Death in the morning: Why Amisom soldiers had little fighting chance in Janaale

Monday September 26 2016

Ugandan soldiers serving with Amisom at a base in Somalia. PHOTO | AFP

Ugandan soldiers serving with Amisom at a base in Somalia. Set up in January 2007 by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, Amisom was meant to be a small, short-term peacekeeping force to keep warring Somali factions apart as a new transitional government built up support and credibility. In March that year Uganda landed its first 1,700 soldiers in Somalia, followed by Burundi six months later. PHOTO | AFP  

By DANIEL K. KALINAKI

The explosion went off at around 5:25am. Daylight was breaking in Janaale, a sleepy town in the southeastern Lower Shabelle region of Somalia, about 90 kilometres from the capital Mogadishu.

Through the fast-clearing early morning darkness, two soldiers on guard duty at the Quarter Guard were the first to spot the suicide bomber as he raced an explosive-laden vehicle into the tree log contraption that served as a gate to the detachment. The two soldiers fired at the old truck, which veered off sharply, away from the Quarter Guard, towards a building that housed the second-in-command of the detachment, before exploding in an orange fireball of deadly shrapnel. 

Almost immediately, the skies above opened with the angry roar of death, the tracer bullets whizzing like angry fireflies in the dim light, stinging like bees when they met flesh. Fighters from Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahidin—commonly known as al Shabaab— had launched an attack on a detachment of Ugandan soldiers serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom).

Captain Swaibu Ayasiga, the highest-ranking officer at the detachment that day, was awoken by the explosion and the acrid stench of burning chemicals from the bomb. He quickly took command of the troops now scrambling to defend their positions.

Outside, al Shabaab had mobilised a formidable force of between 300 and 500 fighters. They came in three waves. At the front, crawling through the long grass, were fresh recruits whose job was to sneak as close as possible to the razor-wire-and-sandbag perimeter of the detachment then lob hand grenades inside.

Providing covering fire behind them was a formation of more experienced fighters armed with PK assault rifles — a Soviet-made general-purpose machine gun — as well as AK-47 and G3 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and 82mm B10 recoilless rifles, which pack enough punch to knock out a tank. 

Bringing up the rear were snipers. To support the infantry were three Toyota Land Cruisers and a Mitsubishi Fuso lorry mounted with 12.7mm and 14.5mm single-barrel anti-aircraft guns and converted into “technicals”, the Somali version of 4x4s modified into improvised fighting vehicles.

Stirred into action, the Ugandan soldiers started firing back. To support the infantry, the detachment had one 14.5mm and one 12.7mm anti-aircraft gun, as well as 82mm and 60mm mortars, general-purpose machine guns and assault rifles.

Crumbling defence

A fierce gun battle ensued and after 35 minutes, there was a pause in the fighting. For a brief moment, it looked like the attack had been beaten off but inside the detachment, the Ugandan defence was quickly crumbling.

A soldier was reloading the 14.5mm anti-aircraft gun when a sniper’s bullet struck his head. He was saved by his Kevlar helmet.

Next to him, a sniper’s bullet struck another soldier in the right cheek, through his tongue, and exited through his left cheek - but he survived.

The crew manning the 12.7mm gun weren’t as lucky. They had been shot dead as they tried to reload. Like soldiers in other positions, they had not received second-line ammo. Five boxes of ammo for the 12.7mm gun, part of a consignment that had been supplied three weeks earlier, remained in the armoury, out of reach.

The 82mm mortar had jammed after firing only one bomb and although the 60mm mortar fired all its 62 bombs, it did not take long for the attackers to notice that one by one, the heavy support weapons were falling quiet. Inherently opportunistic and smelling victory in the acrid stench of death and gunpowder, the attackers poured forth again. 

One after another, the Ugandan soldiers started running out of ammo. Whoever rose to change defensive position or reload was almost immediately picked off by the snipers.

At 5:45am Capt Ayasiga telephoned the commander of the 13th Battalion, Maj Noel Mwesigye and Col Bosco Mutambi, the commander of Uganda’s Battle Group (BG) XVI, to inform them that his detachment and the C company in charge of it were under attack and to request for reinforcements. It was a call they were expecting but one they’d hoped would never come.

Stuck in the sand

Set up in January 2007 by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, Amisom was meant to be a small, short-term peacekeeping force to keep warring Somali factions apart as a new transitional government built up support and credibility. In March that year, Uganda landed its first 1,700 soldiers in Somalia, followed by Burundi six months later.

However, the transitional government in Mogadishu was weak, as was the ineffectual mass of what passed for the Somali National Army (SNA). Al Shabaab, on the other hand, had become a formidable and cunning military outfit.

