In 2006, an Islamist extremist group emerged in Somalia and began conducting violent attacks against Somalia’s government and, later, against Kenyan civilians, as “punishment” for Kenya’s participation in a peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The group does not operate only in Somalia; it has also recruited members inside Kenya and planned attacks across the region.
Ngala Chome has researched the Al-Shabaab network for nearly six years. For his two-part masterpiece in down river road, he interviewed network informants and members of the wider community where the events he chronicles took place. He consulted police records, reviewed media reporting, and read secondary literature expansively, all of which he put to use in his distinct form of narrative nonfiction, which he described to Guernica as “remain[ing] true to the [factual] story but need[ing] to use storytelling techniques…[and] imagination in some areas.” Chome has published writing about Al-Shabaab in journalistic and academic publications, which rarely allow writers to blend fact and fiction. Here, we share the second part of his hybrid approach to telling the story of a terrorist network, a collapsed government, and the remains of a US military intervention.
– Alexandra Valahu for Guernica Global Spotlights
“What the fuck is going on?” shouts David Tebbutt, a 58-year-old publishing executive, shortly after midnight.
David and his wife, Judith, a 56-year-old British social worker, are on their twentieth vacation, sleeping inside a cottage that sits on the white sandy beaches of Kiwayu Island — one of a number of islands on the Lamu archipelago of Kenya, a few kilometers from Somalia.
Judith is woken up by David’s screams for help, and finds him standing at the bottom of the bed, inside the mosquito net, his arms raised above his head as he tussles with a man who is taller and more muscular. Two other men, sitting on either side of the bed, are grabbing Judith by her arms, hauling her off of the bed, through the mosquito net, and out of the door. All three men are carrying AK-47 rifles.
The cottage, the last in a string of eighteen palm-thatched huts in the exclusive Kiwayu Safari Village, is located a few meters from the main lodge. It has no doors or windows that can lock. The resort’s website promises a number of rarities: exclusive aircraft safaris, a nude beach, and barefoot luxury. $1,728 a night. The once delighted hosts of Mick Jagger, Princes William and Harry. A real pleasure periphery. Famed as one of the world’s safest holiday destinations.
David struggles on with the attacker, who, tiring of his persistence, tackles and slams him with his rifle butt. David falls prone on the bed. The attacker shoots David, and leaves the hut. The bullet goes through David’s head, killing him instantly.
Out on the beach, a narrow strip of white sand where moon-powered tides and sea waves are the undisputed masters, Judith screams, stumbles, and digs her heels into the sand, demanding to be returned to the resort. Her captors have none of it. Pulling her up by her hair, they toss her into a small skiff. The skiff, powered by a motor, has the pointed bow and a square stern favored by Somali pirates. David’s killer, the third attacker, joins them and the boat puts out to sea.
“Where are you taking me?” Judith manages through uncontrollable sobs.
“Somalia,” the one running the engine of the boat responds as he throws in Judith’s direction a pair of trousers for warmth.
“Money, money, money,” sings another, while rubbing his fingers. Judith looks at him and thinks, he can’t be more than nineteen years old.
A hundred kilometers down the coast from Kiwayu Safari Village, three weeks after Judith’s kidnapping, charter air service owner Roland Purcell and luxury-hotel proprietors Andy Roberts and Fuzz Dyer receive a phone call at 4 a.m.
Marie Dedieu, a 66-year-old retired French journalist, has just been kidnapped at her house on Manda Island, another of the islands of the Lamu archipelago.
Dark-haired Purcell is an ex-auctioneer from Christie’s, of Irish descent, who flies private-chartered planes along Kenya’s coast, operating out of Manda Bay in Lamu. Andy and Fuzz own a fleet of luxurious hotels along the Kenya coast. On regular days, the two can be found with Dyer chatting away in the high-end Peponi hotel in Shela, bottles of cold Tusker sitting on the table. Like other rich white men gallivanting exotic spaces in Africa, Purcell, Roberts, and Dyer are all conservationists. All of them are pilots. They have been angered by what they perceive as government inaction regarding the safety of tourists in Lamu. They have done everything they can to find Judith with no success.
Two hours after receiving the call, Purcell, Roberts, and Dyer are in the air, with two Cessna 206 planes. Purcell flies alone. The local police will respond five hours later.
