soldiers in separate firefights in Somalia.2 But never before had al-Shabaab succeeded in breaching a U.S. military installation. The January 2020 attack further underscored the ease with which al-Shabaab operates across the border in Kenya. A U.S. strategic partner, and generally seen in the West as one of Africa’s more stable and prosperous states, Kenya was clearly vulnerable despite years of counterterrorism efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. security assistance.3
U.S. security officials had already grown increasingly concerned about al-Shabaab’s improving capabilities prior to the attack.