After al Shabaab suicide bombers killed 76 people in July 2010 in Kampala, Amisom’s mandate was quickly changed from peacekeeping to peace-enforcement, with Uganda and Burundi sending in more troops.

As Amisom went on the offensive, it dislodged al Shabaab from Mogadishu in August 2011. In October, Kenyan troops joined the fray, driving the militant group out of its southern bases. Ethiopian troops joined in November, attacking from the west.

One by one, al Shabaab lost control of key towns, including Afgoye and the ports of Kismayo and Marka, which provided it with lucrative revenues through control and taxation of import and export trade.

On a balmy night on Monday September 1, 2014, US drones, which kept an eye on al Shabaab from the Somali skies, struck two vehicles near a small forest in Sablale, in the Lower Shabelle region. Among the dead was Ahmed Abdi Godane, the al Shabaab leader.

Decapitated and in disarray, the militants suffered a series of high profile defections. Now primarily waging guerrilla warfare, they resorted to looking for vulnerabilities in the Amisom positions. As it turned out, these were many.

Although now bolstered by troops from Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, Amisom, with its expanded mandate, was soon propping up not just key installations, but most of the country.  

Uganda was handed responsibility over Mogadishu, Banadir and the Lower Shabelle regions. Apart from protecting the airport and key government installations in Mogadishu, the Ugandan contingent was also responsible for protecting a long stretch of the main supply route from the capital to Barawe, 208 kilometres south, on the Indian Ocean coast.

In head-on confrontations, al Shabaab’s fighters were no match for the Amisom forces. However, spread out thinly in an attempt to hold territory and protect civilians, the smaller detachments and encampments of Amisom fighters became easier targets for the Islamic militants. 

Two realities added to this precarious state of affairs. First, the SNA, which was supposed to take over and control the areas captured by Amisom, remained weak, poorly equipped and factionalised along clan lines and political contests.

“We are transforming a clan-based militia into a national defence force, trained and equipped and well disciplined to fight a counter-insurgency and counterterrorism also that will [become] in one or two years [an] international standard army,” then defence minister Abdihakim Haji Mohamud Fiqi said optimistically in April 2013.

A month later, during a fundraising visit to London, Mr Fiqi revealed that the cash-strapped SNA had not received “a single bullet or one single AK-47 or gun” almost two months after the UN had lifted an arms embargo against Somalia.

Second, while Amisom was not subject to the embargo, its forces did not have enough guns, ammo and equipment to hold the vast territory under its control. 

On December 31, 2014 Brig-Gen Sam Kavuma, then the overall commander of the Ugandan troops in Somalia, raised the red flag in a memo back home to the UPDF Chief of Defence Forces Gen Katumba Wamala and the Chief of Land Forces, Maj-Gen David Muhoozi in which he requested for a new fleet of at least 30 infantry fighting vehicles (IFV).

Brig-Gen Kavuma noted that an expanded area of operation, bad roads, a surge in the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ageing equipment were putting his forces under risk.

“The IFVs mechanical status is in unbearable state to the extent that they are unlikely to sustain an upscale operation for more than two days without breakdown which is very dangerous to our forces,” he warned.

Amisom materiel is made up of country-owned equipment (COE) which each army brings in from its national stores, and Department of State (DOS) equipment supplied by the US government. Amisom’s European and American funders reimburse COE and pay for DOS equipment and spares directly.

Ugandan soldiers took an assortment of mostly South African-made IFVs and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) with them to Somalia, including South African-made Mamba MK2s, Gila, Buffel, Reva3 and BMP-2s from Slovakia. 

Since 2007, the vehicles had taken a pounding, literally, from enemy fire and IEDs, and from operating around-the-clock in Somalia’s saline air. These iron horses of infantry warfare are rugged and designed to last for many years but some of the vehicles in the fleet had been manufactured as early as 1955 and, in the absence of readily available spare parts, had fallen into disrepair.

Despite dogged efforts by UPDF mechanics to scrape around for spare parts, 13 out of 33 Casspirs — a landmine-protected 4x4 troop-transport APC — supplied by the Americans had been grounded. 

“It should be observed that the area of operation under the Ugandan Contingent has widened yet the current IFVs are aged and exhausted,” a confidential in-house assessment of the materiel available to the Ugandan troops under Amisom noted. “The only way to go is for the leadership to consider acquiring [a] new fleet of IFVs, whose spare parts are available in our local markets, in order to maintain the operational continuity of the mission.”

Despite the red flag, and although all COE supplied is supposed to be fully reimbursed by Amisom’s funders, the IFVs requested for did not come. There was history.