Roberts and Dyer are flying in a northward direction along the coast of Lamu. They arrive south of Kiwayu Safari Village and spot a boat on the ocean that is speeding north. A heavy-duty, waterproof canvas has been thrown over the top of the boat concealing Marie from aerial view. Shots are immediately fired towards the planes by the captains of the boat. The shooters seem unaware, or perhaps little concerned, by the fact that Marie is quadriplegic, and that she needs to take pills every six hours to stay alive. As the shooting ensues, Roberts and Dyer call the local Kenya Navy base to report the boat’s location. Together with Purcell, they continue their circling overhead.
The view from the Cessnas is geographically ambiguous, existing in defiance of definition and boundaries, a zone where land and sea intertwine and merge. The littoral is marked by marshes, numerous islands, low stunted trees, and the largest concentration of mangrove in Kenya. The stretches of lagoon, creek, and open sea beyond the reefs have been used by the Swahili for 1,000 years as a network of highways that link people, goods, and ideas. It’s the birth place of Swahili language and culture. A symbiosis of people, land, and sea. The stuff of legend. The place stimulates outsider romanticisms of dhow cultures and middle-class European ideas about nature and conservation. Ideas that rarely come to terms with the hard, gritty, and often wretched everyday lives of fishermen and sailors. This natural majesty is what brings people like Marie to Lamu.
Marie’s pilot friends learn that the Kenya Navy has dispatched a boat to block the kidnappers. A few minutes later, the speeding Kenya Navy boat strikes a coral reef and capsizes.
As Purcell, Roberts, and Dyer continue in their chase, they spot people swimming in the water below them, a boat floating a few yards away. Kenya Navy sailors.
Scampering past the sailors is the kidnappers’ boat, which continues speeding northwards. Further ahead, a few meters from Ras Kamboni, a border-town straddling both the Somalia and Kenyan coasts, Purcell, Roberts, and Dyer spot a pair of Kenya Navy attack boats. The kidnappers’ boat is fast approaching them. Roberts and Dyer have the phone number of one of the captains of the navy boats. They call and offer directions to the kidnappers’ boat. An exchange of gunfire erupts.
In the air, Purcell, Roberts, and Dyer become witnesses of this duel. Bullets spatter across the water. A massive splash, billowing of smoke. The kidnappers have fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Kenya Navy boats. They manage to skid past them. They are almost in the coast of Somalia, nearly free. Respecting the sovereignty of Somalia, the Navy sailors give up on the chase.
Purcell, Roberts, and Dyer continue doggedly after the pirate boat, but ultimately watch helplessly as the kidnappers hit the shore, drag Marie out, and disappear into the bushlands of Southern Somalia.
Ifo2 refugee camp, Dadaab, 300 kilometers north west, twelve days later.
Montserrat Serra and Blanca Thiebaut, thoroughly tanned, are inspecting land on which they plan to build a school. They work as logistics officers for Doctors Without Borders.
The British Empire-type Land Rover they travel in is seized by a group of armed men an hour before their lunch break. The assailants slam the driver with the butt of an AK-47 rifle, before throwing him out of the car in what is now a classic prelude to the all-too-familiar kidnapping.
The three gangsters have concealed their faces. Their kaftans, dusty and stained, conceal their rifles, which they hug between their thighs, as they take position in the Land Rover’s seats. One sits in the back, holding Serra and Blanca at gunpoint; the other two take the front, commandeering the vehicle. It is difficult for Serra and Blanca to work out who the leader is. The driver speeds towards the Kenya-Somalia border, more than 200 kilometers away. The hurtling Land Rover is followed behind by a whirlwind vortex of cream-colored dust but otherwise no one gives chase.
On arrival in Somalia, Serra and Blanca, gripped by a veritable mix of fear and confusion, are led into a thatched hut and are made to sit on the floor, no concrete. It’s over 35 degrees Celsius. Inside the hut, hasty discussions begin amongst a group of armed Somali men, all of them carrying heavy AK-47 rifles. Most are barefoot. All have been brought up in conflict, their bodies shaped by the vagaries of arid climate and the finite possibilities of a failed state. Their audacity has astounded the audiences of international media.
Sitting in the only chair in the room, chewing khat, is a man. Thinner than the rest and bare-chested, he appears to be the leader. He could have been chewing that khat for hours.
