Kenyan authorities say they have the situation in the country's capital Nairobi "under control" after terrorists attacked an upscale hotel and business complex earlier today. As the chaotic situation evolved, television news footage and pictures spotted what appeared to be at least one western special operator working together with the throngs of local security forces who responded to the incident, which left more than 10 people dead, including one British and one American civilian, and more injured.
The attack began at around 3:00 PM local time when a suicide bomber detonated themselves in the foyer of the Dusit D2 Hotel, while a second explosion rocked the parking lot outside. At least four gunmen then began shooting civilians and security forces in the hotel and attached buildings, which include a bank and are frequented by foreigners. More than twelve hours later there were still reports of fighting in the city, despite the statements from the Kenyan government.
Al Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group with ties to Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack. Kenya is a major contributor to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is actively supporting that country's government in its campaign to defeat Al Shabaab and other militants.
Jan. 15, 2019 is the three year anniversary of Al Shabaab's spectacular attack on Kenyan forces in Somalia in the town of El Adde. It remains the deadliest attack on AMISOM forces since that mission began in 2007 and Kenya's worst military defeat ever. As such, Kenya's government continues to conceal the full extent of the debacle, which left between 140 and 185 of its soldiers dead and the camp and its weapons and equipment in terrorist hands.
In September 2013, Al Shabaab fighters launched an earlier complex attack on the Westgate Mall complex, another high-end location in Nairobi, killing more than 70 people and wounding dozens more. The Somali group ultimately claimed responsibility for a string of attacks stretching from 2011 to 2014.
When plainclothes Kenyan police and uniformed security forces elements responded to the latest attack at the Dusit D2 complex, they found themselves in a firefight with the attackers. In addition, members of the press on the scene spotted an individual in plainclothes wearing a balaclava and carrying weapons and other equipment more closely associated with western special operations forces. This included a camouflage-painted AR-15/M16 rifle, or derivative thereof, with a suppressor and other accessories, a drop holster with a Glock pistol, and a Crye Precision Adaptive Vest System and other attached tactical gear.
The video and pictures show him working directly with Kenyan security forces, darting back and forth to usher civilians to safety. One picture shows him dramatically carrying a wounded individual with the aid of another person who is either a plainclothes police officer or just an innocent bystander. What's so interesting is that there is no sign that this individual was part of a larger, similarly equipped team and appears to be acting by himself in conjunction with Kenyan forces.
He was not wearing any apparent national or distinctive unit insignia, but the individual did have a very specific patch on the back of his gear emblazoned with a flag motif associated with the infamous pirate Edward "Blackbeard" Teach and his most famous ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge. The design features a horned skeleton toasting the devil and spearing a heart, with three drops of blood falling from it. This patch has become closely associated with the U.S. Navy SEALs in recent years as some of the teams seemed to have adopted it and Blackbeard's lore to some degree.
Skulls and crossbones, skeletons, the devil, hourglasses, and the just the color black were all common on pirate flags during the 17th and 18th centuries. They were meant to evoke various themes including death, mortality, and the fleeting nature of life itself for both pirates and their victims – Blackbeard was between 35 and 40 years old when he died – according to the Queen Anne's Revenge Project, part of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
The various symbols also reflected merciless violence and fearlessness in the face of death. Red colored symbols, symbolizing blood, had similar connotations and close handed grips on spears and other weapons were also meant to signal that pirates would give no quarter to their opponents.
All that being said, the flag's connection to Blackbeard appears to be entirely fabricated, with the only contemporary reference to the pirate's own banner describing the more common skull and crossbones motif and "bloody flags" with unspecified red symbols. It is very possible that Blackbeard used more than one type of flag, but the first known instance of the toasting skeleton appears in a 1912 article, which also doesn't draw a connection to him directly.
Still, pirate symbology has long been a staple of military units around the globe. You can read a great example of this in this past feature of ours. Navy SEALs, in particular, have adopted all types of classical and pop culture imagery over the years, including pirate flags and skull symbology. Probably most famous is celebrated sniper Chris Kyle's SEAL unit adopting the insignia of the Marvel anti-hero The Punisher during their tours in Iraq.
Of course, the Blackbeard flag patches are also widely available online and do not necessarily point to one unit or another specifically. It's also quite common for units to adopt symbology from other units they work with, which can lead to international controversy, and exchange morale patches. Once again, maybe the best example of this is the SEAL's use of the Punisher logo, which has since become a staple of Iraqi forces and other military and police units around the globe. So, even though the Blackbeard patch has been widely associated with the Navy SEALs in recent years, it doesn't mean this lone mystery operator is a SEAL himself.
The United States has a major military presence in Kenya, including conventional and special operations forces, who support various training and advisory missions, as well as supporting Kenyan forces on counter-terrorism missions. However, a Pentagon spokesperson told The War Zone by phone that U.S. Africa Command has only been monitoring the situation in Kenya and would only respond directly after a request from the U.S. State Department.
"We are working with the Kenyan authorities to determine if there are any U.S. citizens affected," a State Department spokesperson said in a subsequent Email. "The U.S. Embassy has actively offered assistance to local authorities," but they could not say whether or not the Kenyan government had accepted that assistance.
It is possible that this individual part of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service or is in Kenya with an "other government agency," such as security contractor working for the Central Intelligence Agency. The masked operator was not the only interesting player at the scene. An unmasked foreign security person wearing a vest bearing the word "agent," had a badge with an eagle motif common to many U.S. law enforcement agencies and American private security companies.
But based on what was visible of his loadout, other observers have suggested he is much more likely to be a member of the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF), which includes the 22 Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS). He could also be from another British unit, as the British Armed Forces also have a significant conventional and special operations presence in Kenya, including the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK).
His rifle appears to be similar, if not identical to the L119A2, a British version of the Colt Canada C8 Special Forces Weapon (SFW). The weapon's Aimpoint T2 is reportedly another common piece of U.K. special operations kit. Since 2013, Glock 17s have been the standard sidearms in the British Army Forces, where they are known as the L131A1.
Whatever the case, it is not uncommon to see foreign special operations forces and other military personnel, especially from western nations, working with local security forces during terrorist attacks that may involve nationals from those countries. Notably, in January 2016, U.S. and French special operations forces – including at least one American with their kit worn over jeans and a t-shirt – worked with their hosts in Burkina Faso to respond to a terrorist attack on a restaurant and a luxury hotel, both of which foreigners frequented, in that country's capital Ouagadougou.
Whoever this individual in Nairobi was and what country and unit he belongs to specifically, he clearly wasted no time in rushing to the aid of Kenyan forces. We will be sure to let you know if we find out anything more him.
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