The U.S.’s overlooked counter-terrorism outpost in Kenya

I’ve written before about Niger’s emerging role as a locus of AFRICOM’s counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel and Sahara, including drone bases in Niamey and Agadez, and a special operations force (SOF) facility in Arlit. It’s a topic that seems to be of some interest, and deservedly so. But if one wants a clear example of the  U.S. military’s more longstanding yet still expanding presence in Africa, a little known base across the continent in Kenya is also illustrative.

Established in 2004, Manda Bay, also sometimes referred to as Camp Simba, is a ‘forward operating location’ (FOL) situated along the coast roughly 100 kilometers from the border with Somalia at the site of a previously existing Kenyan naval base. Manda Bay’s primary function is to serve as a center for training exercises with Kenya’s naval special forces and a base for SOF operations in Somalia, including the “hunter-killer team” Task Force 88, which set up shop in early 2007 according to Thomas Barnett.

In its early years Manda Bay was a small scale affair with no more than a few dozen troops based there at any one time. Former Navy Seal and recently elected governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, served there in 2005 and his memoir, The heart and the fist, offers a useful picture of the modest (“probably no larger than two football fields” in his estimation) facility at the time: “Our compound was centered around a small house that had once been in shambles—broken roof, smashed walls, trees growing through the floor—but was now, after several deployments of special warfare personnel, structurally sound with a new red roof and a fresh coat of white paint…Surrounding the main house stood five khaki-colored, ten-man tents that hummed with small air conditioning units used to keep them cool at night.” In addition to this compound the base consisted of a small jetty and a rudimentary runway of barely 3,000 feet cut out of the jungle.

Greitens also writes about the logistical challenges of supplying a remote base such as Manda Bay, especially when it came to food: “We had no fresh fruit or vegetables at Manda Bay. Our supply officers in Djibouti tried to get us fresh fruit, but it was difficult to transport an orange from Europe to Djibouti, from Djibouti to Mombasa, and from Mombasa up to Lamu. We ate peaches soaked in syrup packaged in MRE bags.”

To overcome these and other supply shortcomings Manda Bay was part of a 2011 initiative to develop an “adaptive” military logistics network on the continent utilizing sealift by international contractors and line-haul by local truck companies. Following the successful completion of this experiment a Dubai firm, Seven Seas Shipchandlers, was awarded a contract to make regular deliveries to Manda Bay. Since then this logistics concept has been adopted across AFRICOM, most notably in the form of a 2014 African Surface Distribution Service contract, worth up to $10 million for each of the five selected companies, “to perform surface transport and distribution of general cargo within all fifty five (55) nations of the AFRICOM AOR and Egypt.”

manda-bay

manda-bay-airport

In the decade since Greiten’s tour Manda Bay has undergone a remarkable expansion that belies its designation as a ‘temporary’ FOL. The two sets of satellite images above (taken from Google Earth) provide a glimpse of the physical transformation of the base from 2006 to 2014. In the first we can see a more than 3-fold expansion of the base compound’s footprint, accompanied by a similar growth in buildings and infrastructure. A 2012 Navy engineering document I have obtained details a host of improvements completed and under construction at the time, including a new dining facility, extra fuel storage tanks, a new well and expanded water storage, and new power generators. In addition to this the Navy spent millions improving the base’s road network and repaving and lengthening the runway to 4,000 feet.

These infrastructural improvements reflect—and are necessitated by—Manda Bay’s growing importance for counter-terrorism operations in the Horn of Africa, as evidenced by the rapid growth in troops located at the facility since the few dozen stationed there in 2005. By 2012 the base “routinely” supported “in excess of 200 US service members” according to the Navy’s FY 2013 Overseas Contingency Operations budget request (see p. 67). This September the Navy posted a solicitation for bids for a new Base Operations Service (BOS) contract covering Camp Lemmonier and the Chabelley drone facility in Djibouti, and Manda Bay. According to the document the latter’s dining facility now serves 325 troops “with surges to 510 personnel for up to 3 months” (see p. 227). This suggests that Manda Bay is the second largest base on the continent after Lemmonier, even larger than the drone base in Niamey, which had—as of July this summer—a steady state of 200-250 personnel according to another contract solicitation.

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