The discussions are short and bounded. Serra and Blanca squirm away from the lanky hands of their teenage captors, who are now leading them into a hijacked ship docked at what looks like the remains of a bustling port in a former era. Later they will learn that they have been sold to new, better organized kidnappers. For the next few months, Serra and Blanca are held in the ship as negotiations led by the Spanish government and their employers proceed. Their lives are sustained by a steady diet of pasta and injera. They are freed 21 months after their capture, leaving behind more than 100 other captured foreigners.
Judith, who was kidnapped out of Kiwayu island in Lamu, is released six months later.
Marie, denied her medicine, died a few days after she arrived in Somalia.
Two years before the kidnappings, tension grips Garissa town.
An enraged group of Kenyan-Somali women are addressing journalists. They claim that 300 people between the ages of eighteen and thirty, their sons, are secretly being recruited in six locations in the district for military training in Manyani (a police camp) before proceeding to join a military force headed by Somalia’s Defense Minister, an anthropologist called Gandhi. Gandhi is also the president of Azania, the Greek name for Southern Somalia.
Reacting to the news, analysts warn that the drive to support the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu risks destabilizing Kenya’s North Eastern province. It is October 8, 2009. A Kenyan parliamentary committee has been set up to investigate the allegations of military recruitment. The government has denied the claims.
Despite the warnings for caution, some clan elites in Southern Somalia, tired of Mogadishu’s hegemony, support the idea of establishing an autonomous administration over the part that borders North Eastern Kenya. The idea also excites key members of Kenya’s intelligence agency, including the Minister for Defense, the late Yusuf Haji, and the head of the Muslim caucus in parliament, Aden Duale.
Yusuf Haji was Kenya’s longest-serving Kenyan-Somali civil servant. He worked in high-level administration and in the Office of the President for over forty years. In this regard, Haji was matched by a few, such as Maalim Mohamed, another Kenyan Somali, and his brother, Mahmoud Mohamed, a retired military general credited for putting to a stop a coup d’état, nineteen years after Kenya’s independence. Aden Duale, the head of the Muslim caucus in Parliament, is married to the retired general’s daughter. Ali Buno Korane, the governor of Garissa County, is also married to the retired general’s daughter.
All these men are members of the Somali Ogaden clan. They constitute an influential group that links the Kenyan government — which is dominated by Christian and up-country Kenyans — to Kenya’s Muslim Somali population, and as such, the politics of Somalia in general. In Somalia, the men support Gandhi, a fellow Ogadeni, who is being propped to become the leader of a buffer-state between Kenya and Al-Shabaab controlled territory in Somalia.
Kenya’s government has told its international partners that it has a plan to build a new port on Manda Bay in Lamu, and a corresponding system of new highways, a standard gauge railway, a pipeline, three new airports, and three resort cities. Like a kind of Disney World, infrastructure-heavy and prosperous, that will run through Kenya’s historically neglected Northern region.
The Kenyan government believes that the idea to create an autonomous administration over Southern Somalia will help secure Northern Kenya and boost the confidence of investors regarding these planned projects. But by 2010, it is clear that Gandhi’s forces — 3,000 Kenyan-trained Somali counter-insurgents wielding Chinese-manufactured weapons — are not impressive. They are abandoned. People believe that many of them went and joined Al-Shabaab. And that others were killed by the military. However, the kidnappings in Lamu and Dadaab have tilted the balance in favor of more stern action.
On October 11, 2011, Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula and Defense Minister Yusuf Haji announce that the Kenyan military has been ordered to cross into Somalia to root out Al-Shabaab from its key bases. The president, Mwai Kibaki, publicly agrees to the order, but only a few days after the announcement has already been made.
Eight days later, as Kenyan troops near the Al-Shabaab controlled town of Afmadow in Southern Somalia, a man arrives at a white metal door in downtown Nairobi’s scruffy Mfangano Street.
The door, the entrance to Mwaura’s Pub, is sandwiched by walls newly painted with Coca-Cola graffiti. Mwaura’s Pub is itself a discreetly dim, anonymously appointed pub, a decrepit establishment, patronized by uneasy petty traders and casual laborers, in brittle, uneasy female company, pouring down joyless, possibly counterfeit vodka, and struggling to survive outside the formal economy.
