Some years ago, Mungiki was a word that struck terror among central Kenya residents
But a decade after shaking off the ugly link to the sect, terrorism is the new conundrum in the region.
With levels of unemployment at an all-time high, owing to the collapse of the tea and coffee industries, central Kenya is evolving into a breeding ground for terrorism.
The region has become an important recruitment point for al-Shabaab terrorists.
Nyeri, Murang’a, Kiambu and Kirinyaga counties are increasingly becoming prominent features in Kenya’s war against terrorism.
Central Kenya is also believed to be a transit point and hideout for terrorists.
Its geographical position and the stereotypical focus by residents and security agencies on northern and eastern Kenya as terrorist strongholds have allowed the group to sink its teeth deep in Mt Kenya.
Intelligence operatives believe counties in Mt Kenya have become favourite routes for terrorists from Somalia.
In February 2018, police in Merti, Isiolo County, intercepted a cache of weapons after an exchange of fire with a gang.
A gang member was killed while two others were apprehended.
Police seized five AK-47 rifles, 1,099 rounds of ammunition and 36 loaded magazines.
The vehicle transporting the deadly arsenal had about 100kg of high-grade explosive Trinitrotoluene (TNT).
Police later said the car would have been used to hit a key government installation.
The bust revealed a new route being used by terrorists.
Intelligence services believe Mt Kenya is favoured as a hideout and strategising point for terrorist groups because of its proximity to Nairobi.
Kenyans are also not likely to associate the region with terrorism.
Nyeri County Commissioner Fredrick Shisia says the region’s agricultural and cultural setting is an advantage to radicalisation efforts as it makes intelligence gathering complicated.
“Sleeper cells operate in secrecy. Sometimes they do not even know one another or details of their missions,” Mr Shisia told the Nation.
“Usually they meet during the final stages of planning and this makes it difficult to track them.”
In the aftermath of the attack on the Dusit complex at 14 Riverside Drive in Nairobi, investigators focused on Nyeri County.
The background and recent activities of one of the key suspects, Ali Salim Gichunge, pointed directly to Nyeri.
Locally known by one of his many pseudonyms, Farouk Idriss, investigators and residents say Gichunge lived in Majengo slums, Nyeri town.
He is also believed to have spent part of his adult life in Isiolo and Mombasa counties.
Mr Shisia said police have been monitoring at least four suspected al-Shabaab cells in Nyeri from last year.
The county chief added that Nyeri, Naromoru, Karatina and Othaya towns have been under surveillance.
So deep are the roots of the sleeper cells that they have constantly sneaked in recruits to and from Somalia.
Sources at the police service say about seven suspected Shabaab militants returned from Somalia with the help of local sympathisers at the end of 2018.
There are reports that more militants, including Gichunge, earlier sneaked back into Kenya from Somalia through Mandera County.
A suspect was arrested by military intelligence officials in May.
The police source said Gichunge could have made contact with the militants who returned while in Nyeri.
However, it remains unclear how the said militants slipped away, even as detectives accuse local religious and security leaders of covering-up for them.
But in Majengo, secrecy is the way of life, making it easy for the cells to operate effectively.
Most people are only identified by nickname.
Asking about people can land one in trouble.
Those who talk to the media do so on condition of anonymity.
“Do not bother asking around for people using their real names because you will never find them,” one told the Nation.
He said some young people disappeared from the area five years ago and have never been seen since.
“They talked of going to the Middle East but, after a while, rumours of them being in Somalia began doing rounds,” he added.
It is not the first time Nyeri is being linked to terrorism.
Last year, three suspected terrorists were arrested in Nyeri. Police said they planned to attack a college.
Nyeri has always been in the limelight in the terrorism war but as more of a victim than the villain. Many of the victims of the attacks in Mandera County have been quarry workers from Nyeri.
Mr Shisia does not rule out the possibility of some of the returning quarry workers being radicalised. However, there is no mechanism in place to screen and monitor the returnees.