On August 12, 2012, two UPDF combat helicopters crashed on Mount Kenya en route to Somalia where they were meant to give Amisom air power. Four years later they are yet to be replaced, and for the Amisom soldiers in Janaale, that was to become a matter of life and death.

On August 12, 2012, two UPDF combat helicopters crashed on Mount Kenya en route to Somalia. PHOTO | AFP

Wreckage of one of two UPDF combat helicopters which crashed on Mount Kenya on August 12, 2012 en route to Somalia where they were meant to give Amisom air power. PHOTO | AFP

Waiting to explode

By January 2015, intelligence reports indicated that al Shabaab fighters were massing around Marka, a coastal town, and Quoryoole farther inland, both roughly halfway between Mogadishu and Baraawe.

There were about 6,000 Ugandan troops deployed in 38 detachments along the 200km road between the capital and Baraawe. In response to the al Shabaab threat, Ugandan troops made tactical adjustments to their positions, including merging smaller detachments into larger positions easier to defend.

The detachment at Janaale was of particular concern. It lay isolated almost 10km away from the road, did not have enough soldiers to defend it, was hard to reinforce and under imminent threat of attack. The Ugandan soldiers would be relocated to the detachment at Quoryoole and security in the area turned over to the SNA.

The need to merge small detachments was given urgency on June 26, 2015, when an al Shabaab suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden vehicle into an Amisom detachment manned by Burundian soldiers in Leego, Lower Shabelle region, then attacked and overran the base. 

Different sources indicate that anywhere between 58 and 70 of the 100 soldiers at the detachment were killed (Amisom does not publish war casualties), some by beheading. So gruesome was the attack, according to one source familiar with the matter, that the Burundi soldiers and survivors refused to return to the camp. It took Ugandan soldiers to collect the dead when they retook the town two days later.

Battle Group XVI arrived in Somalia around the time of the attack on Leego. It was comprised of the 13th and 49th battalions. On June 30, senior Ugandan military officers met to reassess their deployments. Following the warnings raised earlier in January, two detachments in Quoryoole were merged into one and two others shifted to better defensive positions.

Then the heavy lifting equipment broke down and was sent to Mogadishu for repairs, where it would remain for months. Janaale remained untouched, isolated and vulnerable, with its old sand bags and broken concertina barbed wire. 

African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom)

African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) soldiers move one of their damaged vehicles following a suicide attack which targeted their convoy on September 8, 2014, near the town of Afgoye, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) northwest of the capital Mogadishu. PHOTO | AFP

With the heavy equipment still away in Mogadishu, the Ugandans would have to improvise and make do with whatever they had.  

Col. Mutambi, the BGXVI commander requested for more support weapons from higher ups and ordered his battalion commanders to fortify their detachments. Each was to have a killing ground of at least 50 metres all around, soldiers’ shelters had to be constructed along the defence lines and all defensive positions were to have second-line ammo for faster reloading in case of attack.

In addition, soldiers were to carry out night ambushes to stop attackers in their tracks, keep the positions of the support weapons secret, and keep locals from loitering around the detachments.

By mid-August, intelligence was pouring in about al Shabaab fighters massed in Beder within striking distance of Janaale, Quoryoole or Mashaley detachments.

“In my assessment, Janaale could be the most likely destination since it is a bit isolated and the other two are within supportive distances of one another,” Col Mutambi warned in a message to the 13th Battalion, which was in charge of the area. “All detaches should double their alertness.” 

On August 27, 2015 the BGXVI commanders met and, concerned about the increasingly shrill intelligence reports of an imminent attack, ordered a pre-emptive strike on about 100-200 al Shabaab fighters loitering around Quoryoole. Responsibility for the attack fell to Maj Mwesigye and the 13th Battalion. With up to 200 soldiers, two tanks, one Katyusha rocket launcher and one set of three IFVs it was a formidable force against the al-Shabaab fighters. 

Things, however, were about to go horribly wrong.

Internal combustion

Trouble had been brewing in the 13th Battalion for many months. It had started during pre-mission training in Singo, central Uganda, where there had been a falling out between Maj Mwesigye and his then-second-in-command, Maj Jimmy Lutalo, who asked to be reassigned to another unit. 

It had followed the unit to the mission area. First, Maj Mwesigye replaced the Janaale detachment commander, Capt Justine Eilor within two weeks of their arrival after he reported intelligence of a looming attack on the position by al-Shabaab, and labelled him “alarmist and a coward”. Then Maj Mwesigye fired the company intelligence officer at the end of the first month of deployment in unclear circumstances.

Military intelligence reports show a litany of fights between officers in the battalion that by August 2015 was reported to be “disorganised and divided”.

