What pushed Kenya into Somalia?
On a sweltering afternoon nearly a month after the Westgate attack, a lone policeman at the Ngaremara barrier five kilometres away from Isiolo town barely glanced as a vehicle slalomed through the security check.
Shimmering in the sun, Isiolo is a dusty trading town three streets deep on both sides of the new highway. Tour vans stop there for supplies before entering the wildlife parks.
In the centre of the country, Isiolo is a Kenyan crossroads: Muslims come down from the north; Christians arrive from the south; then from all angles come the pastoralists, highland farmers, refugees and immigrants.
In the car, the conversation had turned to the price of guns and mbuzis.
In Kiswahili, mbuzi means goat, but it is also slang for illegal immigrants – Ethiopian and Somali nationals looking for a way into southern Kenya and beyond.
Mbuzi is the word shared by human traffickers and the policemen they bribe to get them past the security checks.
The going price was KSh1,000 ($12) per immigrant, per security checkpoint. At Isiolo town, the traffickers and their vehicles – long-chassis Toyota Land Cruisers, often with seats removed to allow extra crouching space – are well known and operate freely, as do the brokers.
The night before, a broker at a restaurant in town revealed that two consignments of immigrants had arrived.
Gradually, security around the gate- way towns of Isiolo and Garissa was being tightened after Westgate. Samburu herdsmen discovered 63 illegal immigrants hiding in the bush in October.
In Garissa, another gateway town southeast of Isiolo on the highway to the Somalia border, several high-ranking police officers faced allegations of corruption: taking bribes from Somali migrants heading for southern Kenya.
Inspector general of police David Kimaiyo also ordered tougher checks to try to deal with the rot inside the security system.
The thriving trade in mbuzis points to Kenya’s soft underbelly, which jihadist insurgents had been exploiting for years.
A former government administrator in northern Kenya and a local chief both spoke with The Africa Report on strict condition of anonymity.
The former administrator had worked at the Kenya-Ethiopia border for seven years. He had with him a report he had written a few years ago raising concerns about border corruption and how militant Islamist groups had established training bases in Isiolo and Wajir counties.
Under the command of former clan warlords and retired officers from the army of Somali’s former President Siad Barre, these camps existed with the full knowledge and complicity of individuals within the Kenyan administration.
They were financed by the very same people who were involved in the mbuzi trade and the thriving trade in khat, a leaf that can be chewed for its properties as a stimulant.
After the administrator gave this report to his boss, he was threatened by the traffickers as well as security officials. “Any junior police officer who dares stop the vehicles used by these criminals [the human traffickers] quickly gets disciplinary measures from his boss [sic].
“I witnessed in person an administration police sergeant who refused to open a roadblock for a lorry with unspecified cargo in the middle of the night (from Somalia) summoned by his boss the following day and charged with failing to obey the lawful orders of his superior,” reads a section of the handwritten report.
It later goes on to state: “The greatest concern is the number of Somalis pour- ing into the nation and the genuinity [sic] of the Ethiopian passports most of them are travelling on.
The police officer manning the roadblocks … is more concerned with the KSh100 charged at every roadblock for an Ethiopian passport … When travelling without an Ethiopian passport, one has to pay KSh1,000 at every roadblock from Moyale to Isiolo … With these and much more, the future security of northern Kenya and Kenya as a nation is a real concern for anyone who can see beyond his nose,” he wrote in 2010.
In light of the Westgate attack, it is disturbingly prophetic.
Soon after Friday prayers in Isiolo town, a Kenyan Somali who claims he was recruited and trained by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) between April 2010 and March 2011 tells his story: “I was approached by clan elders and convinced to enlist in the training programme.”
At least 50 of Kenya’s recruits were killed in their first and only foray into Somalia
Assured that he would be paid $1,000, he joined some 1,200 recruits at a training camp in Laresoro in April 2010. Located a few kilometres from Archer’s Post near Isiolo, the camp is in the vicinity of the British Army Training Unit in Kenya.
The year-long training programme included courses in paramilitary operations, field craft, camouflage and intelligence. The recruits formed 11 companies.
“Our mission was to fight Al-Shabaab in Somalia.We were told this at the beginning. My fellow recruits were mostly Garre Somalis from Mandera – they numbered about 800 – but there were also Borana recruits and even some Kikuyus,” he explains.
