Lack of cooperation between locals and security agencies has been cited for the government’s failure to wipe out Al-Shabaab in three counties, three years since Operation Linda Boni was launched.
The Nation learned that failure by the government to deploy security personnel and administrators who understood local culture and terrain, and could easily interact with residents and share intelligence, had also hindered the fight against the terrorists.
POOR ROAD NETWORK
The poor state of the Garsen-Lamu road that has remained untarmacked since independence, despite the launch of works by President Uhuru Kenyatta last March, has further made it easy for the terrorists to plant explosives.
Motorists using the route have become easy targets for the attacks with security personnel questioning ranch owners and businessmen suspected of funding the Somalia-based terrorists.
Security personnel interviewed on condition of anonymity claimed some of their bosses were not keen on flushing out Al-Shabaab from the areas in order to continue pocketing huge allowances.
“Some tenderpreneurs even from outside the region are beneficiaries of the conflict through supply of products to the security personnel fighting the Al-Shabaab including the African Union forces in Somalia, earning them billions of shillings,” an officer said.
When the government launched Operation Linda Boni in 2015, many thought the terrorists would be flushed out of the forest within a few years.
But this was not to be as the terrorists still cause havoc despite the presence of Kenya Defence Forces and police officers in Lamu, Tana River and Garissa counties where the operation falls.
On January 19, Coast regional coordinator Nelson Marwa said the operation “is one that must succeed”.
“That is one operation that we believe in as a government. You can take that to the bank.
"We have all the units on the ground. We cannot discuss much of the operation for security (reasons) but we are on top of things,” Mr Marwa said.
He spoke a week after the terrorists ambushed a police convoy, killing a health worker and burning two police Land Cruisers at Nyongoro on the Lamu-Malindi highway.
The following day, the heavily armed Al-Shabaab stormed Ishakani village, hoisted their flag at a deserted police post, preached radical teachings and left at will.
But what has made it hard for the security forces to deal with Al-Shabaab?
Security sources who spoke to Nation said there was no cooperation between residents and security agencies.
“The relationship between our police officers and the residents is not good.
"The residents are afraid of both the security officers and the Al-Shabaab.
"We used to have several attacks in Garissa and we realised that were not getting information from the locals because the officers were not relating well with them,” the Garissa-based senior officer said.
The officer added that when a new team was deployed, attacks in Garissa went down, a move he said will work if applied to Lamu.
But the Nation has also learned that some of the residents helped hide the terrorists.
The extremists, known as Jaysh al-Ayman, who have been operating from Boni Forest, have at times been shown around by local accomplices who also fed them with vital information.
Some of them have been conducting prayers in the same mosques with residents without authorities knowing, something residents say could change if security informers could infiltrate the group.
Last week, Operation Linda Boni Director Joseph Kanyiri accused the locals of working with the terrorists leading to continued attacks and deaths, making it difficult to arrest them.
“Every time our officers are deployed in those areas to conduct a search once an attack happens, no terrorist is found. Does it mean that these terrorists evaporate?” he asked while addressing journalists in Lamu.
The presence of Al-Shabaab sympathisers and the increased number of Al-Shabaab returnees in the counties are also key hindrances to the war.
Mr Kanyiri recently confirmed that Al-Shabaab returnees in the regions were secretly regrouping, recruiting and training youth to join the group.
He believed the new recruits were responsible for the recent attacks in Nyongoro, Lango La Simba, Gamba, Milihoi, Ijara, Pandanguo, Maleli, Poromoko, Ishakani and Basuba.
Mr Kanyiri also said the manner in which the attacks were being conducted was clear proof that the perpetrators were under the guidance of local networks and most inevitably, Al-Shabaab returnees.
“The government is doing all it can to ensure the Al-Shabaab becomes a thing of the past.
"We should however not forget the fact that we have sympathisers and returnees who are working hard in favour of the enemy.
"That’s why up to now we still experience attacks in some places in Lamu,” Mr Kanyiri said.
Other reports indicated that some of the terrorists usually dress like local herders and mingle with them to hide their identity.
Most of the attacks happened on the Lamu-Malindi road.
“The poor state of the Lamu road contributes a lot to the attacks.
"The attackers have good timings on vehicles because motorists can’t speed. The murram road must be repaired or tarmacked to avert more attacks,” Lamu East MP Shariff Ali said in a recent interview.
Security agents operating under the Linda Boni have also been complaining of not being given their allowances on time, affecting their morale.
A situation where only officers attached to the Linda Boni Operation got the allowances while policemen attached to various stations were ignored was said to have been reviewed.
“At first we were discriminated for a long time. I am from Central Kenya and was posted here years ago but I never used to get the allowance in the pretext that I am based here yet I come from far and we do the same job.
"That made some policemen refuse to cooperate with those attached to the operation or show them around as it is us who know the terrain,” a police officer said.
Some police officers deployed in Kiangwe said they had not received their hardship allowances for six months.
The officers are supposed to get Sh31,500 each month.
“What do you think the officer will do when you send him on patrol yet he is suffering and so is his family back home? We are human, we need to be motivated,” another officer said.
Another officer told the Nation that poor welfare at the Linda Boni camp had affected the exercise.
He said apart from their stalled hardship allowances, they also led miserable lives in the camps with food and bedding being a problem.
The porous border between Lamu and the war-torn Somalia has also added to the security personnel’s headache.
The dense Boni Forest has also made it easy for Al-Shabaab to cross to Lamu to conduct attacks and sneak back into Somalia as well as serve as a training ground.
Security sources confirmed that more than 300 Al-Shabaab families, especially those from Jaysh al-Ayman, have set up permanent bases deep inside the forest since mid-2012 in retaliation to the deployment of Kenyan troops in Somalia.
“People shouldn’t blame the security forces in Lamu for failing to end the war on Al-Shabaab.
"They should understand that Lamu borders Somalia and the militants have found it easy to cross to Lamu.
"We haven’t relented in fighting the militants but truth must be said.
"Sometimes we really find it hard to fight the militants inside the forest bearing in mind that most parts of the forest are only accessible by foot and deny us the advantage of using armoured vehicles,” a source said.
Questions also continue to linger on what exactly the Linda Boni Operation has achieved in as far as the war on terror is concerned.
Only a few arrests have been made public, leaving many wondering if the terrorists were ever caught in the first place.
The attacks have gone on despite the Linda Boni Operation being backed by air, land and sea military equipment.
One of the biggest puzzles has been how the terrorists – usually in huge numbers – manage to escape after ambushes on the Lamu-Malindi road, which mostly happen during the day in open grounds like Nyongoro despite a GSU camp being located nearby.
The Linda Boni Operation centre is also just kilometres away.
Mr Kanyiri insisted that the security forces were totally in control of the situation and would not tire until the region was rid of Al-Shabaab.
“Citizens shouldn’t be misled by the fact that we are silent and some attacks and killings are witnessed.
"A lot has been done since the operation was launched in 2015. A considerable number of Al-Shabaab militants and IED experts have been killed,” he said.
He added: “In fact, during the attack at Nyongoro, we managed to take out two of the terrorists and no security officer died on our side. We sometimes conceal such details for security reasons,” Mr Kanyiri said.
He also said hundreds of the Al-Shabaab hideouts had been destroyed by Kenyan troops in Boni forest.