Relations with locals had also been frayed after soldiers from the battalion got dragged into one side of a local dispute between two rival Somali clans. The animosity grew after the troops uprooted a large marijuana garden outside the Janaale detachment that was a source of revenue for local farmers, and whose produce some of the Ugandan soldiers had enjoyed.

Significantly, relations between Col Mutambi and Maj Mwesigye had also suffered. “Let’s just say that they were not the best of friends,” a military source said, on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Although of junior rank to the BGXVI commander, Maj Mwesigye was believed to enjoy the ears and confidence of higher ups in the UPDF echelons, which made it difficult to deal with the litany of complaints that continued to pour forth from his charges.

This icy relationship and the events immediately after the meeting of August 27 were to have fatal consequences. The meeting at the BG headquarters near Marka had ended mid-morning and Maj Mwesigye was given a set of IFVs to transport him to Quoryoole detachment where he was to assess the situation by 5pm and attack the al Shabaab positions the following day.

However, Maj Mwesigye only arrived in Quoryoole at 8pm when it was dark and too late to make an assessment for the attack. The convoy had lost more than 40 minutes when the vehicles got stuck on a slippery road between Balidamin and Mashalay but a subsequent report on the mission would allege “unwillingness of the commander to execute the mission by creating unnecessary delays.”

There were further delays on August 28 due to a visit to the area by Lt-Gen Charles Angina, the UPDF’s deputy Chief of Defence Forces (D/CDF), and on August 29 when the Somali President similarly visited, forcing the commanders to temporarily hand over to his use and protection the only set of IFVs they had. 

The operation resumed on August 30 at 2pm, when the Amisom fighters pulled out of Quoryoole with two tanks and 30 soldiers in three APCs headed for Tawakali-Baseri village, a forested area where al-Shabaab fighters had been spotted.

Eight kilometres into the journey, one of the APCs got a flat tyre that took an hour to fix. A kilometre later, one of the tanks broke down – this required an hour-and-a-half to fix. By nightfall the soldiers were still a kilometre from Cerejedes, a small town before Tawakali and decided to encamp for the night.

A little after 7am on the morning of August 31, the armed convoy rolled into Cerejedes. As soon as they drove past the small outpost, however, they came upon a thick forest as well as a canal across which lay a small bridge too flimsy to take the weight of the heavy military vehicles. 

The Ugandan soldiers sent in a drone to recce Tawakali but they had already lost the element of surprise and the spy plane only caused excitement among the locals — hardly the stuff of covert intelligence operations. The al Shabaab fighters were nowhere to be seen. The Ugandan soldiers turned back only two kilometres from their objective, and headed to their base to plan afresh.

An internal report would later blame the failed mission on lack of proper guides, the poor state of the roads and the vehicles, the timing of the visit of the Somali President, as well as “unwillingness to execute the mission” on the part of the commander.

“The commander had mixed feeling on the mission and he thought the deployment was a ploy to let him not meet with the D/CDF who was coming the following day,” the report noted. “He was even [heard] by almost all officers in Quoryoole talking to the D/CDF on phone that he was diversionary [sic] taken to Quoryoole and there was no enemy in his [area of responsibility]. This resulted in a lack of cohesion as he could not listen to all the staff officers he was given to work with from the BG HQs.”

The UPDF’s official inquiry into the matter would note an “untamed breakdown” of communication between Maj Mwesigye and his fellow officers in the BG HQ. He would accuse them of refusing to take his telephone calls and they, in turn, would accuse him of insubordination and not being a team player.

But that post-mortem was yet to come. The infighting within the 13th Battalion, coupled with the entire battle group having to share only one set of IFVs had allowed the al Shabaab fighters to melt away into the forests. They were to reappear like angels of death.

Trojan horses

September 1, 2015 was the first anniversary of the death of al-Shabaab leader Godane. It was highly likely that the militant group would try to mark the day with a show of might and intent. After successful attacks on military detachments and convoys belonging to the Burundi and Ethiopian soldiers, the Ugandan contingent was a likely next candidate.

The previous day, as the pre-emptive mission fell apart in Tawakali, three Somali locals visited the detachment at Janaale. One of them, Abdulai, had previously worked as an interpreter and also sold food to the Ugandan soldiers. He had disappeared on June 15 when the previous battalion rotated out but had turned up with his father and uncle.

After initially being denied entry, the three men were let in and allowed to spend the night but reportedly spent a lot of time on their mobile telephones. An inquiry would later note “a high likelihood” that the trio co-ordinated the attack that started later that night, by giving al Shabaab invaluable information.

