After the sun goes down, Boni Forest, the exceptionally rich Kenyan coastal forest ecosystem turns into something that sounds like a warzone.
The thick expansive forest in Lamu, previously frequented by researchers and conservationists for research purposes due to its rich ecosystem, is now a no-go zone.
Local community members who used to depend on it for their livelihood are also bearing the brunt since Al-Shabaab militants made the forest their home.
Last week, the government enhanced security operations in the forest and its environs to flush out the terrorists.
In the recent past, the region has remained volatile, with frequent attacks reported. The forest, which extends to the Somali border, has been a notorious sanctuary for the extremists, who use it as a launching pad for incursions into Lamu and neighbouring counties such as Garissa and Tana River.
So how did the green paradise turn into a haven for terrorists?
In an interview with the Nation, a source from the National Intelligence Service said Al-Shabaab moved into Boni Forest to avenge the deployment of Kenyan soldiers to Somalia to fight them.
“They surveyed many parts of the country bordering Somalia with short and long-term plans. The short-term plan included sporadic grenade attacks in major towns like Mombasa, Garissa and Nairobi to keep security agencies busy,” said the source on condition of anonymity.
Security personnel say Al-Shabaab set up permanent training bases in the forest in mid-2012 and the National Intelligence Service sent periodic briefings to police and the military.
His comments were echoed by sources at western intelligence agencies, which identified the Boni Forest-based militants as members of the Jeysh Ayman fighters formed by the Al Shabaab elite group to engage Kenyan security forces within the country after Kenya deployed its soldiers inside Somalia.
Jaysh Ayman, Saleh Nahbahn and Abu Zubeyr brigades were three Al Shabaab elite groups formed to carry out attacks against KDF and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
But Jaysh Ayman militants largely comprised of Kenyans and other foreign jihadists and were deployed to Boni Forest to target military and Kenyan police on the Hindi–Kiunga road, a key operation route for Kenya military operations inside Somalia.
The groups are mainly made up of Kenyans from the coastal counties of Mombasa, Lamu, Kilifi and Kwale who joined Al Shabaab and were deployed to wage war on their own mother land, as most of them knew the targeted region well.
“When they started moving inside the forest, their local operatives purchased food, GPS and night-vision goggles from Mombasa,” said the sources.
A senior security officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested that the forest serves as a training ground for the militants as they sneak back into Somalia through the porous border during dry seasons.
The recent attacks occurred almost one year after they had retreated to Somalia following the prolonged drought.
The group and local sympathisers set up training bases between Boni, Gorji and Belasange on the border with Somalia.
“As early as 2012, they deployed foreign and Kenyan recruits within the forest to set up training bases to strategise these attacks.
“We alerted local police to be aware and watch these densely forests. No one cared,” added the official, who declined to share the intelligence report.
The NIS monitored the movement of Al-Shabaab operatives between 2012 and 2014 inside Boni forest.
TERROR WATCH LIST
Sources in the intelligence circles say the attackers receive their food supplies from Malindi and Mombasa through certain traders, some of whom were on the terror watch list.
“One supplier collected assorted food from well-wishers on claims of collecting them for people ravaged by drought in northeastern [Kenya].
“We eventually tracked down the convoy until it branched off at the junction of Minjila towards the Garsen-Lamu road. We followed to its intended destinations and we alerted local police,” said another source.
However, NIS blamed KDF and police for ignoring their warnings over a plan by Al Shabaab to set up training base in order to conduct attacks in the country.
Our sources indicated that in one of a series of meetings between various organs of security held in Nairobi around 2012, senior military officials openly dismissed the NIS report about Al Shabaab operatives in the forest.
“A senior military officer present at the meeting dismissed our report, saying it is impossible for Al Shabaab to set up a training base inside the forest,” said a senior NIS official.
Sources in the Kenya secret services indicated that they were never caught unawares when the Mpeketoni attacks took place.
When the group first carried out the deadly attack, killing more than 60 people in June 2014, President Uhuru Kenyatta “blamed local political networks”.
“This was not an Al-Shabab attack. Evidence indicates that local political networks were involved in the planning and execution of the heinous attacks,” the President said.
The dreaded terrorists went further, killing 42 other people in their attacks in Poromoko, Maleli, Kakati, Hindi Kibiboni and Maremende villages, Gamba police station and Tahmeed bus attacks within 34 days.