The owner has opened the pub on a Monday morning, to circumvent new regulations and maintain thin profit margins. The door remains shut so as to keep away the often corrupt, often violent City Council askaris. The man is utterly unnoticeable, cracking open the door a little. He throws a Russian-made hand grenade through the gap. He flees the scene of carnage and destruction that he creates. The resultant explosion injures thirteen. No one is killed.
That very evening during Nairobi’s usual rush hour, another man moves closer to the OTC Bus Station, a busy confluence of people and cars, which is a few meters from Mwaura’s Pub. He throws a grenade at a moving matatu. The grenade bounces back, hits him and explodes. He dies instantly.
The explosion wounds eighteen people.
The following day, the police issue a warning to avoid Nairobi’s Central Business District, including social areas, landmarks, government buildings, hotels, malls, bus stops, or other places of gathering — a kind of social distancing. The Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Internal Security, Francis Kimemia, promises that government offices and the ubiquitous Kenyan shopping malls will be adequately guarded and that members of the public will be required to identify themselves if stopped by the police.
But the attacks increase. Russian-made explosives are found in all the targets. Panic and fear spreads rapidly. Metal detectors are seen everywhere. Shopping centers, universities, offices, and churches increase their security budgets. Search and frisk, enthusiastically implemented at the entrances of buildings by once-bored, once-powerless security guards, establishes itself as one of Kenya’s most practiced quotidian rituals.
Three months after the invasion of Southern Somalia by Kenya’s military, Al-Kataib, Al-Shabaab’s media wing, releases its first video delivered entirely in Swahili — with English subtitles. It is January 15, 2012, and the video introduces Sheikh Ahmed Iman Ali, the founder of the Pumwani Muslim Youth Center, as Kenya’s Al-Shabaab leader. The video describes Ali as a calm and charismatic individual, with a concrete understanding of the basic tenets of the Salafist doctrine, such as tawhid (monotheism) and al-wala wal-bara (loyalty to Islam and Muslims and disavowal of non-Muslims). In the video, Ali, light-skinned, and with a beard larger than the one he grew during his days at Pumwani, says, “Kenya is now dar-al-harb” (a legitimate target of war).
Ali is seated, his presence reassuringly calm. He mimics Osama Bin Laden. The imagery is familiar as it is unrecognizable. It threatens and supplicates. A long, white robe flows from his shoulders, covering crossed legs. In his musical, Pumwani accent — a hybrid of coastal Swahili and Nairobi sheng — he adds, “Kenyans should be targeted by violence.”
The voice of Godane, Al-Shabaab’s Amir, joins the fray. Godane urges Kenyan Muslims to boycott an upcoming election and wage Jihad. Al-Kataib launches an online magazine dedicated primarily to a Kenyan audience.
The slick, professionally edited magazine, complete with editorial, letters-to-the-editor, and op-ed sections, is called Gaidi Mtaani (terrorist in the neighborhood).
The Muslim Youth Centre tweets, “in Kenya, the kuffar (non-believer) fears to go to the bars, churches, and bus stops. We are locking down Kenya Insha’Allah.”
Titus Nabiswa, a 24-year-old Kenyan, known to his friends as Mwalim Khalid, is a recent Muslim convert. Iman Ali’s associates know him well. In Somalia, he is the commander of Al-Shabaab fighters from East African countries. Nabiswa’s students help Al-Shabaab’s Jaysh Al-Usra (military wing) to fight soldiers of the Transitional Government of Somalia.
Nabiswa’s team consists mostly of Kenyans. Its Kenyan-Somali members have been recruited through the efforts of Mohamud Kunow Dulyden, commonly known as Gamadhere. Gamadhere is from Garisa, and is a former madrassa teacher there. Gamadhere has worked for the Al-Haramain Foundation, which was linked to the 1998 bomb explosion at the US Embassy in Nairobi. While working for the foundation, Gamadhere kept abreast with the conflict in Somalia. He even became a member of the briefly existing Islamic Courts Union in 2006, and after the Islamic Court’s defeat, became a senior Al-Shabaab commander in Middle and Lower Juba regions, bordering Garissa and Wajir in North Eastern Kenya, respectively.
