What you need to know:
- Seven other battles would later also prove significant in the war against transnational terrorism, and their particular success points are detailed in the Kenya Defence Force’s official account of their stay in Somalia so far.
- They are contained in a 306-page book titled Operation Linda Nchi: Kenya’s Military Experience in Somalia, whose “primary authors” are Colonel T Migue; Lieutenant Colonels Oscar M Oluoch, Paul M Njuguna and Charles O Imbiakha; and Majors Daniel M Mugoro and David O Kwach.
- The first battle was effectively ended by the arrival of a fighter jet and, later, two attack helicopters which bombed Al-Shabaab and forced them to flee. About 200 were killed in the battle.
- From the book, the next battle does not, really, sound like a major one because KDF and the Somalia forces took over Afmadhow without much of a fight.
We have been hitting the tail and the body of the Al-Shabaab, (and) we now want to hit the head, and the best weapon to do so is a hammer; a sledge hammer. You are the sledge hammer which is going to hit the head.”
General Julius Waweru Karangi was aboard the KNS Tana on the night of September 25, 2012 when he uttered those words. Kenya at the time had just launched a cross-border offensive against a pesky group of fighters calling themselves Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and who had been making regular trips into Kenyan territory and causing chaos.
Aboard the naval ship on this very important night that would define the security of the nation in the coming years were 640 personnel drawn from the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), the Somalia National Army (SNA), and the Ras Kamboni Brigade (RKB), the last a ragtag force that had, almost single-handedly, been resisting the advances of Al-Shabaab in southern Somalia and Jubbaland.
They had sailed off from the small island of Manda on the Lamu archipelago in the Indian Ocean and taken the northerly direction towards the Somali seaport of Kismayu, but had been kept in the dark about their destination and could not call their colleagues to ask whether they knew what their seniors were up to, or even their loved ones to tell them of their departure, because their phones had been confiscated.
Gen Karangi’s choice of words to illustrate the task at hand for the team — using a sledge hammer to hit a snake on the head — had borne the name Operation Sledge Hammer, and two days later, on September 27, the advance team of fighters secured the beach at Kismayu in preparation for the landing of other troops and equipment.
As the day progressed, the news that Kenya finally had boots in Kismayu trickled to Nairobi. However, Al-Shabaab had known that KDF would attack their beloved port and had organised themselves for the battle of their lives.
they had been duped, and quite skillfully so, that the assault would involve ground forces, and so as they scampered to secure positions to defend Kismayu, they had turned their backs on the vast, blue-green Indian Ocean, allowing Gen Karangi’s team a fairly easy amphibious landing on the sandy beaches of their little colony.
This was, by far, the most significant development in Operation Linda Nchi as it meant that, for the first time, Kenyan military boots were treading on a key Al-Shabaab territory.
Seven other battles would later also prove significant in the war against transnational terrorism, and their particular success points are detailed in the Kenya Defence Force’s official account of their stay in Somalia so far.
They are contained in a 306-page book titled Operation Linda Nchi: Kenya’s Military Experience in Somalia, whose “primary authors” are Colonel T Migue; Lieutenant Colonels Oscar M Oluoch, Paul M Njuguna and Charles O Imbiakha; and Majors Daniel M Mugoro and David O Kwach.
It had never been a secret that the onward march of the Kenyan forces, even under the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), would stop with the capture of Kismayu, the port town standing less than 200 kilometres east of Kenya, and which is considered a strategic outpost by both Kenya and Al-Shabaab.
Each of the seven battles is considered important because it either enabled the Kenyan forces to move forward and capture key towns, or weakened Al-Shabaab and prevented them from recapturing a strategic location they had lost.
It was what the now-retired General would later describe as “hitting the tail and the body” of the Al-Shabaab, and hence weakening it so that the head would not need many blows.
This is how it all happened: at about 5.20am on April 4, 2012, the first of the significant battles started in the general area of Hoosingo, a settlement of about 2,500 considered a gateway for goods from Kismayu into Kenya.
It had fallen to the Kenyan and Somali forces just three days earlier, but Al-Shabaab had shown the advancing teams that they planned to protect their territories with all their might.
In the ensuing battle, Kenya had lost two men — Lieutenant Kevin Webi and Second Lieutenant Edward Okoyo — in the battle, and just as the victorious fighters were starting to settle down, Al-Shabaab had come knocking.
The authors state that Al-Shabaab had plotted elaborately, recruiting fighters from Kismayu and seven other towns, some of them forcibly, and by force switching off the Hormuud mobile phone communication network for two days. When they struck, Maj Joel Maiyo immediately asked his commanding officer, Lt-Col Jeff Nyagah, for reinforcements. That battle would last six hours, according to the official account, with Al-Shabaab using Doshika machine guns mounted on technicals and their foot soldiers attacking in eight waves of 50 to 60 fighters each.
“The waves were organised in such a way that when one seemed to be overpowered, the next wave waiting behind would advance and take position so as to sustain the attack,” the writers say.
WAR OF MINDS
The first battle was effectively ended by the arrival of a fighter jet and, later, two attack helicopters which bombed Al-Shabaab and forced them to flee. About 200 were killed in the battle.
The next major encounter would take place at Fafadun, a small town located in the Gedo region that borders the Kenyan settlement of El Wak, on August 15, 2012. This one started at dusk and, like the Battle of Hoosingo, lasted six hours.
Coming from different directions, there were six waves of Al-Shabaab fighters, and this time, probably after taking their lessons from the bloody Hoosingo battle a few days earlier, they preferred fighting under the cover of darkness.
