WASHINGTON — A series of security lapses and an “inadequate focus” on threats on the ground helped lead to a deadly assault on a sprawling military base in Kenya in 2020 that killed three Americans, a Pentagon investigation has concluded.
The inquiry, led by the United States Africa Command, also found what the head of the command described as “shortcomings” in the sharing of intelligence and deficiencies in the preparation of security forces charged with guarding the base.
“We were not as prepared at Manda Bay as we needed to be,” Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commander of Africa Command, said in a video presentation of the findings at the Pentagon on Thursday.
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 Air Force said. But a spokeswoman for the service declined to describe the punishments or the fate of those personnel.
The brazen assault by 30 to 40 Shabab fighters at Manda Bay, a sleepy seaside base near the Somali border, resulted in the largest number of U.S. military-related fatalities in Africa since October 2017, when four soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger.
The attack by the Shabab, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa, revealed several glaring security shortfalls, a New York Times investigation found soon after the assault. It also highlighted the U.S. military’s limits in Africa, where a lack of intelligence — along with Manda Bay’s reputation as a quiet and unchallenged tourist locale — allowed a lethal strike.
The Times investigation found that American commandos took about an hour to respond. Many of the local Kenyan forces assigned to defend the base hid in the grass while U.S. troops and support staff members were corralled into tents with little protection to wait out the battle. Evacuating one of the wounded to a military hospital in Djibouti, about 1,000 miles north, took hours.
Lt. Gen. Steven L. Basham, the Air Force’s deputy commander for Europe and Africa, told reporters on Thursday that in the early morning of Jan. 5, 2020, two U.S. service members driving a small truck along a runway on the base saw thermal images of what they initially thought were hyenas. They realized too late that the images were of Shabab fighters hiding in the vegetation.
The fighters fired two rocket-propelled grenades at the truck. One exploded, killing Specialist Henry Mayfield Jr., 23, of the Army, the report found. The other service member in the truck was able to get out.
The Shabab fighters then fired rockets at an airplane on the tarmac. It caught fire, killing the pilots, both of whom were American contractors, General Basham said. Dustin Harrison, 47, and Bruce Triplett, 64, were two experienced pilots with L3 Technologies, a Pentagon contractor that helped with surveillance and reconnaissance missions around the world.
During the news briefing on the report, the Pentagon declined to go into detail about whether any of the senior officers involved had been fired.
Africa Command conducted an initial investigation shortly after the attack, but the results were bottled up in the Pentagon in the final months of the Trump administration and were never approved or made public.
When the Biden administration took office last January, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III ordered a review of the Africa Command’s inquiry, in part to avoid a repeat of the contentious Defense Department investigation into the 2017 Niger attack. That report found widespread problems across all levels of the military counterterrorism operation but focused in particular on the actions of junior officers leading up to the ambush — unfairly so, in the view of many family members, lawmakers and James N. Mattis, the defense secretary at the time.
During his final weeks in office, President Donald J. Trump ordered most of the 700 U.S. troops in Somalia to leave the country but not the region. Most of the forces transferred to Djibouti or Kenya, including Manda Bay, where security was improved, officials said. The Biden administration is conducting a review to determine whether to send any of those troops back to Somalia.