The police believe that ongoing grenade and rifle attacks targeting nightclubs, churches and hotels preferred by Christian civil servants and traders in Garissa and other parts of North Eastern Kenya are the work of Gamadhere’s recruits. Titus follows in the older Gamadhere’s footsteps and brings to Kenya a cell of fighters to aid the struggling Al-Hijra in a blowback for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia. One of Nabiswa’s students, who has just arrived in Kenya from military training in Somalia, is Fuad Manswab, born and raised in the Mombasa slums of Majengo and Kisauni.
Fuad is led into a Swahili-style house — a number of rooms facing each other in a rectangular block with a front and back door — at Kishada in Kisauni. At Kishada, one finds one of the few open spaces in an expanding neighborhood distinctive with its disorganized concentration of Swahili houses. Irregular and informal, Kisauni is known for its slender streets, footpaths constituting part of a giant maze that leads to the neighborhood’s only tarmacked road, the Kisauni-Bamburi road. The walls of houses are built so close to each other that in some places, they kiss, and others are shared by two or more houses. The open space, simply called Kishada, is surrounded by coconut trees and marked by disused car tires, their halves dug into the earth, forming a rectangular frame around the open field. The field is known for hosting important local football matches, a number of which end up in violent brawls after persistent quarreling on rules and outcomes. The field is also favored by local politicians, who normally bring throngs of staunch supporters and issue long-running tirades against their rivals amid loud chants for more rancor. Politicians will ask, “NITOBOE?!” (Shall I say a secret?) The crowd will yell in response, “TOBOA!” (Say it!)
Outside of the glare of the media, most of the speeches will involve an unmistakable diet of vulgarity, urban slang, and village folklore. On a regular day, this imagery of action will be replaced by hapless bands of unemployed youth straddling the grounds, sharing a pot of marijuana, issuing tales of magic, sexual prowess, or simply discussing the details (inaccurately, on numerous grounds) of one of the many Sylvester Stallone movies.
During one of those quiet days, a hot day in December 2011, Fuad Manswab is introduced to Jermaine Grant a few meters from Kishada grounds. Together with Manswab, Grant has been tasked by senior Al-Shabaab leaders with a mission to bomb a number of beach hotels in Mombasa.
The 29-year-old Grant is mixed-race, and is a recent Muslim convert from Newham, the African metropolis in East London. He first arrived in Kenya in May 2008, but was arrested on his way to Somalia and remanded at Liboi, a police post in Garissa town. He was later released during a raid on the post by Al-Shabaab militants who then took him to Somalia where he was trained to wire explosives by Fazul. At the time, Fazul was still suspected to have masterminded the suicide explosions at Paradise Hotel in Kikambala, and was a high-ranking member of Al-Shabaab.
Grant is now an explosives expert. In the bombing mission, Grant and Manswab are working with Samantha Lewthwaite. Samantha is from Banbridge, Northern Ireland. As a child, she witnessed the terrorist violence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). She met her ex-husband, Germaine Lindsay, in London during a march against the War on Terror. Both Germaine and Grant come from East London. Germaine killed himself in a suicide attack that killed twenty-six other passengers on a London underground train — the Piccadilly line between King’s Cross and Russell Square Tube stations — in 2005.
They are not lucky. In the midst of planning the attacks, the Swahili house at Kishada where Grant, Manswab and Samantha have been staying for a few months, is raided by the Anti-Terror Police Unit, ATPU. Manswab and Grant are arrested, while Samantha, who is in another room of the house at the time of the arrests, escapes from the backdoor.
“The lion is in the room,” is the text message she receives from Grant, before escaping.
Grant and Manswab are taken to court and charged for being in possession of explosives, being members of an outlawed group, and for preparing to commit a felony. The police add that the chemicals found in their possession were similar to those used in making the explosives for the London Underground bombings. Grant pleads guilty, and is sentenced to prison. Manswab pleads not guilty, and is released on a 20 million shillings bond. Manswab jumps the bail shortly afterwards.
His bond is paid by Samantha, through Makaburi.
Reminiscent of their first case against Aboud Rogo, Anti-Terror Police are struggling to get court convictions. A year into Kenya’s military operation in Somalia, grenade attacks inside Kenya have increased. Pressure for the police to act is piling. Human rights organizations accuse the police of extrajudicial killings.
Aboud Rogo’s troubles with the police escalate. He repeatedly appears in court together with Makaburi for various charges linking them to terrorism. They represent the public face of radical Islamist politics. Acting on the recommendations of a UN report, Barack Obama gives an executive order freezing Rogo and Makaburi’s assets, by no means considerable.
