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3 Americans Killed In Al-Shabab Attack In Kenya


In the early morning of Sunday, militants attacked an airfield in Kenya. The militants were from an Islamist group called al-Shabab. The airfield they attacked is jointly operated by Kenya and the United States. One American service member and two Defense Department contractors were killed.

NPR's Eyder Peralta is in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Hey there, Eyder.


INSKEEP: What are American troops doing in Kenya?

PERALTA: So you know, they are here to basically keep al-Shabab, which is - they consider a terrorist organization, from spreading. The U.S. has used this base and others in the region to train local troops and to launch airstrikes against al-Shabab. And you know, this is not new. The U.S. has been bombing al-Shabab for more than a decade, but the Trump administration has stepped up its offensive. And last year, it conducted at least 60 airstrikes against the group, and that's a record. Al-Shabab, for its part, wants to topple the U.S.-backed central government, and they want to create an Islamist state in Somalia.

INSKEEP: So how did they go about striking this Kenyan-U.S. air base, which I presume was well guarded?

PERALTA: Yeah. So the Kenyan military tells us that an unknown number of al-Shabab militants, they broke through the perimeter of this airfield. They were armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. And witnesses say that they heard loud explosions, and a huge plume of smoke rose from the airfield. Al-Shabab released pictures of their militants posing in front of burning aircraft. American and Kenyan troops were able to repel the attack. But as you said, one American service member and two defense contractors were killed.

And part of the reason, Steve, that this is a big deal is because al-Shabab has never done something like this in Kenya. They've never attacked a military base with American troops. And over the years, they have preferred what are known as soft targets here in Kenya. They attacked a mall and a university a few years back, and last year, they attacked a hotel. And this is a fortified base. The al-Shabab watchers I've been talking to say that this is one of the group's most brazen attacks.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note, ultimately, the attack failed. It did some damage. It killed someone - killed some people but, of course, was driven back. Nevertheless, you're saying this is al-Shabab demonstrating a new capability. What does that say about the effectiveness of the U.S. campaign against them?

PERALTA: You know, a few years back, everyone was really hopeful about Somalia. There was a new government. The U.S. airstrikes, they really seemed to be taking a toll on the group.

But I was talking to Tricia Bacon, who used to focus on counterterrorism at the State Department and now she teaches at American University. And she says that all that hope has deflated, especially because, despite all of that American bombing, al-Shabab has somehow adapted, and they're finding ways to bomb inside the Somali capital Mogadishu, and it is still finding a way to keep a hold on huge swaths of Somali territory. They're still taxing, and they're still running the judicial system there. And now it has pulled off this brazen attack. Let's listen to a bit of what Tricia Bacon told me.

TRICIA BACON: It's certainly true that the group's operational tempo and where it's able to strike point to a group that is still very capable and very resilient and that feels like it has the initiative in a lot of ways.

PERALTA: So a few years ago, she had hoped that al-Shabab could be defeated. But today she says she has a lot more concern than hope.

INSKEEP: Eyder, thanks for your insights. Really appreciate it.

PERALTA: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Nairobi, Kenya. And it was in Kenya that al-Shabab, a Somali group, attacked a joint Kenyan-United States air base.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "LUX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.