Daybreak brought death and destruction. The Ugandan soldiers fought bravely. Many of them were highly experienced fighters who had seen combat in Somalia and in the Central African Republic, but many variables were not in their favour.

The detachment at Janaale had previously been occupied by battalion-sized troops, somewhere in the range of 500-800. When BGXVI arrived there were only 61 soldiers at Janaale. Col Mutambi had deployed an extra 59 to raise the force level to 120 but the position was still too big for them to defend.

In addition, the detachment was less than 100 metres away from a major road next to which was an old disused canal that gave the attackers cover. The killing ground had also not been cleared as directed and to the east of the detachment was a grove of mango trees that allowed the attackers to spy on the position and gave cover to the snipers. To the south lay a swamp that trailed off to River Shabelle, whose three major bridges were neither protected nor secured. 

Al Shabaab had started their attack by targeting two major bridges and blowing them up with donkeys laden with explosives. This hemmed in the Ugandan soldiers in a detachment that was already isolated and made it even harder to reinforce. As the attack on the base raged on and as daylight appeared rapidly, it became clear that the rising sun was setting on the lives of many fighting men.

As soon as the dreaded call came in from Capt Ayesiga, Col Mutambi scrambled troops under the command of Lt-Col Moses Kibirango, the battle group’s second-in-command, to reinforce those under attack at Janaale.

The reinforcements set off within 30 minutes of the distress call but were struck by an IED in Gondwe. Two tanks were scrambled with the faster APCs in the lead but the personnel carriers got stuck in mud.

The tanks then took the lead but one was then also struck by an IED. The first breakdown took three hours to fix, the second two hours. Eventually the damaged tank was removed from the road and the reinforcements proceeded but as they approached Janaale, the tank in the lead fell into the River Shabelle, only two kilometres from the base under attack. It was not raining but for the Ugandan soldiers fate was pouring misfortunes.

Over in the detachment, the soldiers had been hamstrung by the lack of second-line ammunition and had fought with their backs to the wall while effecting a tactical withdrawal. The Ugandans held off the attackers but at around 8am the al-Shabaab militants took out the 14.5mm anti-aircraft gun and the battle was effectively over. 

Pinned back by the IEDs, the ambush, the poor state of the roads, the poor mechanical state of the IFVs, and the loss of a tank in the river, it took the reinforcements nearly nine hours to cover a distance of 25 kilometres. 

By the time the reinforcement arrived at Janaale in the afternoon, al Shabaab had charged guns, ammo and assorted materiel and withdrawn. Nineteen Ugandan soldiers lay dead, according to an official inquiry later by the UPDF. It was the highest number of soldiers killed in a single battle in the war. Another 19 had been wounded (a separate report from Amisom put the dead at 21 and the injured at 27) and one was missing in action.

Details of al Shabaab casualties weren’t clear but Amisom intelligence sources put them at 45 killed in action and over 60 wounded. The official UPDF inquiry put it higher at around 100, citing its own intelligence sources. The attackers did not have time to line up and parade the bodies of the dead Ugandan soldiers, as they had done in previous incidents, with one account putting this down to the need for them to remove their own dead before reinforcements arrived.

Epilogue

Two days after the attack Col Mutambi, Maj Mwesigye and Capt Ayesiga were suspended. Both the UPDF and Amisom appointed separate boards of inquiry into the attack on Janaale. The UPDF BOI placed responsibility for the attack on the commander of BG XVI and the commander 13th Battalion.

“The BG Commander had sufficient information about the attack on Janaale and did nothing more than send a message to the Commanding Officer 13 Battalion to be on the alert and asked him to request for what he needs to respond to the attack,” it noted.

“The Commander 13th battalion had sufficient information about the impending attack, he too should have responded by taking extra operational measures to reinforce and increase military presence.”

Col Mutambi was demoted to Lt-Col in May 2016, arrested in July and arraigned before the General Court Martial in August.

The UPDF BOI, however, noted structural challenges in its deployment in Somalia. The large area of responsibility assigned to Uganda “overstretched the UPDF to unimaginable extents” according to the inquiry report, while the poor state of equipment has also cost Amisom troops lives.

“No single convoy can travel and make it to its destination without a breakdown of the IFVs. The constant breakdown of IFVs is contributory to the delayed delivery of reinforcement in case of attack,” the report notes. “In fact, this is what delayed the reinforcement for Janaale.”

In addition, the UPDF decried the lack of air power, including helicopter gunships, which could have come to the rescue of the troops in Janaale faster. Gathering moss on the cold, rainy slopes of Mt Kenya, the crashed UPDF helicopters had, in their absence, claimed more lives in Somalia, several hundred kilometres away. 

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