Within a month, Rogo is killed by unknown assailants in a drive-by shooting along the Mombasa-Malindi road.
It’s a hit executed by professionals. His father-in-law, Saggar Ahmed, with whom Rogo had been arrested in Kikambala in 2003, is not harmed, but Rogo’s blood is plastered on his kanzu.
Makaburi leads a group of youth in collecting Rogo’s body from the scene. In the ensuing riots, one person is killed. The church of the Salvation Army neighboring Masjid Musa in Mombasa, where Rogo had preached, is burned to the ground.
Businesses are looted. Makaburi is charged for inciting the riots.
A few months after the Mombasa riots, a commuter bus carrying Titus Nabiswa is stopped by the police at Mariakani town. The police are looking for Fuad Manswab as well. By arresting Titus, he leads them to Majengo, where Fuad has been staying with a relative, Omar Faraj.
On the police’s arrival, gunfire is exchanged. Both Titus and Omar are shot in the head, but Manswab escapes with a bullet wound on his shoulder. With these killings, Makaburi becomes fearful for his life.
Abandoned by the local media, he is mainly interviewed by foreign journalists. In a 2014 BBC interview he says, “These days when they don’t find evidence to implicate you, they usually kill you outside the court.”
A week later, Makaburi is shot dead outside the Shimo-La-Tewa Law Courts.
A few months before his death, Makaburi had pleaded with his poorly trained Al-Hijra associates to stop acting unilaterally. To leaders of Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Al-Hijra has proved itself incapable of conducting large scale attacks inside Kenya. It has been dismissed as a leaderless, disorganized network of untrained, wannabe militants that only serves to attract the unwanted attention of the authorities. Godane, Al-Shabaab’s leader, changes his strategy for Kenya, but his allies have opposed his moves.
In Barawe, the ancient port city of Somalia and Al- Shabaab’s strategic capital after Kismayu, assailants attached to Al-Shabaab’s most feared unit, the Amniyaat, are closing in on their targets’ makeshift camps.
On a moonless night, in soft darkness and coolness, the tension is eerie. Other than the winds gracing the shores of the Somali coast, there is complete silence. Communication is via eye contact and hand gestures only, followed by occasional whispering. Athkar (remembrance of God) dominates their thoughts along with Shahaadah (martyrdom). They have their targets in the crosshairs, fingers poised on triggers, readying to lock and load, lain in wait for a signal from the unit’s commander.
It is June 20, 2013 and Ahmed Godane, Al-Shabaab’s leader, has ordered Amniyaat assailants to execute his former associates, members of Al-Shabaab’s council (the Shura) turned rivals: Mukhtar Robow, Sheikh Dahir Aweys, and Ibrahim Al-Afghani. Wrangles over ideology, strategy, and tactics have persisted. They have disagreed about affiliating with Al-Qaeda and in targeting civilians in their military campaign: agendas that Godane has supported, and as a result, struck the ire of his colleagues.
The role to be played by international fighters who have come to join Al-Shabaab from as far as Minnesota, Glasgow, Norway, London, and Alabama divides them as well. Godane has been accused by Robow, Aweys, and Al-Afghani of dictatorial tendencies. The three abhor Godane’s reckless shedding of civilian blood, and the assassinations of any Al-Shabaab members who have opposed his views.
Godane, in turn, has accused his critics of planning to split Al-Shabaab to form other organizations. Godane has elected to settle the dispute by the barrel of a gun.
The first shot strikes Aweys’s hut, killing one of his bodyguards. An exchange of gunfire follows. Different calibre guns and their ear-piercingly discordant blasts, and cries of ALLAHU AKBAR enjoin the frenzy. The bang of B-10 rockets (82mm), heavy machine guns, and rocket propelled grenades light up the camp, the flare turning night into day. The Amniyaat assassins continue to close in on their targets, passing between and over dead bodies. The remaining bodyguards guarding Aweys and Robow fire back sporadically in retreat.
The bodyguards funnel their bosses towards an escape route that leads to the beach, and Robow and Aweys jump onto a small skiff that immediately sets out to sea, escaping with their lives. Al-Afghani is not so lucky, and is killed in the ambush.
Six days later, Aweys appears in the Somali town of Adado and surrenders himself to the police. He announces his defection from Al-Shabaab, and narrates the account of his ordeal at Barawe.
Robow returns to Baidoa, his hometown, and begins talks with the government. Their defection from Al-Shabaab leaves Godane as the organization’s undisputed leader. Godane’s plans for attacking Kenya directly and lethally, and not through the failing Al-Hijra network, no longer face any opposition.
To turn Al-Shabaab into a truly transnational Islamist organization, Godane initiates a raft of changes in the organization’s structure and mission in the following months. He reorganizes Al-Shabaab’s Jaysh Al-Usra. He orders Gamadhere to begin to expand his attacks in Garissa and Wajir, and Adan Garar, Gamadhere’s counterpart in the Gedo region of Somalia, to target Mandera, located in the most northeasterly corner of Kenya. Bypassing the Al-Hijra network, he tasks key members of the Amniyaat to begin planning high profile operations against Kenya.
The first major attack rocks Nairobi on September 21, 2013. Four Somali militants, all in their early twenties: Ahmed Abubakar, Yahya Osman, Mohamed Said, and Hassan Abdi.
They descend on the Israeli-owned Westgate Shopping Mall in the Nairobi suburb of Westlands, and spend the next forty-five minutes killing at least sixty-seven shoppers and workers, injuring more than 100 others.
The attack receives global media attention in line with Godane’s plan. As traditional fault lines in Kenya are temporarily suspended, giving rise to nationalist rhetoric, globally, Somalia begins to fit the analogy of a dead rat that people chose to forget but which is stinking the house so much that its presence can no longer be ignored.
But Godane is unrelenting. He establishes a new military unit, the Jaysh Ayman, and fills it with Al-Shabaab militants from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Jaysh Ayman assimilates a huge portion of Al-Hijra associates.
Jaysh Ayman executes its first plan on June 15, 2014. Fifty of its members enter a small and dusty town located a few meters from Lamu Island, called Mpeketoni. Arriving in the evening, they divide themselves into two groups. Only a few buildings are connected to electricity; this is the domain of darkness and night, a perfect cover.
The first group of militants enters the large compound of the town’s police station largely unnoticed. At around 8:30 p.m., they begin shooting at the station. Caught unawares, the policemen manning the station quickly escape to regroup at a nearby bush. An exchange of gunfire that will last almost three hours begins.
The police station isn’t far from the main part of town. Businesses, banks, a petrol station, and other office buildings have already been shut at the end of a busy day. But some, like Wanyoike, are snuggling inside a small wooden shack where chai and maandazi are being served while watching a match of the 2014 World Cup beaming on a tiny Chinese-made television set, oblivious of the ongoing gunbattle at the police station.
Two motorcycle riders arrive at the edge of the door, leaving their engines running, and announce to the men in the shack that there is a fire at Breeze View — the best hotel in town — asking them to run there and help put it out.
The men arrive at the hotel a few minutes later, but find that the hotel’s occupants have already been killed. Some have escaped behind the hotel, into the meadows in the fringes of the town. Fire is immediately opened on Wanyoike and his friends from an unknown vantage point. Wanyoike dives for cover under the ragged remains of a Toyota pickup long abandoned at the hotel’s edge. The two riders are hit by the bullets. Under the loud cries of TAKBIR and ALLAHU AKBAR, Wanyoike manages to escape.
As one group keeps the police busy in the gunfight at the police station, the other militants are taking control of the town. They have raised the Al-Shabaab flag, are torching buildings and cars, shooting at passers-by, and declaring to some of the residents the reasons behind their actions.
The arrival of this group of attackers — the Jaysh Ayman — on the conflict map of East Africa is the result of the work done by Sheikh Aboud Rogo, Ahmed Iman Ali, and the networks cultivated by Rogo’s friend in life, Makaburi.
Jaysh Ayman constitutes the latest and most potent insurgent offensive against Kenya linked to Al-Shabaab. Their military leader, Luqman Issa, aka Shirwa, was born and raised in Bondeni, a seedy rundown neighborhood dotting Mombasa’s short coastline, and now a sad reminder of the city’s glorious past. After attending university in Uganda, Shirwa joined Al-Shabaab in Somalia in 2009, the year the first Kenyan known to have joined Al-Shabaab, Saleh Nabhan, was killed by a missile strike.
