Margot Kiser, Nairobi Sunday November 22 2020, 6.00pm GMT, The Times
America is seeking clearance to launch drone strikes against Islamic militants operating in Kenya, according to Pentagon sources, as part of efforts to counter jihadists’ growing reach into Africa.
While US forces have used drones against targets in Somalia for several years, launched from a base in Djibouti, the plan to extend operations to Kenya reflects the growing threat from Islamic extremists.
The plan would involve both responding to attacks by militants and launching pre-emptive strikes against targets identified by US intelligence.
It was drawn up in response to the killing of three Americans, two civilian contractors and a US army soldier earlier this year in an attack on a small American airbase within the supposedly secure perimeter of a Kenyan naval base on the coast.
At the time US commanders scrambled drones, but in the hours that it took for permission for a strike to be given by the Kenyan authorities the attackers had disappeared.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by al-Shabaab, an Islamist group that originated in Somalia but has sought to spread to neighbouring states including Kenya and Ethiopia.
Colonel Chris Karns, the US army spokesman for Africa, said the spread of al-Shabaab meant that the US was committed to working not just within Somalia but also elsewhere.
“There is a need to apply consistent international pressure on the terrorist organization and to monitor their activity and presence,” he told The Times. “We will continue to actively place pressure on their network and work with partners to prevent their spread.”
Once affiliated with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab has recently aligned itself with Isis, the militant group that has largely been defeated in Syria and Iraq only to re-emerge in Africa.
Isis has seized on an insurgency in northern Mozambique where its fighters are confounding government forces and foreign mercenaries. Scores of locals, including children, who put up resistance or fled have been beheaded or kidnapped.
Isis-linked militants in Kenya have launched raids into Tanzania while further operations have been staged in the lawless, eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, including a massive jailbreak and clashes with government forces.
US forces in Somalia have carte blanche from the authorities there to carry out airstrikes, which under the Trump administration increased from 46 in 2018 to 63 in 2019, and 47 so far this year.
US drones operating out of Djibouti have also hit a smaller number of militant targets identified in Libya. The aircraft would be at the limit of their operating distance if they went after targets in Kenya which lies about 1,000 miles south of the base.
If a drone base were to be set up in Kenya itself, a significant commitment of resources and manpower would be needed to mitigate extremist attacks against US personnel and infrastructure.
Lieutenant-colonel Anton T Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesman, told The Times: “We are constantly evaluating and — where needed — utilising available authorities and capabilities required to provide force protection.”
American drones were deployed to Niger following the 2017 killing of four US servicemen there by local militants although there have been no confirmed strikes launched by these aircraft.