In 2009, Captain Xavier Omondi of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) led a team of six to the US Army National Guard (ARNG) Warrior Training Center at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Their mission was so secretive that not even their closest friends in the military knew about it, and their arrival on US soil on August 8, 2009 was the second time is as many years that Kenyan soldiers had stepped out for specialised Ranger training.
Those six members of the elite mission would, months later, pioneer the Kenyan Pre-Ranger Programme.
“We hope to develop a specialised unit that can respond to the country’s immediate threats,” Captain Omondi told the US National Guard newspaper then.
When they came back, a Rangers Strike Force (RSF) was set up, but its training and operations remain a well-guarded secret.
Almost at the same time, another elite unit, the Special Forces (SF), was established, forming Kenya’s first Special Operations Force. The team, known as Special Operations Regiment (SOR), is made up of the Rangers Strike Force — identified as 40RSF — and Special Forces (SF) — known as 30S.
Both RSF and SF were relatively unknown until Operation Linda Nchi was launched and they were deployed for special operations in Somalia.
Their performance at the war front was so brilliant that President Mwai Kibaki, during the recent Jamhuri Day celebrations, and as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, rewarded a number of the outstanding fighters.
Among those honoured with a Silver Star (SS) was Captain Boniface Waithaka, the Officer Commanding (OC) Ranger Company that is currently based at Belesc Qoocani, Somalia.
Also honoured were rangers Samwel Marwa, Abdullahi Gabow, Emedele Epakolok and Mwambuzi Simba. Ranger Onsemus Namu was awarded with a Head of State Commendation.
The Gilgil Barracks, located about a kilometre from Gilgil town, is home to the special operators. And, to join the happy little family here, you have to be outstanding in the military field. Members of these elite units are picked from the best of the best after pass outs, and immediately start being tested for endurance, stress management and ingenuity.
The Rangers Strike Force takes 63 days to train while the training for Special Forces lasts for six months. One of the major differences between the two is that Rangers are trained by Americans and the Special Forces by the British.
Contrary to what many think, the Special Forces are not a rapid deployment unit; the secret of their success is intensive preparation. They are well versed with details about power grids, water supplies, crops, the economy, roads and local politics. They plan, debate, and rehearse both combat and follow-on operations.
During training, the Rangers spend three weeks in Isiolo, a similar amount of time in the high-altitude Mount Kenya region, then move to the humid coastal military base at Manda Bay.
They train alongside such crack units such as Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS), Sayaret Matkal of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) and US Rangers.
Some of the training activities can traumatise even the bravest. According to KDF sources, they are trained to continue fighting without retreat while remaining flexible even under the harshest conditions.
Their training entails lessons in survival, exposing the men to pressure and suffering while making them masters of disguise, deceit and sabotage.
The special operators are also on to counter-terrorism; urban, desert, mountain and bush combat; and the handling of a wide range of weapons, from light infantry arms to heavy artillery.
A number of those serving in Somalia have received training from the US 3rd Special Forces Group on weapons and tactics, first aid, hostage rescue operations, map reading and navigation, field craft, humanitarian operations, VIP escort and protection, swimming and self-defence.
Kenya’s Special Forces are also being trained by the British Marine Commandos on Counter-Insurgency Operations (COIN), Operations in Built Up Areas (OBUA) and sniper training, which includes stalking, marksmanship in long-range shooting, observation skills in scanning and searching, camouflage and concealment, gathering information from Observation Posts (OPs) and counter sniper drills.
Others are taken to various places around the world, including in Belize, a country on the northeastern coast of Central America on the Caribbean formerly under British control, where they conduct intelligence gathering, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance in a jungle environment.
“A number of the recruits fail to complete the training due to injuries sustained in the course of the training, negative attitude towards the training or for not following instructions,” an SF member who requested not to be named told DN2.
According to leaked diplomatic cables, the US decided to support a new elite unit after US congressional concerns were raised over the development of the parent unit at the time, the 20th Parachute Battalion.
It was alleged that the Kenyan unit had committed human rights violations during Operation Okoa Maisha in Mt Elgon. The same unit was also accused of further violations during deployment in Mandera.
“In 2003, at the request of the Kenya Ministry of Defence, the United States began to assist in the development of military units capable of responding to cross-border security challenges,” a cable sent from Nairobi to Washington reads.
“The development of the land-based force has been focused on two types of units; conventional army infantry and an elite Kenya Army Special Operations Force/Rangers Strike Force.”
The US is using permanently attached personnel from its Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF) to train RSF. In 2005, US Special Forces conducted basic infantry training through several Joint Combined Exercise Training events with approximately 99 RSF soldiers.
Initial plans included establishing a 900-man KSOF Battalion at Gilgil by September 2011 but everything has not gone to plan because of the Somali incursion.
According to plans, the unit was supposed to consist of 450 frontline troops organised into three companies, with an additional company in support, the battalion, a headquarters company, a heavy mortar platoon, a reconnaissance platoon and an anti-tank platoon.
Kenya also intends to expand training to Air Mobile (helicopter) and Air Assault battalion, DN2 has learnt. Their predecessor was the Kenya Paratroopers. Within the military the unit is known as the “green berets” or the “paras”.
Their work and activities are classified.
Together with the General Service Unit’s Recce Company, they played an important in quashing the 1982 coup plot when they escorted Moi back to Nairobi from his Kabarnet home. The “paras” have a secretive division referred to as D Company 20 Paratrooper Commandos.
This unit is said to be a replica of the celebrated British crack unit, the SAS.
The 20th Parachute Battalion had a Rangers Strike Company, and it is this unit that was turned to the current Rangers.
The 20 Para and the special operations regiments are considered as the army commanders’ reserve and consequently can only be deployed with his consent.
Each Special Forces soldier, a highly skilled operator, is taught to train, advise and assist host-nation military. The Special Operations Force unit’s traditional missions include Unconventional Warfare (UW), Direct Action (DA), and Close Target Reconnaissance (CTR).
Unconventional Warfare is a broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations conducted in politically and socially fragile zones, and their activities include guerilla warfare, evasion and escape, subversion, sabotage and low visibility, covert or clandestine operations.
Direct Action involves seizing, damaging or destroying a target while Close Target Reconnaissance involves operations behind enemy lines to provide the theatre commander with intelligence on the enemy or gather information on its terrain and populace.
In general, these elite forces are equipped with advanced equipment such as tactical satellite communications, high-frequency radios, and global positioning systems and medical kits. Their operations target interdiction, survival, evasions, resistance and escape and water infiltration.
In Somalia, Special Forces are deployed in the towns of Kolbio, Baadade, Kismayu and Burgabo while Rangers are stationed in the port city of Kismayu, Baadade and Beles Coqaani.
Kolbio is said to be on the shortest route to Kenya from Kismayu while Baadade is a strategic deployment to stop incursions from behind.
SF has mostly been involved in recce and infiltration missions while Rangers are being used as fighters strike force. In the battle for Kismayu, the units were delivered first ahead of the rest using 11M Naval Special Rigid Inflatables from Kenya naval warships.