In September 2015, the government of Kenya launched Operation Linda Boni (now Boni Enclave Campaign), a military campaign in response to al-Shabaab’s occupation of Boni forest. The forest is located in Garissa County near the Kenya-Somalia border. It is one of the richest ecosystems in Kenya, and has rivers and wild animals. The forest serves as a haven for al-Shabaab fighters because they can access food and water from the rivers within and around it. Owing to its prime location and variant climatic features, Boni forest has become a perfect sanctuary for al-Shabaab fighters. It has become a strategic place from where the group hatches its plans.
In 1998, al-Qaeda, a terrorist group, bombed the U.S embassy in Nairobi killing more than 200 people, and injuring over 300 others. Between 1998 and 2011, Kenya experienced a relatively calm period, free of notable terror attacks. In 2011, Kenya launched Operation Linda Nchi and deployed Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) in Somalia to fight the Somalia-based al-Shabaab group. The group had allegedly kidnapped two Spanish women at the Dadaab refugee camp. Since then, there has been a surge of incidences of terror attacks in Kenya and Somalia leading to thousands of casualties, most of them Kenyans.
The terrorists settled in the forest as early as mid-2012. Most of its members were Kenyans who would easily access food from nearby towns such as Mombasa and Malindi. It has been reported that Kenya’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) sent some periodic briefings to the police and military regarding their presence in the forest. NIS had informed the government of the presence of al-Shabaab’s training bases in the forest as early as mid-2012. KDF and police ignored their warnings, and dismissed the NIS report. Later, in August 2014, the government of Kenya through its defense forces discovered hideouts in Mokowe and Boni (both in Lamu County). The terrorists who had attacked Mpeketoni and Pandaguo are believed to have sojourned in these hidey-holes before launching their attacks. At least 60 people died in these attacks. Initially, the government stated that the attacks were politically-instigated, but al-Shabaab claimed responsibility.
A year later, there was footage of Jeysh Ayman and other members of al-Shabaab operating from the forest taking videos of themselves before launching an attack. The group, led by Luqman Osman Issa, a Kenyan born in Mombasa, attacked a KDF camp at Baure. They were repulsed, leading to 16 casualties. The attack prompted the launch of Boni Enclave Campaign in September 2015 by the late former Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery.
The heavy presence of the KDF in and around the forest has not made Lamu County any secure. The militia group has killed many people and caused untold suffering in Lamu. Recently, they beheaded nine locals in the region, abducted Mariam El Maawy, former Public Works P.S (who later succumbed to injuries), and killed six more at Nyongoro area, including passengers and fishermen. It has been reported that a good number of people have been displaced from their homes, disserted their businesses and farms, as a result of the government bombing of the forest. The government has faced opposition from conservationists and activists who oppose KDF’s strategies of flushing out al-Shabaab militants.
Some challenges have come to the fore from the handling of the two operations. Kenya, for instance, has porous borders to the east. A high level of corruption makes it easy for the al-Shabaab to pass through the borders and even settle in Boni forest. Second, there are two kinds of al-Shabaab terrorists; the Kenyan al-Shabaab and Somali al- Shabaab. When some of the terrorists go to Somalia, they are accused of being government informants. Some of them run back to Kenya and stay in the forest because they know they cannot be accepted back. In addition, there is lack of co-ordination among different security agencies making it difficult to have a uniform and concrete strategy on how to combat al-Shabaab fighters in the forest. The other issue is that the Kenyan police lack proper training vis a vis the kind of threats posed by terrorists.
Some experts argue that the scale of attacks from al-Shabaab would not have reached current proportions if the Boni Enclave Campaign had been launched in 2012 – when relevant authorities received intelligence. While this operation is a step by the government towards achieving sustainable peace in the region, and uprooting al-Shabaab militia from the forest, the government should encourage co-operation among its security agencies to be effective in its operations against terrorism. The security agencies should also build on their intelligence gathering and intelligence sharing capacity to stay ahead of the group.
Janice Sanya is a Research Intern at the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies