After a series of deadly attacks, Jaysh al-Ayman, an elite al-Shabaab unit formed about five years ago to carry out operations inside Kenya, has emerged as the deadliest terrorist cell in the East African nation. Although it started life in Somalia, the al-Qaeda affiliate’s Kenya wing portrays itself as a local movement and has set up bases in the Boni forest, an expanse of woodland in Kenya’s coastal Lamu County, which extends to the border with Somalia. It is from here the faction terrorizes villages and towns, and targets the police, the military and other government institutions.
The faction is named after one of its top leaders, Maalim Ayman (a.k.a. Dobow Abdiaziz Ali), an ethnic Somali from Mandera County. He was likely appointed to the role in the hope that having a Kenyan in charge of what is effectively al-Shabaab’s Kenya wing would ease tensions. Details about Ayman are scarce, and his current role within the group is unclear. According to some reports, however, he continues to train the group’s fighters in wilderness survival techniques.
A Bloody Beginning
The unit’s origins can be traced to the events on June 20, 2013, in Barawi, an ancient Somali coastal town, where differences within al-Shabaab boiled over. Barawi had become al-Shabaab’s operational headquarters after it was forced out of the port of Kismayu by the Kenyan military—Kismayu had served as group’s headquarters since it was established in 2006. On June 20, Ahmed Abdi Godane, then al-Shabaab’s emir, was concerned that members of the group’s shura council were accusing him of adopting a murderous strategy that targeted civilians and were preparing to split away from the group.
Two years prior, in 2011, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) had been strengthened by Kenyan troops. Concerned with how to keep his group intact in the face of an onslaught by a better-armed foe and desperate to reassert his authority, Godane ordered the Amniyat, the group’s elite spy wing, to execute Ibrahim al-Afghani, a member of al-Shabaab’s shura council. Other shura members, among them Mukhtar Robow and Shaykh Dahir Aweys, were also targeted, but escaped and later defected to the Somali government.
In late 2013, following a strategy aimed at fighting a more effective asymmetrical war in Somalia and its neighbors, Godane unveiled two new wings of al-Shabaab—Jaysh al- Usra, which he directed at Ethiopia, and Jaysh al-Ayman, which would target Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
While Jaysh al-Usra failed to penetrate Ethiopia, Jaysh al-Ayman has seen success in Kenya. So much so, in fact, that although Kenyan security agencies launched the Operation Linda Boni (Operation “Protect Boni”) in 2015 to flush the militants out of the forest, the group has remained highly elusive. The unit has become a major headache for the Kenyan security services. Experts now question whether intelligence reports were ignored early on, allowing the group to securely embed itself in the area.
Attacks in Kenya
Jaysh al-Ayman has played a leading role in many of the recent major terrorist attacks in Kenya. Abdilatif Abubakar Ali, a commander with the group, is believed to have played a key role in planning and executing the 2013 Westgate Shopping Mall attack, which left 67 people dead.
In June 2014, 50 heavily armed militants targeted the Mpeketoni area, killing 48 people, all non-Muslims, and killed another 29 in Hindi area, two weeks later. In June 2014, the militants descended on Lamu County, massacring nearly 100 people.
In neighboring Pandanguo, another town in Lamu, the militants carried out a different type of operation, putting away their guns and instead, since the area is predominantly Muslim, hoarding people into a mosque and preaching to them, before looting drugs, nets and mattresses from a nearby dispensary.
In April 2015, al-Shabaab gunmen, who security experts say were linked to the faction, stormed Garissa University, killing 148 people, mainly Christian students, in the most deadly attack in Kenya since the 1998 Nairobi U.S. embassy bombing by al-Qaeda, in which more than 200 people were killed.
More recently, the faction was linked to the kidnapping of the late Mariam El-Maawy, a top Kenyan government official who was abducted by militants along the Mokowe-Mpeketoni road. El-Maawy was rescued by the Kenyan military and taken for treatment in South Africa, but died of her wounds in hospital three months later.
Aside from these bloody, high-profile attacks, the group has planted Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) along parts of the lengthy and porous Kenya-Somali border and has killed numerous civilians, policemen and soldiers.
Initially, Kenyans from the coastal region made-up the majority of Jaysh al-Ayman’. One of Jaysh al-Ayman’s key commanders is Abdifatah Abubakar Abdi (a.k.a. Musa Muhajir), a Kenyan from the coast city of Mombasa. Muhajir has been on the radar of the Kenyan security services for some time, and the police say he is one of the militants responsible for the Lamu attacks.
