In 2009, a group of men posing as businessmen hired a truck and militiamen and made their way to Afmadow, an Al-Shabaab stronghold in Somalia, to buy contraband sugar and bullets. Their plan was to transport them across the border from the lawless nation to Kenya.
“We know that you will be troubled by Kenyan officials at the border,” an Al-Shabaab commander told them as they packed their wares. “They will need a bribe to let the sugar in. Worry about the sugar, but leave the bullets problem to us.”
Assured, the militias packed the thousands of illicit rounds of ammunition into the sugar sacks, then set off to look for pistols, which they acquired at Sh6,000 apiece.
At the Kenyan border area of Dobley, they bribed Administration Police officers with Sh3,000 for each truck that they let in, then headed for the Liboi Military Camp.
What happened to the cargo after that remains a mystery, but the Kenyan soldier who regaled this story to DN2 in Afmadow last week was almost 100 per cent sure that it ended up in criminal hands.
Brooding under the canopy of a scorching Somali sky, the soldier, who requested anonymity because he did not want to be quoted discussing sensitive security matters, looked into the horizon, heaved a sigh of relief and gave a faint smile.
It was a few hours after his battalion had roared into the Al-Shabaab stronghold of Afmadow, and in his mind he was sure that no other lorry-load of ammunition would take off for Kenya from this desolate address.
Nearby, a Z-9 helicopter gunship belonging to the KDF idled with stunning elegance, its rotar blades gleaming in the harsh sun.
It had hit terrorist targets with stunning accuracy while, about five kilometres away, our anonymous soldier and his peers prepared for the final march into town by raining mortar bombs into suspected Al-Shabaab positions.
“We cannot take chances,” Warrant Officer II Salah Ibrahim, who was in charge of the mortar unit, said under the din of exploding munitions. “We have to announce our presence in style.”
Thanks to three months of hard work by military intelligence officers, the KDF knew more about the town than Al-Shabaab expected.
The intelligence officers had entered the town disguised as smugglers to lay the groundwork for the operation, and by the time the forces moved in, they had a clear understanding of enemy positions and had been briefed on the political, economic and social climate of the town.
A few days before the fiery onslaught on Thursday last week, a team of KDF Special Forces and Rangers trained in the US and Britain infiltrated the nearby Xayo town. From there, they neutralised — or switched off, as they said — communication infrastructure, ensuring that Al-Shabbab fighters remained in the dark about the impending assault.
But, despite all the reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, the rag-tag militia still had the nerve to prove its mettle.
Hours before the operation started, Kenyans drawn from the Nanyuki-based ‘A Company’ survived an ambush on the way from Tabda to Belles Qocani after triggering an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) along the road. Eight Al-Shabaab fighters were killed in the ensuing gunfight, a source at the KDF said.
This latest triumph by Kenyan forces in Somalia could not have come at a better time. Before the start of the operation, their trail of victories had all but gone cold. At the sector headquarters in Dobley, Somalia, Brigadier Johnson Ondieki explained the uneasy lull since December, saying that it was necessary to take time before proceeding to liberate the town from the militia.
Their incursion started in October last year when, with the assistance of the Somali Transitional Government Forces (TFG), KDF established a defensive position at Tabda.
They then proceeded to liberate Busaar, Ras Kamboni, Elade, Fafadun, Busaar, Belesc Coqani, Hosingo, Kolbio, Badhadhe, Girma, Bulla Hache, Damasa, Catama, Badade and Burgabo towns from the Shabaab.
At the time they roared into Afmadow, they were controlling about 95,000 square kilometres of Somalia.
The capture of this strategic town, however, had taken too long, rekindling memories of the World War II blockbuster A Bridge Too Far to Cross. But there was a reason, a very good reason, for this delay.
Intelligence reports had convinced the men who called the shots on the Kenyan side, the KDF generals, that the right time for advancement was during unfavourable weather.
The logic was that Al-Shabaab transport units would be bogged down in mud, making it easy for KDF helicopters to identify them and swoop in for the kill.
Armed with this intelligence, military planners were convinced that the Al-Shabaab would fully prepare its best men ready for the Kenyans, and that the best way to wear down these bad boys was to keep them eagerly waiting for the Kenyan onslaught... for months.
Thus, as an intelligence brief argued, it was better to delay the capture of Afmadow “as long as it would take”.
It was concluded that a delay approach might actually achieve something. The sector headquarters in Dobley started preparing the soldiers for an imminent war which it knew it would take months to launch.
