An attack on a rural outpost may have killed dozens of Burundian soldiers in Somalia
As a previous article published on this forum noted, al-Shabaab, along with many other terrorist groups that claim (falsely) Islamic authority, increases its activities during the Holy Month of Ramadan. However, with the conclusion of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr festival those groups generally go dormant, perhaps spending a well earned break with their families and friends after all that slaughtering of innocents, or sometimes organising ‘forced fun’ events for those unfortunate enough to located in areas they control (sports tournaments, displays of military prowess, a humorous playlet, maybe a few executions).
Not so this year. Eid al-Fitr comes with the sighting of the first phase of the moon, thirty days after the beginning of Ramadan. That night, May 2nd into May 3rd, hundreds of al-Shabaab fighters were moving in darkness, through the scrub towards an isolated African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) base near a village called El-Baraf in the Middle Shabelle region that just to the north of Mogadishu.
What is a FOB?
These isolated rural bases are referred to by the military as ‘FOBs’ (Forward Operating Bases). They are positioned at strategic points such as roads junctions or near towns and, in Somalia, are usually manned jointly by ATMIS troops – Burundians, Djiboutians, Ethiopians, Kenyans or Ugandans – and their Somali National Army partners. The ATMIS troops are better equipped and trained and have access to air support (helicopter gunships for extra firepower when attacked or transport helicopters for bringing in supplies and additional troops and evacuating casualties). The Somalis have the cultural links with the locals, though, and are often more numerous.
Except they weren’t there. It is unclear why there were no Somali soldiers in El-Baraf. Perhaps they hadn’t arrived yet. Perhaps they had but then hadn’t been paid and fled (they do that a lot). Or perhaps they had gone home to their families for Eid, just as they would expect al-Shabaab to do.
But this time al-Shabaab hadn’t gone home for Eid.
The FOB at El-Baraf is massive – the perimeter is three kilometres. But there are estimated to have been only 100, perhaps 150 troops there when it was attacked. A long wall is hard to defend when there aren’;t that many of you, especially when some bits back onto farmland or forest (good cover for those patiently crawling up).
Al-Shabaab Communicates, ATMIS Doesn’t
Al-Shabaab claims, through its fake news webpages like Somali Memo and Calamada, to have killed 173 Burundian soldiers, which seems preposterous (since it is more than the number of troops who were there). It also claims to have captured a number of Burundians and has shared images of its commanders meeting, apparently, with the townspeople of El-Baraf and allowing them to loot the FOB (expect for weapons and ammunition – al-Shabaab keeps those). It has also posted numerous gory pictures of bodies, claiming that they are the former denizens of the FOB. (For this reason Kenya Forum would never encourage you to go hunting for al-Shabaab’s postings about its operations.)
ATMIS, on the other hand, delegates the announcement of casualties to the relevant national government, who generally err on the side of caution or opt for a simple denial. Sadly we may have to wait until al-Shabaab releases its video of the attack (which it always does, a few weeks or months after the attack) for something like a conclusive version of what actually happened in El-Baraf. Sadly this is how Ugandans found out what really happened when their forces were overrun in Janaale in 2015 and how Kenyans found out what really happened in El-Adde in 2016, as did Ethiopians and Burundians in other, similar cases where isolated positions in the hinterland were overwhelmed.
It is a sad state of affairs that we have to wait for the terrorists to tell us what happened during a terrorist attack – and a great disrespect to a country’s soldiers and their families, when they make the ultimate sacrifice, fighting terrorists in the middle of nowhere in another country.