In recent years, the group has grown to include Muslim converts from some of Kenya’s non-Muslim communities, as well as foreign fighters. Among the foreign jihadists known to have joined the group was Malik Ali Jones, an American currently in jail in the United States. Another key foreign fighter is Ahmed Muller, a German citizen who uses several aliases, including Andreas Ahmad Khaled, Muller Martin Muller and Abu Nusaibah. The 42-year-old militant, who comes from Cochem, Germany, was allegedly seconded to al-Shabaab by its al-Qaeda affiliate in Pakistan in 2011.
Jones and Muller were identified after the killing of a British national, Thomas Evans, during an attempted attack on an army camp in the Buare area. In that failed attack, more than 10 al-Shabaab militants were killed while score of others fled with serious injuries. The group’s commander, Issa Luqman Osman (a.k.a. “Shirwa”), was also killed.
The Counter Terrorism Operation Against Jaysh Al Ayman
LAMU, Kenya—Tucked into the northeast end of the country’s coast, the Boni National Reserve is a fairy-tale paradise, a resplendent ecosystem packed with elephantine baobab trees and hydra-headed palms. This mix of riverine forest and swampy grassland is home to some of the country’s largest herds of game, and to rare species like the wild dog, Somali lion, and reticulated giraffe.
There are no rhinoceros left here, but Doza Diza, 66 years old, talks about seeing kifaru often. The safari word for rhino has been re-purposed by the locals as a name for the armor-plated Humvees whose machine-gun mounts recall the animal’s distinctive horn.
Tall, gaunt, and with a bad eye, Doza Diza wears a traditional Swahili sarong and a Muslim skullcap. He describes himself as a former county councilor and crab fisherman.
These motorized rhino can be distinguished by color, he says. The dark green ones are vehicles operated by the Kenya Defense Forces, KDF, he tells me. Those painted the color of sand belong to the Americans.
Doza is an elder of his tribe, the Awer (also spelled Aweer). They are hunter-gatherers who seek out honey by following birds, talk to crocodiles and hippos in tongues the beasts are said to understand, and generally stick to their ancient way of life. The Awer are also Muslims, which is highly unusual among the world’s few remaining stone-age peoples.
They’ve long inhabited the Boni forest region, but slowly and surely their way of life is being stripped from them. Subsistence hunting was banned in Kenya in the 1970s, so any meat the Awer procure is illegal. And now the tribe is caught in the crossfire of the global war on terror.
The area around the Boni National Reserve is one of many places in Africa where American special forces personnel are deployed with little fanfare and, indeed, as secretly as Washington’s representatives and proxies can manage. In this case the unit is involved in training Kenyan soldiers on counter terrorism operations.
As The New York Times reported recently, the United States has been escalating the “shadow war” inside Somalia with “the potential for the United States Army to be drawn ever more deeply into a trouble country that so far has stymied all efforts to fix it.”
The Times, quoting unnamed “senior American military officials,” estimated that “about 200 to 300 American Special Operations troops work with soldiers from Somalia and other African nations like Kenya and Uganda to carry out more than a half-dozen raids per month.” And it outlined a program in which private contractors employed by the U.S. also play a significant role.
But the shadow war inside the failed-state borders of Somalia is almost transparent compared to the activities here on the ill-defined edge of that war. There is a long history of countries on the fringes of conflict being sucked into war themselves, the most notable example being Cambodia during the Vietnam debacle. Whether Washington will help prevent such an outcome—or provoke it—is an open question.
Repeated and detailed queries to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) for clarification of the American role here on the frontier between Kenya and Somalia were answered with a brief response explaining why not even a background briefing was possible: “As these operations are currently ongoing, and have elements of U.S. special forces assisting, we cannot comment at this time due to operational security reasons.”
A major part of the mission those U.S. special forces are “assisting” in this part of the continent is, in fact, to hunt down and kill members of the Somali group known as al-Shabaab who threaten Kenya’s security and, through the group’s close relationship with al Qaeda, are believed to threaten America’s as well.
The counterterror and counterinsurgency forces operating in the region would like the Awer to help them track the Somali guerrillas and terrorists.
U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets), other Special Operations Forces of various stripes, State Department officials, spies and commandos from countries with close ties to the United States, including the Brits, Israelis, and Jordanians, have all deployed or trained in Kenya in an undeclared if not unmentioned extension of the U.S.-backed Global War on Terror.
Kenya’s government and its international partners—the heavyweights being the U.S. and the U.K.—are desperate to make this region safe for engineers, imported skilled workers, and, tourists. But the current intense counterterror focus has been a slow build. While significant progress has been made, for the moment, the expansive Boni forest remains an active operations zone. Several police and soldiers have been killed after getting blown up by IED’s.
