Two years after Kenya sent the army into Boni forest to flush out al Shabaab, the terrorists are still popping up to wreak havoc in Lamu county.
They beheaded nine men in the latest brazen attack in Jima village on Saturday, after killing three policemen and several villagers in Pandanguo village on Wednesday last week.
This begs the question of whether Operation Linda Boni has been a success or a failure.
The late Interior CS Joseph Nkaissery launched Operation Linda Boni in September 2015 to fight al Shabaab threats in Lamu county.
The operation was called following the 2014 Mpeketoni massacre, where more than 100 Kenyans were killed and others maimed after more than 200 heavily armed al Shabaab militants raided Mpeketoni village.
During that deadly attack, the al Qaeda-linked militants attacked hotels and a police station and brutally murdered residents. They targeted grown-up men.
After the attack, the hooded militants, who included foreign national jihadists, vanished into the expansive Boni forest.
As al Shabaab claimed responsibility, President Uhuru Kenyatta openly blamed local politics for the attack, saying there was intentional targeting of a certain ethnic group. Later on, al Shabab released a video of the attack.
Al Shabaab said the attack was carried out to avenge the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia and the killing of Muslims.
Kenya sent its troops into Somalia in 2011 to help the UN-backed Somali government defeat the militants, who were sporadically attacking Kenya border towns and kidnapping tourists, government officials and foreign aid workers.
Latest statistics from Kenya military under the Africa Mission in Somalia (Amisom) indicate that the KDF controls large swathes of territory in Jubaland, which borders Kenya.
KDF spokesman Col Joseph Owuor said the forces have liberated over 100,000 square kilometres from al Shabaab and continues to maintain its presence in the captured territory.
“The major centres within the liberated area are Kismayu, Afmadow, Beles Qokani, Dobley, BurHache, Busar and Tabda, among other smaller towns. The KDF operates in unison with other Amisom troops,” Owour said.
Be that as it may, the attacks continue. On Wednesday last week, al Shabaab militants raided a police station in Lamu county’s Pandanguo village, broke into a dispensary and stole all the medicine, and killed several villagers.
The persistent attacks have sparked tension and questions over the achievement of the Linda Boni operation.
Reports indicate that more than 100 heavily armed al Shabaab members raided the police camp that had 19 officers, setting it ablaze. They also destroyed a Safaricom mast, disrupting communication among the security personnel based in Lamu.
The militants are said to have planted Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which slowed down the government’s counter-security operation. The gun fight between al Shabaab and Kenyan police took over seven hours before security agents took over the area.
The militants are said to have escaped into the vast Boni forest on a Kenyan police land cruiser.
In a statement, National Police Service spokesman George Kinoti said three officers were killed, one seriously injured and 14 were unhurt in the dawn ambush.
“The attackers used rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other small arms in the attack, in which several tents were destroyed. Reinforcements sent to engage the enemy killed several terrorists,” Kinoti said.
On Saturday morning, yet another attack occurred in Jima village in Lamu.
Nine people are said to have been butchered by the al Shabab militia.
However, Coast regional police commandant Akello Odhiambo said only six men were killed in the attack. One was seriously injured.
At least 20 al shabaab members were involved in the attack, according to police and residents.
The victims, who were hacked to death, had deep knife injuries.
A security team comprising the KDF and RDU are combing the area, Odhiambo said.
“We have mobilised our security forces who are now combing the area and the Boni forest,” she told the Star.
Acting Interior CS Fred Matiangi has issued a 6.30pm-to-6.30am curfew.
Need for intelligence
The reemergent attacks rekindled memories of frequent terrorist attacks in the country between 2012 and 2014, especially in Lamu and Mombasa counties, carried out by the al Shabaab terror cell operating from the Boni forest.
At least 300 members of Jeysh Ayman, a local al Shabaab terror cell, uses the Boni forest cover as a base for recruiting and waging terror attacks in the Kenyan coast. They raided villages and lectured locals against tipping off the police.
A security expert, Retired Major Rama Mwang’ombe, says the operation in Boni must be sustained, but urged security officers to rely on intelligence gathering rather than engaging in jungle war with the militant.
Mwang’ombe opposes plans by the government to bomb the entire forest to flush out al Shabaab, saying it’s counterproductive.
“The operation is above average, and we commend families of security agents who have lost their lives in the ongoing operation. But the government machinery must invest in intelligence,” Mwang’ombe says.
Mwang’ombe said security agents are dealing with difficult guerrilla wars on unfamiliar terrain, hence must encourage locals to share intelligence reports to win the war.
“We have people living in the forest whose livelihood depends on the forest. Bombing the forest will cause more collateral damage and will not resolve the problem,” he explains.
Coast regional coordinator Nelson Marwa called for the bombing of the expansive Boni Forest, saying the Somalia-based ragtag militia had turned the forest into a playground for launching their attacks.
Marwa said the group has claimed many lives and maimed security personnel and civilians in recent months, and must be wiped out.
A senior Kenya Wildlife Service officer criticised plans to launch air strikes in the forest. Speaking to the Star on condition of anonymity, he said the forest is home to the Bonis, who rely on it for their economic activities, including hunting, gathering and harvesting wild honey.
The Bonis also worship shrines located deep in the dense forest.
“The government should declare the forest a no-go zone and evacuate the locals to pave way for an intensive operation to smoke out the militants, instead of bombing the entire forest,” the officer said.
He said Marwa should consult a multi-agency team leading the operation instead of issuing statements from the comfort of his office, demoralising officers who have lost their lives in the course of protecting Kenyans.
Intelligence reports warn that al Shabaab militants are living with their wives and children in Boni forest.
The terrorists are said to be surviving on game food and supplies from sympathisers in Kenya.
Boni forest, which covers part of the Kenya-Somalia border, is a known al Shabaab route to and from Somalia.
Lamu county commissioner Joseph Kanyiri denies that fresh attacks indicate the operation has failed.
Speaking to the Star, Kanyiri said the operation has largely been successful, citing the declining cases of terror attacks in the county and the country at large.
Kanyiri said a multiagency team has played a pivotal role in smoking out al Shabaab from the forest and restoring normalcy in the county.
“It is a regrettable incident, but we cannot draw the conclusion that the operation has failed. Doing so will be playing to the hands of our enemy,” said Kanyiri.
He said five schools in the Boni forest whose classes were disrupted by the presence of militants have since reopened.
A team comprising the KDF, GSU, regular police, administration police, NIS and the National Youth Service is now opening up the roads to make the area accessible, he said.
The team is also constructing boreholes and health facilities as long-term strategies to defeat the insurgents.
Kanyiri further said the operation has led to the lifting of travel advisories by the UK in Lamu county.
“It’s not conventional war but rather a guerrilla warfare, where al Shabaab attacks and retreats back to Somalia and wades back to strike again. But we have managed to thwart several terror attacks,” Kanyiri said.
He said the government has deployed adequate security officers in the area, building cohesion and restoring normalcy.
In May 2016, security agents praised the operation, terming it a success after they managed to “flush out” al Shabaab from the forest. The operation was extended to four other areas — Bondhei, Pandanguo, Witu and Pangani — in Garissa and Tana River counties.
“If schools that had formerly closed due to insecurity are now reopened and people have settled into their normal routines and the government presence is now felt, then the operation can be considered successful,” said Head of Operation Joseph Ole Serian.
Police and military officials say the insurgents had permanent bases deep in Boni forest, where they lived with their families, hunted for food, trained and plotted attacks in the country.
Several militants’ camps have been destroyed after intensive operations.
Rising use of IEDs
Al Shabaab have changed tack and resorted to using IEDs to carry out attacks in parts of Coast and North Eastern regions, according to police.
Before the Pandanguo last week, more than 50 people, including police and civiliansm had been killed from IEDs planted along the main road in the last three months.
Most fatalities have been policemen. Al Shabaab has claimed responsibility, saying this is retribution for the country sending troops to Somalia to fight their members.
On June 27, four police officers and four pupils were killed after a lorry was hit by an IED in Lamu.
On May 31, eight people, seven of them police officers, were killed when their armoured vehicle hit a landmine in Baure area, Lamu.
On May 24, five AP officers were killed when their land cruiser ran over an IED between Arabia and Lafey in Mandera.
The five were part of Governor Ali Roba’s convoy, which was headed from Arabia to Lafey for a campaign rally.
Roba’s vehicle and others in the motorcade had not reached the scene at the time of the explosion.
Although terrorist attacks in major towns have declined drastically in the last three years, areas in Lamu and Mandera counties near the Kenya-Somali border have been hardest hit by al Shabaab.