About a dozen Marine special operators led a firefight against terrorists who recently carried out a deadly attack on a military base in Kenya that killed three Americans, according to media reports.
Members of the North Carolina-based 3rd Marine Raider Battalion led the counterattack on al-Shabaab militants after members of the terror group infiltrated a base at Manda Bay and destroyed surveillance aircraft, The New York Times reported Wednesday in a detailed account of the fight.
Army Spc. Henry Mayfield Jr., a 23-year-old from Chicago, was killed in the Jan. 5 attack, along with Dustin Harrison and Bruce Triplett, who were contractor pilots.
The incident remains under investigation, according to U.S. Africa Command. But an early assessment of the events shows "a timely and effective response to the attack reduced the number of casualties and eliminated the potential for further damage," the command said in a statement Thursday.
"U.S. forces and Kenyan Defense Forces repelled the attack, killing five al-Shabaab terrorists with no additional losses to U.S. or Kenyan personnel," the statement adds. "While numbers are still being verified, it is estimated that several dozen al-Shabaab fighters were repelled."
The Times reported that the al-Shabaab fighters fired a rocket-propelled grenade at Harrison and Triplett's surveillance and reconnaissance plane at Manda Bay. The attack killed the two pilots, but the paper said a third person was able to escape, though he was burned.
Mayfield was killed by gunfire while in a truck and serving as an air-traffic controller, according to the Times' account.
As the attack continued, the Raiders and Kenyan rangers they were training came from nearby Camp Simba to lead the counterattack. At least one of the Raiders was injured, Marine Corps Times reported.
Officials with Marine Corps Special Operations Command and AFRICOM declined to confirm or comment on the reports about the Raiders. AFRICOM said only that U.S. forces at Camp Simba "quickly responded and actively counterattacked the enemy at the airfield."
Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, AFRICOM's commander, said the attack at Manda Bay demonstrates that al-Shabaab remains a dangerous and capable enemy.
"They are a menace to the people of East Africa and U.S. national interests there, and their sights are set on eventually attacking the U.S. homeland," he said Thursday. "It is important that we continue to pursue al-Shabaab and prevent their vision from becoming a reality."
The status of U.S. military operations in Africa has been called into question following the attack. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said that the Pentagon's No. 1 mission "is compete with Russia and China."
But no decision has been made on ending U.S. troops' mission in Africa, he told reporters this week. Lawmakers have pushed back against the idea of withdrawing troops from the continent. Esper said he would meet with AFRICOM leaders this week to "dig into what they're doing" and "what they see on the ground, what they are sensing."
"But I said for my nomination, my aim was to implement the National Defense Strategy," Esper said, speaking of the plan focused on countering Russia and China. "Everybody knows what that is, everybody should know largely what that looks like. I've talked to members of Congress several times."
Military brass and other U.S. leaders warned for years about China's growing influence in Africa.
Mayfield, Harrison and Triplett were three of fewer than 350 Defense Department personnel in Kenya. Their missions include training local forces and sharing intelligence.
Al-Shabaab is a militant Islamic terrorist group that operates in Somalia, Kenya and other East African countries. Last year, the U.S. carried out 63 airstrikes against the group in Somalia.
The Jan. 5 attack in Kenya resulted in increased force protection measures, according to the AFRICOM statement, which pledges to "pursue the attackers until they are brought to justice."