Al-Shabaab released a recruitment video in 2015 boasting about the bountiful game in the forest provided by Allah to sustain jihadi fighters.
One ranch with a tourist concession that had been a haunt of jet-setters and celebrities (Kristin Davis, one of the stars of Sex in the City, had been a guest) found itself converted into a haven for al-Shabaab sympathizers in 2014. They stole food and medicine then torched the facility’s guest huts.
There is a long and bloody history behind such incidents. In October 2011, Kenya sent troops into Somalia. Since then al-Shabaab has carried out retaliatory hits on targets in Kenya resulting in hundreds of deaths.
Kenyan officials believe that after the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that killed at least 70 people, and the relentless intelligence driven track and kill strategy adopted by security forces, al-Shabaab recruits from the Kenya retreated from Kenya’s urban areas and melted into the dense Boni forest—which sits on the coast, right on the country’s north-south border with Somalia and adjacent to what was once a Somali national park.
Officials say another massacre, the 2014 Mpeketoni attack, which left 48 dead, was staged from within the forest, and that the Garissa University attack of 2015, which left at least 148 dead, was organized within the enormous Dadaab refugee camp nearby (which the Kenyan government plans to shut down).
Jaysh al Ayman, the al-Shabaab cell in the forest, reportedly was comprised of some 300 fighters in 2015, spread out through sleeper cells in a few towns, units inside Boni Forest and in camps in Somalia where it’s members receive training and logistics but its numbers certainly vary.
Following the Westgate attack national and Western forces were in an all-out scramble to protect Kenya from further cross-border terrorism. After the Garissa attack, The U.S. and other Western nations decided to offer better assistance both overt and covert.
According to human rights groups, the counterinsurgency tactics that accompanied the build-up of international assistance have featured mass police sweeps, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and executions targeting al-Shabaab suspects, recruiters, funders and sympathizers.
During President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya in July of 2015, he stepped into the fray, allocating $100 million for the Kenya Defense Forces for weapons, materiel, and vehicles. The allowance was a 163 percent increase in counterterrorism assistance over the previous year. Among Kenya’s purchases: a Boeing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle System —comprising several drones and supporting infrastructure—at a price of $9.8 million. Each year for the past decade or longer the Kenyan government has obtained security assistance from the West.
The most recent installment—approved by the State Department and Trump’s administration are light attack combat choppers designed for troop support and low, high impact attacks targeting people on the ground for elimination
Obama’s theme was known as “the 3-D approach” to the region’s conflicts—defense, diplomacy, and development. And in the two months following his historic visit to the land of his father, Kenya’s government announced that a “multi-agency” security force had been assembled to carry out counterterror measures against al-Shabaab.
The force consisted of paramilitary units within Kenya’s police, Kenya Defense Forces special forces, and various state agencies, including the National Intelligence Service, Military Intelligence, the Kenya Wildlife Service and Forest Service—all trained by Western police units and special forces.
On Sept. 11 of 2015, Kenya formally launched “Operation Linda Boni” (Linda Boni being Swahili for “protect the Boni”). The goal set was to drive the Jaysh Al Ayman insurgents from the forest.
The first stage of this effort was cordoning off the Boni forest as a collection of “no-go zones,” and evacuation of residents in affected areas.
Security officials contend that Somali fighters have taken up residence, with their wives and children, deep inside the Boni forest.
Doza Diza and other Awer leaders say that is true.
They say al-Shabaab has coerced them into providing shelter in mosques and schools, logistical support, chiefly in the form of food and medicine, and have forced tribespeople to track game for them.
Doza reports that guerrillas took his people’s food and issued warnings not to reveal their whereabouts to Kenya security, “Otherwise, we’ll deal with you.” Aside from this, he notes, the insurgents are polite to the locals.
Linda Boni has not only run long beyond its planned two-month timetable, it has extended far beyond the forest and its region into much of northeast Kenya all the way to the Somali border.
In the process it has become apparent that the KDF’s counterterror tactics involve more than eradicating the al-Shabaab presence in the forest.
By the end of 2015, the KDF announced it was expanding its area of deployment into neighboring counties along the Somali border and south some 200 miles, to the Tana River, constructing additional police stations and military camps. The Baragoni camp on the southern fringe of the Boni-Dodori National Reserve expanded its area to 800 acres of ostensibly public land.
Kenya has started to build a 435-mile Western-funded security wall at the nation’s eastern border. On a visit to Kenya last year, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a big fan of walls in the Holy Land and in the U.S. as well, committed funds to the project. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta reportedly has suggested building a terrorist-only prison facility.