That was five years before the Mpeketoni attacks. Five years of intensive training and indoctrination. Five years that have awarded Shirwa the commandship of the unit. His childhood friend, Said Hemed, another member of Jaysh Ayman, owns a bus company with a backroom office in Bondeni. Its buses ply the Mombasa-Lamu route. One of his vans brought to Mpeketoni some of the attackers from Mombasa.
Abdifatar Abubakar is another key individual in the group. His life in Islamist extremism began when he met and then hosted at his house Fazul, the former leader of Al-Qaeda in East Africa, and main suspect of the suicide explosions at Paradise Hotel in Kikambala. A Kenyan Somali, Abdifatar has extensive networks within Al-Shabaab. He has maintained contact with people who took over a number of Mombasa mosques after the killing of Rogo and Makaburi.
One of them is Ramadhan Kufungwa. Ramadhan, Makaburi’s protégé, has mobilized Rogo and Makaburi’s supporters — the angry, alienated youth of Mombasa’s forgotten neighbourhoods — to participate in a spate of violent robberies that have been used to raise money for the Mpeketoni attacks. One of the gang’s members is a tuk-tuk driver and high school dropout called Mahir Khalid Riziki, who will end his life in a suicide mission at the DusitD2 hotel and business complex in Nairobi five years from now.
In their brief reign in Mpeketoni, these militants are joined by others from Nairobi and up-country Kenya — militants like Ramadhan Kioko and Erick Ogada, former gangsters in Pumwani and the recruits of Ahmed Iman Ali. Together, they are terrorizing, looting and forcing their way into people’s homes in this remote and dusty corner of Kenya.
They arrive at Omar Ali’s house, which has a front and back door. Ali and his tenants remain silent and feign sleep, as the militants bang the door threatening to bombard them with shells and hand grenades. Pensively, Ali and his tenants listen to the militant’s shouts from outside, some in a Kenyan coastal-Swahili accent, others in Swahili inflected with a Somali accent. One yells, “GO AND TELL YOUR MAN, UHURU, TO REMOVE HIS SOLDIERS FROM SOMALIA!” Another one adds, “THE POLICE ARE KILLING OUR SHEIKHS. THE KENYAN MILITARY IS KILLING INNOCENT MUSLIM WOMEN AND CHILDREN IN SOMALIA. BUT US WE WANT ONLY MEN!”
Ali escapes through the back door, and hides under an old truck packed there. Minutes later, the militants leave Ali’s compound. They arrive at Anne Gathigi’s house, and ask whether Anne and her husband, who have just had their supper, are Muslims. Anne’s husband says they are Christians. One of the militants steps closer to him, takes out a fully-sized Beretta handgun from a back pocket, and aims two shots at him in close range. The first bullet rips his rib cage and the other hits his forehead, killing him instantly. The whole incident takes less than five minutes. The rest of the family, all women, are left alive, in utter disbelief and shock. At the end of several hours, the militants have killed forty-eight people in the town. At around 4 a.m., they disappear into the thick Boni forest that runs from Lamu in Kenya, into Southern Somalia.
At the time of writing, the Kenyan military is continuing its campaign against Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Al-Shabaab is yet to claim responsibility for the 2011 kidnappings in Lamu and Dadaab — the declared justification for Kenya’s involvement in Somalia. Godane was killed in a US drone strike in Southern Somalia on September 1, 2014, almost a year after the Westgate attack. His succession in Al-Shabaab was swift, and his strategy of waging deadly attacks against Somalia’s neighbors has continued.
On the morning of April 2, 2015, four gunmen believed to have been under the command of Gamadhere walked into Garissa University College with assault rifles and killed 148 people, the majority of them undergraduate students. The Garissa attack was Kenya’s worst. Like Godane, Gamadhere was also killed in a US drone attack in Farwamo, Southern Somalia, on June 1, 2016.
On January 15, 2019, a cell of seven militants stormed the DusitD2 Hotel and office complex in Nairobi and killed twenty-one people. Al-Shabaab, which claimed responsibility for the attack, catapulted itself back into global news.
Elements of Jaysh Ayman, who continue to hide in the Boni forest, remain Kenya’s most potent security threat.
Written by Ngala Chome. Published by down river road, 2021, which describes itself as “interested in the margins, in the shifting centres and the new spaces that exist in what we’ve come to call the alternative.”