It was fall 2019, and there was a near certainty that the American-run Baledogle Military Airfield in the middle of Somalia was going to be attacked. The cavalry troops defending it knew the strike would be big -- and they were right.
On Sept. 30, a foreboding plume of smoke rose toward the sky just northwest of the airfield. An al-Shabaab vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, or VBIED, detonated prematurely, tipping the unit off to the imminent attack. Within minutes, the New Jersey National Guard's Charlie Troop manned the airfield's towers and control points, with snipers perched and mortars zeroed and primed, scanning for militants belonging to al-Qaida's faction in the Horn of Africa.
A convoy materialized on the horizon, kicking up red dust over the low bushes that surrounded the airfield, an old Soviet facility from the 1970s. An up-armored truck carrying one of the largest known vehicle-borne explosive devices on the continent broke off from the group. It was headed for the airfield.
Until Tuesday -- more than three years later -- the story of one of the most formidable publicly known attacks on U.S. forces in Somalia in 30 years remained a blip on the newswires in an American conflict largely unknown to the public. The details were released by the New Jersey National Guard.
The U.S. has maintained a military presence in Somalia as part of the Global War on Terror since 2007. And prior to that, the infamous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu during the Somali Civil War -- immortalized by the book and film "Black Hawk Down" -- had enshrined Operation Gothic Serpent and Task Force Ranger as the last significant military operation in the country thrust into the public spotlight.
On that fall day in 2019, Capt. London Nagai, the commander of Charlie Troop, readied his soldiers for the oncoming up-armored truck. He had found himself at the tip of America's long spear, planted in the dead center of the country.
The U.S. had reopened a permanent diplomatic facility in the capital Mogadishu, 60 miles southeast of the airfield, just 10 months earlier. It was the latest move in what has become a lengthy and twisting role for the American presence in the war-torn nation, a sign of commitment to the country's central government in its fight against the al-Shabaab terror group.
Later, former President Donald Trump would order hundreds -- nearly all -- U.S. troops out of Somalia in 2020, while at the same time waging a record 202 total strikes in the country, outpacing the Bush administration nearly 17 times over. President Joe Biden approved a plan to send those troops back, and this month the White House embarked on a media blitz to reaffirm its commitment to Africa as a whole -- including combating terrorism.
But Nagai had more immediate issues to contend with and in a short amount of time, as the truck approached and the attack on the base began. U.S. and United Nations planes were coming in and out of the airfield. More than 50 civilian construction workers were repairing a portion of the runway.
Amid all the activity, a VBIED with the ability to instantly stamp a swimming pool-sized hole in the red dirt surrounding the airfield was racing like a bull toward Nagai's 70-soldier unit.
"The key was not engaging with the enemy until they were committed to utilizing a specific route," Nagai said in a Tuesday press release, "that would ultimately be a fatal choice for them."
Nagai's unit was well-rehearsed, according to the press release from the New Jersey National Guard. Not only had he drilled his troops for an attack, they were expecting it.
The planes were diverted and the workers moved. Plus, a month before, unit engineers had dug a ditch around the airfield, and "any vehicle smaller than a tank would get stuck in the ditch before it got to the fence line," the release said.
The truck slammed into the ditch, and the soldiers peppered the vehicle until the driver reportedly died from gunfire. Al-Shabaab detonated the bomb remotely, and an energy wave emanating from nearly 5,000 pounds of explosives ripped across the remote vista.
"The explosion was massive," said Lt. Col. Richard Karcher, the commander of Task Force Warrior, who was also at the airfield. "On the other side of the base, there was an old Russian hangar that had reinforced doors -- those doors were concaved in because of the explosion."
The VBIED punched a 20-foot crater into the edge of Charlie Troop's perimeter and ripped a hole the size of two football fields into Baledogle Military Airfield's fence.
Within minutes, a 12-man al-Shabaab hit team arrived in a truck. The fighters were equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, small arms and ordnance, and they skulked near the newly formed fence hole, according to the release.
"They came out looking very surprised," Karcher said. "The leader looked really pissed off."
The reportedly disorganized militant group tried to fire their RPGs from the sparse landscape that surrounded the airfield. They were quickly dispatched by direct and indirect "danger close" mortar fire. A remotely piloted aircraft vaporized what was left of the truck.
The attack lasted less than an hour. No Americans died, according to the press release, despite al-Shabaab claiming otherwise the day after.
"There is no question that if it hadn't been for Charlie Troop, al-Shabaab would have destroyed the aircraft and killed as many people as possible," said Karcher.
In 2020, Audacy was first to report details about the attack, citing anonymous soldiers present for the raid. The statement from the New Jersey Guard is the first time details, timelines, names and direct soldier quotes have been publicized by unit officials.
The Guard statement claimed that the attack was the largest since the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, though that 15-hour battle claimed the lives of 18 Americans.
The press release, which was issued 1,184 days after the attack, warned of the global impact of the attempted raid. It said al-Shabaab did not attempt any follow-up attacks on the air base, despite other African countries like Kenya being subjected to militant raids.
"This attack, though ineffective, demonstrates the direct threat al-Shabaab poses to Americans, our allies, and interests in the region," Maj. Gen. William Gayler, director of operations for U.S. Africa Command, said in a released statement.
According to the press release, troops involved in the airfield's defense were awarded combat badges days after the battle and other awards as early as 2020. Routine troop moves and national missions such as assisting with the COVID-19 pandemic response may have contributed to the delay in the Guard releasing the details of the attack.
"There's no particular reason for the delay on the Somalia story," Maj. Amelia Thatcher, deputy public affairs officer for the unit, wrote in an email. "Some stories take longer than others to tell."
Thatcher said that the unit intended to publish the story on the three-year anniversary of the attack, but because of the factors listed above, was unable to do so. She credited Karcher and Nagai for pushing the story forward.
"The success on that day was not due to luck or heroism," Nagai said. "It was due to disciplined soldiers executing a well-rehearsed battle drill that was exercised and refined over and over again."
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.