The President was reportedly misled by the Lamu County security committee, chaired by then county commissioner Stephen Ikua, and local politicians who were at loggerheads with Governor Issa Timamy.
Mr Timamy was arrested and arraigned in the Mombasa High Court. Assistant DPP Alexander Muteti stated that the governor was investigated for murder, forcible transfer of populations and terrorism-related offences in relations to the Mpeketoni attack.
Several months later, Mr Timamy’s case was terminated without any charges, with Justice Martin Muya rejecting the DPP’s request for extension by the state, saying it was not serious or grounded in law.
However, the truth about Mpeketoni and other attacks in Lamu emerged in June 2015, during an aborted dawn raid by Al Shabaab on the Baure KDF camp, when the face of the attackers were exposed to the whole world.
This is after Briton Thomas Evans was killed alongside 10 other attackers during the dawn raid.
The Englishman, who had adopted the name Abdul Hakim after converting to Islam, was spotted by many survivors of the Mpeketoni attack.
A video camera and other items found on Evans exposed the other faces behind the Mpeketoni attack, including 43-year-old German national Ahmed Mueller, who fled his country and joined Al Shabaab.
Jeysh Ayman commander Luqman Osman Issa, also known as Shirwa, whose telephone conversations from Boni Forest with Al-Shabaab commanders back in Somalia, were tracked by security surveillance teams, also died in that attack.
The other faces behind the attack were Mombasa-based tour operator Said Hemed Abdalla, alias Marhaba; Jumaane Salim Ashur, from Malaleo, Mombasa; Abdikadir Rehan, alias Fiki, born in Majengo, Mombasa; and Amar, who was raised in Nairobi.
Six other Kenyans captured in the video recovered after the Baure KDF attack but escaped include Mbarak Abi Huka from Marsabit; Abdalla Suleiman Makhtum from Likoni; Omar Omondi Owiti from Nairobi; Salim Jamal Mwangi, also from Mombasa; and Rama Mbwana Mbega from South Coast.
Lamu residents have repeatedly expressed their anger and frustration over the inability by the military and police to tame the marauding heavily armed terrorists freely roaming the expansive forest.
Residents questioned why the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and police have not dealt with more than 200 gunmen they claimed have now taken control of the forest since 2012.
“The soldiers are not moving even five kilometres from the main road. We are wondering why. We see them almost every day especially in the evening,” said another resident.
Dozens of soldiers were deployed after the June 15, 2014 Mpeketoni attack to track them down inside the forest that spreads all the way to southern Somali’s Badaade district.
The forest is surrounded by three KDF camps – one located between Milimani and Basuba, another on a border strip separating Kiunga and Ijara and the major military camp in Bargoni.
The terrorists hunt buffalo, zebra, antelope, giraffe and other animals for meat and use water from several rivers as they engage soldiers and police in guerrilla warfare, killing and injuring them through ambushes, land mines and home-made bombs along key routes.
For instance, Witu and Pandanguo residents, who have lived for centuries in the area, said the gunmen use different routes around the forest, including one they use to access the Bale Sange dam to fetch water and return to their hideouts.
“They have caused us untold suffering. We can’t go to our farms for fear of them and our security agencies. They are having a field day inside the forest without any fear of the soldiers and the police,” said a local.
According to the residents, the attackers operate in a group of between 20 to 30 people who speak mostly Swahili but also other Kenyan languages, including Somali.
They also claimed that there were a few Caucasian and Arab men among the militants.
“The white men mostly speak Arabic but they have features of either European, Arabs or Asians. Several people who bumped into the group also said there were many Kenyan men mostly young,” said another local.
It has been argued that the soldiers are finding it hard to fight the militants inside the forest presumably because large parts of the forest are only accessible by foot, denying them the advantage of armoured support, with the foliage providing cover to surveillance from the air.
Kenya Air Force planes have bombed strategic areas of the forest in a bid to flush out the militants but all air operations ended fruitlessly.
The forest has scattered thorn bush, indigenous open canopy trees, acacia woodland, marshy glades and groundwater forest.
“The forest is soggy and unless our soldiers and police track them on foot, they cannot manage to tame these people,” a local said.
Assault comes hours after President Kenyatta ordered a major security operation to wipe out militants.