The United States military is seeking powers to carry out covert drone strikes in Kenya, a far-reaching proposal that would for the first time hand Washington military leeway to directly conduct counterterrorism combat operations within the Kenyan territory.
A report by the New York Times published on Tuesday quoted senior officials saying the US military’s Africa Command is pressing for new authorities to carry out armed drone strikes targeting Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab fighters in portions of eastern Kenya, potentially expanding the warzone across the border from their sanctuaries in Somalia.
The push for the expanded authorities, the report said, traces back to a Shabaab terrorist attack on the US military base in Lamu that left one American soldier and two contractors dead.
The Kenyan military did not respond by press time to a request by the Business Daily for comment about the report.
Kenya has in recent years suffered deadly gun and bomb attacks from the Al-Shabaab militants who are demanding withdrawal of Kenyan troops from the Horn of Africa nation.
Under the proposed deal, the US military would authorise not only drone strikes in self-defence of American troops or collective self-defence of partnered Kenyan forces, the report said, but also offensive strikes intended to pre-empt a suspected threat — like if officials uncovered intelligence about preparations at a compound to assemble a car bomb, the paper report added.
The deal would also see the US military conduct the so-called signature strikes only in a portion of Kenya, the report said quoting US officials, and would also require permission to commence a drone attack from Kenyan authorities.
Drone warfare has become a critical tool in the war against terrorist and militant organisations worldwide by the US military in countries like Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. The US has however faced equal criticism on the alleged lack of transparency of its drone warfare programmes in the targeted elimination of suspected terrorists.
Drones can silently observe an individual, group, or location for hours on end, but take immediate action should a strike opportunity become available--all without putting a pilot at risk.
The potential strike zones were identified by the report as Garissa and Lamu Counties, which encompass the airstrip camp at Manda Bay the site of the Al Shabaab attack and the nearby border region with Somalia.
The attack by Al-Shabaab at the heavily guarded Camp Simba on Manda Bay in Lamu in January this year quickly drew fresh attention on the potent threat posed by the Al-Shabaab.
The military site supports US operations in Somalia, where Al-Shabaab fighters have waged an insurgency for more than a decade.
The US military admitted following the attack it was not “as prepared as needed” during the attack on the base.
“I think it’s self-obvious we were not as prepared there at Manda Bay as we needed to be. Al Shabaab managed to penetrate onto that airfield," said the head of US Africa Command General Stephen Townsend in February while being grilled by a US congressional committee.
Following the attack, the US military in January vowed to double down on fighting the Al-Shabaab days after the terrorist group launched an attack on a US base in Kenya.
The US considers Kenya a "strategic" partner in the fight against terrorism.
News of the US plans come amid a Pentagon report published recently saying China is eyeing military logistics bases in a dozen countries including Kenya and neighbouring Tanzania - keen on building and sustaining its military power around the world.
The Chinese Embassy in Nairobi however, rejected the Pentagon’s report, terming it propaganda.
Al-Shabaab has been attacking Somali government and military targets but occasionally launches high-profile assaults in neighbouring states, including Kenya.