Meanwhile, numbers of Al-Shabaab fighters kept on moving away from Afmadow to other areas.
A group of journalists flown to Somalia at the beginning of this year was also deliberately made to believe that the battle for Afmadow was almost happening.
The information came in through a three-tier system. After the arrival of the Kenyan spies, informers were planted in the town, where they started running all kinds of businesses, ensuring a constant flow of human intelligence (referred to in military lingo as ‘humid briefs’).
Informers from the town relayed info to the Kenyan forces on every move the Al-Shabaab made.
This ‘humid info’ was then carefully cross-checked with still and recorded images from drones (unmanned aircraft) and clips of movements captured from a light aircraft for surveillance flying about six to seven kilometres above the ground. The drone observations started about two and a half years ago.
Military intelligence officers in Nairobi and Somalia analysed the data and estimated Afmadow’s population with an aim of avoiding civilian deaths, or ‘collateral damage’.
But, like in any war, there were mistakes along the way. An initial attack by the Somali government army ended with their butchering. Al-Shabaab fighters tied their bodies to vehicles and dragged them along the streets of the town.
It has been said that only the dead see the end of a war, but Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Nyaga, a charismatic military tactician, had a different message for his fighters just before they crossed the rough terrain into Afmadow last week.
“Gentleman,” he began, “this is war... and people die in war. But this one will be different.” His combat team, which, he said, packed a “killer punch”, listened pensively, seeming too eager to end the months-long wait.
Their convoy had all the hallmarks of a modern show of might, with over 100 vehicles stretching about a kilometre into the thickets that dot the forlorn terrain that is Afmadow suburbs.
The soldiers included assault troops, tank men, artillery units, infantry, engineers and a dozen other trades of war. Operation Free Afmadow had two stages: Capture Xayo town, located along the way, before proceeding to the much bigger Afmadow.
The attacking force was under three commanders: Lt Col Nyaga (the Commanding Officer (CO)), Brigadier General Ismail Sahardid of the Somali National Army (SNA) and Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, leader of Ras Kamboni Brigades (RKB), a warlord who has joined KDF in the war against Al-Shabaab.
Brig Gen Sahardid is a cool career soldier while Sheikh Madobe is a bully of sorts who punctuates every sentence with a sheepish smile. There was word that he eagerly expected the capture of Afmadow so that he could start taxing the people, and he seemed to confirm this in a later interview with DN2.
“Don’t forget that I am also a professional fisherman,” he said. “I can also make money from that.”
At 8.30am on Wednesday last week, two days after a terror attack in Nairobi that killed one person and injured tens of others, Lt Col Nyaga delivered his last words to his troops, urging them to fight for liberation and national pride.
Then the first army chaplain to go to the war front, Major Father Makau, said a prayer before the mighty engines roared. “Green! Green! Green!” Lt Col Nyaga yelled at the top of his voice.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!” the troops roared back, signalling the start of war.
Platoon Commanders Lieutenant Ogeto and Lieutenant Ng’ang’a then hurried their men into the embarkation area. Others followed suit.
The plan was that 500 SNA and RKB fighters would lead the way with the Kenyans reinforcing them. At the embarkation area, SNA and RKB men stared at each other in surprise. They were not comrades; they were just going to the same war.
Along the way, the combination of bright eyes and the toothless smile of a lone SNA sniper, an aging man who has “picked” targets since the times he started the job in his youth in dictator Said Barre’s military, was disturbing, but they soldiered on as six warplanes hovered above them.
The soldiers, walking, panting and wet to their waists, kept on running. At times they slowed us (the hangers on who had gate-crashed the party, and who sat comfortably in armoured personnel carriers) down. From these APCs we watched as the convoy, like a slow herd of cows, edged towards Afmadow.
By early afternoon, after about an hour of fighting and several stops along the way to either take a break, wait for intelligence reports, repair vehicles or push stalled trucks, the forces made their way into Xayo town.
About eight Al-Shabaab fighters were mowed down with deadly force as they tried to defend their positions. After capturing Xayo, Lt Col Nyaga ordered his men to prepare for a hasty defence some few kilometres after the town.
By the time, the team had located a camping site. Here, the forces took hurriedly prepared tea and biscuits for the night. Since all the men were donkey-tired, Lt Col Nyaga ordered the sentries to keep guard in turns.
No mistake would be tolerated here. Previously, in the Kenyan military camps in Somalia, the beautiful silence of the night had been disturbed by kamikaze Al-Shabaab attacks. None of that happened here on this cold Wednesday night.