It appears that the mission went wrong from the start. The assurances of a “big salary” proved to be fiction.
Recruits received a monthly stipend of between KSh2,000 and KSh4,000, and the pay was infrequent.
Consequently, many recruits deserted. Many of the Garre Somali deserters formed a militia calling itself the Garre Republican Guard, he says.
“They took all of us without instilling any sense of patriotism. Many recruits were reluctant to fight their Somali compatriots. And clan allegiances meant that there was lack of coordination,” he recalls.
That helped Al-Shabaab operatives to infiltrate the force. In Isiolo, a bespectacled middle-aged man among the recruits was exposed as an Al-Shabaab agent who had been communicating training strategies for months with his colleagues in Somalia.
The recruit says he suspects there were many other Al-Shabaab agents in the force because few background checks were conducted.
In mid-2011, the recruits made their first and only foray into Somalia through the border town of El Wak. They were ambushed by Al-Shabaab fighters and at least 50 of them were killed.
Just two weeks before the KDF’s invasion of Somalia in October 2011, then prime minister Raila Odinga told The Africa Report that the government could not account for at least 400 ethnic Somali counter-insurgents.
This, he explained, was going to force Kenya into a military invasion. The KDF did not respond to a series of questions regarding the fate of the counter-insurgents.
Other officials have been reluctant to talk about the failed counter-insurgency strategy: instead they say the KDF’s incursion into Somalia was in hot pursuit of Al-Shabaab, which they blamed for the abduction of tourists in the Kenya coastal resort of Lamu.
Those who strayed
However, the training and arming of counter-insurgents who then deserted created fresh problems for Kenyan security.
“We gave the counter-insurgents logistics, weapons and money. But the real fighting was done by Somalis. They have taken the brunt of it.
“They have lost at least 2,000 men in the Jubaland region since we went in. After we liberated about 4,000km2, we stopped and allowed Al-Shabaab to regroup,” says Farah Maalim, a former MP representing Lagdera.
He strongly backs Kenya’s intervention in Somalia. “We have pursued a two-track policy in Somalia. The first has been to re- constitute the Somali state through a building block strategy, creating a federation of semi-autonomous states.
“For Kenya, I see a Somali federation as a key to long-term stability. This is why we have tried to establish Jubaland as a state within the Somali federation.”
Al-Shabaab’s opposition to the Jubaland project partly explains the terrorist threat in Kenya, but a significant element of the threat is homegrown.
Since the bombing of the United States embassy in Nairobi in August 1998, Kenyan, US and other intelligence agents have monitored the links between Salafist clerics in Mombasa, Nairobi, Garissa and their recruitment of young Muslims into the jihadist cause in Somalia.
Many of those clerics were receiving money from Al Qaeda operatives.
A recent report by researcher Anneli Botha of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) explains how the extremist Hanbali Islamist doctrine expanded on the Coast in the 1990s when Al Qaeda operatives such as Fazul Mohammed and Wadih el Hage, Osama bin Laden’s Lebanese personal assistant, moved to East Africa to take charge of Al Qaeda’s activities.
Radical Islamist clerics such as the late Sheikh Aboud Rogo and the late Ibrahim Omar – their assassinations one year apart are widely perceived to be the work of state security operatives – gained a following on the Coast and in northern Kenya by recruiting jobless youths in marginalised areas.
Less well known is the extent to which urban youth in southern Kenya, in cities such as Nairobi and Eldoret, are converting to Islam and taking up the jihadist cause.
In January 2012, two months after Kenya’s incursion into Somalia, the Al-Shabaab leadership announced that it had appointed Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali as its ‘Supreme Amir’ in Kenya.
It was a turning point in the insurgent group’s strategy. Kenyan youth now constitute Al-Shabaab’s single biggest recruitment base outside Somalia.
The majority of the new recruits, says the ISS report, are new Muslim converts who have the ca- pacity to launch terror attacks locally.
In 2011, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Eritrea and Somalia noted that Salafist-sponsored charities operating in Garissa, Mombasa and Nairobi helped to radicalise youths and recruit them into Al-Shabaab and its Kenyan franchises such as al-Takfir Wal-Hijra.
It identified the Muslim Youth Centre based in Nairobi’s Pumwani Estate as the coordinator of the recruitment. Sheikh Ahmad is a founding member of the centre, which has continued to operate with impunity. ●