Bad mistake, for KDF had the all-important advantage of being kitted with night-vision devices, coupled with aerial intelligence of the imminent attack. At the end, the official account states, more than 80 Al-Shabaab fighters were killed.
From the book, the next battle does not, really, sound like a major one because KDF and the Somalia forces took over Afmadhow without much of a fight. Only the advance troops, the SNA and the RKB, had an encounter with the insurgents, 50 of whom had laid an ambush 10 kilometres from Belles Qooqani to prevent their advance to Xayo, just before their destination.
There was a gunfight, six Al-Shabaab fighters were killed and one captured. The captured one informed his captors that his colleagues had believed the propaganda that Afmadhow and Kismayu were to be attacked simultaneously and had gone to defend the more important port town.
“By 3pm, KDF and TFG troops marched into Afmadhow without much resistance,” the book chronicles.
After Afmadhow would come three other major battles as the KDF fought its way towards Kismayu, 120 kilometres away. Because of concentrating on the overland route, and drunk on a fair bit of propaganda, Al-Shaabab were convinced that the attempt to take Kismayu would be staged from an inland direction.
The small town of Miido, 16 kilometres from Afmadhow on the road towards Kismayu, was taken without a fight, but the locals did not inform the Kenyans and their Somali counterparts that Al-Shabaab were close by.
The Kenyan officers were on a reconnaissance mission when they walked into an ambush barely 800 metres from the town, with gunfire from both sides of the road pinning them down and forcing their commander to ask for reinforcements.
Two Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) were immediately dispatched to the scene, but Al-Shabaab fighters shot at them from a distance, deflating their tyres. By the time the battle ended, one Kenyan soldier lay dead while the platoon commander and three other soldiers were missing. Also, the Kenyan forces could not drive a 10-tonne Isuzu truck and an APC from the battle ground as the fighting lasted through the night.
The official account understates the extent of this fight considerably, but it is evident it was one of the biggest losses for the KDF up to that point. The bodies of the four missing soldiers would eventually be recovered and a decision made to destroy the APC and the lorry because they could not be recovered.
SILENCED FOR GOOD
Four days later, Al-Shabaab resumed their attacks on forces camping at Miido, but were silenced for good when the Kenyan forces called in an artillery team to shell the Shabaab positions.
Days later, there would be short but fierce fighting at Harbole and Biibi down the road, with the official account putting the number of dead Al-Shabaab at more than 100.
After Biibi and Harbole, the book records the forces getting into “contact”, which is military parlance for a gunfight, every five kilometres and winning each one, sometimes with the help of air support from the Air Cavalry Battalion’s helicopters.
At Jana Cabdala, the forces faced an acute water shortage after a KDF soldier was killed while trying to draw water from a well and the fleeing Al-Shabaab destroyed the water pump at another location. Diesel and chemicals had also been poured into a dam to spoil the water.
In all, the march from Afmadhow to Kismayu took 33 days over 120 kilometres. That may seem to be a long time to cover a fairly short distance, but official accounts blame this on bad roads and the many battles they had to fight along the way.
At the end, though, Kismayu would be taken, not by the force of the gun, but by sheer cunning.
Over land, the advance to Kismayu started at 8am on the morning of September 28, 2012. On foot and on vehicles, the forces encountered Improvised Explosive Devices buried in their paths as well as several ambushes. The Kenya Air Force had also deployed jets and helicopters.
On the northern beach of Kismayu, Operation Sledge Hammer was in progress. It had started with Kenyan helicopters dropping leaflets in Kismayu on September 26 advising residents to keep away from areas dominated by Al-Shabaab or move away from the town altogether.
Al-Shabaab commanders, probably believing that part of the assault team would land at the Kismayu Airport, immediately ordered its most battle-hardened men to go defend the strategic establishment. Armed with surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns, they were ordered to shoot down any plane or helicopter coming in. That lot were annihilated the same day by a Kenyan fighter jet.
Also acting on the assumption that the forces marching towards them would be the main means of taking over the town, Al-Shabaab commanders moved their fighters towards the main route. KDF soldiers marching towards the town were also under the assumption that they would be the first Kenyan troops to set foot in the town. At about half past midnight on September 28, about 80 members of the Special Forces disembarked from a ship in the cool waters of the Indian Ocean and headed for Kismayu North Beach in dinghies. They landed without encountering any resistance and were followed later in the morning by the Rangers Strike Force, accompanied by the SNA and RKB.
Two days later, KDF had secured the northern part of the town. With more than 1,000 forces approaching over land, Al-Shabaab announced on their Twitter page that they had abandoned the city and shut down their radio station and offices.
General Karangi had told his soldiers that they needed to hit the enemy on the head, and that head was the concentration of Al-Shabaab firepower in and around Kismayu. They vanguished that firepower spectacularly, but whether the head had been smashed would keep being tested over time.
2012: Events leading to the fall of strategic Somali town
Aug 31: Somali town of Miido is captured by KDF and allied forces
Sept 12: Harbole town falls to KDF and the allied forces
Sept 14: KDF, assisted by allied forces, captures Biibi town
Sept 19: Jana Cabdala town falls to KDF and allied forces
Sept 5-13: Planning of Operation Sledge Hammer takes place on Kenyan territory
Sept 11-17: KDF special team moves from Liboi to Manda near Lamu
Sept 17: Chief of Defence Forces, Gen J W Karangi, and service commanders move from Nairobi to Mombasa
Sept 17: KDF conducts amphibious landing training and rehearsals at the coast
Sept 25: Gen Karangi launches Operation Sledge Hammer in Manda
Sept 27: KDF’s Navy team executes a successful amphibious landing at Kismayu
Sept 28: Kismayu falls in the hands of KDF and the allied forces