Kenyan military planners duped Al-Shabaab into believing that a land invasion of their last remaining bastion of Kismayu was imminent before making an amphibious landing from the sea.
While Al-Shabaab planned its defences based on that assumption, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) in the Horn of Africa country, was training at sea.
“As the KAF (Kenya Air Force) engaged in aerial attacks the other forces were moving in by sea, from where they were to disembark. Essentially, it was intended to divert attention, especially from the Al-Shabaab.
That’s why you (the media) did not know about it yesterday (Thursday),” said Col Cyrus Oguna, the KDF spokesman.
The surprise landing in Somalia’s coastal city of Kismayu by Kenyan troops on Friday was the culmination of a three-day secret undertaking, the Saturday Nation can reveal.
It involved attacks from the air, land and sea, all happening at the same time, and was codenamed Operation Sledge Hammer.
It was the first time the KDF ground troops set foot in Kismayu, the stronghold of terrorist group Al-Shabaab, since the Kenyan troops crossed the border into Somalia in October last year. (READ: Kenya declares Kismayu fall imminent)
Landed in middle of the night
The operation involved bombing by KAF F-5 jets and more shelling by Kenya Navy ships from the Indian Ocean with the ultimate aim – landing Kenya Army troops in the city – being executed in the middle of the night.
Col Oguna, the operations officer in charge of Information at KDF, said: “By 2am (Friday), the last forces had gotten out of the naval vessels and were safely on the ground. It has been on for the past three days and that’s why there were air strikes in key Al-Shabaab logistical bases.”
The high-ranking officer left his usual station in Nairobi for Kismayu and arrived with the fighting troops so as to provide regular updates from the battleground.
Col Oguna said the capture, a secret undertaking, was an “amphibious operation”, an organised military landing by means of combined naval and land forces.
Military officers and analysts have since dubbed it the first of its kind in Africa.
The strategy was all along to make the Al-Shabaab believe that the attack on Kismayu would be launched by ground troops advancing by road, most probably the ones at Jana Abdalla, the most recent township to be captured by KDF before Friday’s onslaught.
‘KNS Jasiri’ sees action
Recently acquired naval warship KNS Jasiri, which arrived in Kenya in August, was among the vessels used to transport the Kenya Army troops. Col Oguna said the naval vessels carrying the ground troops left “one of the maritime bases” in time for the fall of Kismayu.
By Friday afternoon, KDF and Somali National Army had not suffered casualties, according to Col Oguna. The SNA has been fighting alongside the KDF in southern Somalia under the banner of Amisom.
“So far we have encountered minimal resistance. So the casualties on the side of Al-Shabaab are mainly due to airstrikes that are ongoing as the ground troops advance towards Kismayu’s CBD (Central Business District) from the port,” said Col Oguna.
He said the attack was given a codename because it was the ultimate prize in Sector 2, the area assigned to KDF by Amisom.
“The major operation in Sector 2 was Kismayu,” said Col Oguna.
“Removal of Al-Shabaab would signal the complete destruction of its control of all the financial and logistical operations.
“We needed a hammer to accomplish it; hence ‘Operation Sledge Hammer’. Kismayu supported all other sectors, including 1, 3 and 4.”
Military headquarters in Nairobi described the operation thus in a post on its official Twitter account: “KDF and SNA undertook meticulous planning on the operation and executed it with utmost effectiveness never before seen in Africa.”
It said an “amphibious operation” was of the kind which are “complicated, delicate and highly dangerous to execute.”
Situation in Kismayu ‘stable’
However, the Department of Defence (DoD) described the situation in Kismayu as at 2pm on Friday as “stable” while advising residents “to stay calm and controlled”.
Besides arriving at the sea port, other military personnel, mainly drawn from Special Forces, an elite squad of KDF, landed at Kismayu Airport and took control.
By Friday night, the troops were going on with the operation aimed at taking control of the whole of Kismayu.
The airport was on Wednesday bombed by KAF fighter jets, destroying an Al-Shabaab armoury and warehouse.
The airstrikes were described by the DoD as “surgical operations,” because only specific targets were targeted and hit, including training camps, defence posts and other areas where the militias were concentrated.
KDF urged Kismayu residents to keep off areas with large number of Al-Shabaab fighters to be safe from crossfire.
It also urged Al-Shabaab to lay down their arms, adding that Kenyans who had joined the terrorist group in Somalia would be granted amnesty after they surrender.
After the combined force of ground and naval forces struck the port, the majority of Al-Shabaab fighters fled.
“Some of them just melted into the community but we still expect some little resistance, which we are ready to neutralise,” said military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir.
The KDF destroyed several technical vehicles left behind by the fleeing militants during the take-over, which is said to have lasted less than three hours, he added.
By daybreak, the Kenyan troops had taken control of most parts of the town.
“We have sufficient ground and naval forces in Kismayu as we speak. We are controlling three quarters of the city,” he stated.
Friday’s operation had been preceded by an aerial bombardment of Al-Shabaab positions in Kismayu which destroyed the militants’ armoury and a warehouse at Kismayu Airport on Tuesday.
“At this point in time, we are not able to know casualty figures but we will be able to give you that information once we get it,” Col Oguna was quoted by a Somalia news channel as saying.