Attempted Attack on KDF Special Forces Camp
Since the Westgate attack, the KDF base at Baragoni has grown from a temporary camp to a permanent one, and by 2015 Kenya had deployed enough of its troops there with sufficient transport to foil a Shabaab attack aimed at destroying the Baure camp, which is 36 miles north of the Baragoni base.
In that action KDF Rangers killed 11 militants from the Jaysh Al Ayman unit, including an British man named Thomas Evans who’d been dubbed “the White Beast” in U.K. tabloids. The KDF paraded his corpse—along with others—in nearby Mpeketoni, where counter terror operations are headquartered. The British press subsequently posted video that appears to show the night time engagement filmed shortly before he died from a Kenyan bullet
The reach of the Baragoni base the jihadis attempted to attack stretches far beyond a few satellite camps.
Final moments of the ‘White Beast’:
Thomas Evans was filming the firefight in against KDF when he was shot Revealing images show him hugging fellow fanatics before the onslaught.
The incredible footage was discovered on the 25-year-old Briton’s corpse Evans converted to Islam in 2010 and joined Somali terror group in 2011 Man from Buckinghamshire is one of 50 British people to join Al-Shabaab
The shadows are lengthening in the bushland of northern Kenya as two cells of Al Qaeda inspired Al Shabaab fighters come together for their final briefing in the hours before launching a blood fuelled terror attack.
At their very heart is the heavily bearded British Muslim-convert Thomas Evans, a large dagger tucked behind the ammunition pouches strapped to his chest.
The Briton from the small Buckinghamshire village of Wooburn Green – known as the ‘White Beast’ because of his brutality – is clearly relaxed and smiles as he embraces fellow Islamist fighters who have crossed in groups from the Al Shabaab heartland of Somalia to team up with Kenyan-based terrorists in preparation for their dawn operations.
Hours later the 25 year-old is dead, shot as he helped lead an assault on the Kenyan Defence Force base – the first case of a British Islamist militant being killed on Kenyan soil.
The extraordinary pictures were found in a camera and series of videos discovered on the body of Evans, the group’s second in command and cameraman, in the aftermath of the 5.45am attack at Baure, Lamu County, 11-days ago.
They provide a unique insight into the role of the Briton, who had changed his name to Abdul Hakim, and is believed to have taken part in an atrocity on a nearby village a year earlier that left 70 people dead.
Taken by Evans as he shouted instructions, they also show for the first time the final seconds of his life – and the moment he is hit by the fatal bullet.
Dawn has barely broken as the fighters, illuminated only by gunfire and explosions, move from the cover of the bush to launch their assault with Evans recording what Al Shabaab hope will be another propaganda strike on the beleaguered military.
Hunched gunmen are captured blasting off bursts of automatic fire while incoming Kenyan bullets pour-in towards the fighters.
Evans is recording the frantic, terrifying moments of attack immediately behind the gunmen and would have made an easy target.
Suddenly, the footage stops as he is hit, collapsing to the ground as comrades desperately try to drag him back into the bush.
He was one of at least 11 jihadis killed in the failed attack and five remarkable videos found on Evans chronicle the hours of build-up to attack – and the Briton’s comfort in his role of jihadist.
In one sequence of his photographs, a fighter is filmed making a crude roadside bomb, packing explosives together and then squatting in the shade as he links together the wires and the detonator.
Evans then captures two fighters skinning and gutting a gazelle they have shot for a meal beside a thorn tree as a gunman, his head covered by the distinctive black and white checked head scarf popular with fighters, rests his weapon on his right shoulder.
He then hands the camera to a colleagues who show Evans, wearing a brown T-shirt, blue trousers and a camouflage cap – he is the only fighter wearing socks in his sandals, perhaps a tiny ‘nod’ towards his background – listening among a group of some fighters as they are briefed by a commander, who tells them: ‘The war starts now, we hear from their radio channels that the Kenya are crying like babies, fear has struck in their hearts.
‘God has given Islam real lions that are feared.’
Evans, his cap reversed, sits cross-legged as men carry out final weapons’ check on the arsenal laid out in front of them.
Distinctive black and white flags of Al Shabaab hang on wooden stakes. Several daggers have been driven in to the dirt in a shaded clearing.
Significantly, a second white European with thick beard and dark hair hanging beyond his muscled shoulders can be seen in many of the pictures with Evans.
He survived the attack and has been named as German, Andreas Martin Muller, alias Abu Nusaybah, who has a £64,000 bounty on his head.
The body of Evans, who is one of at least 50 Britons suspected of operating with Al Shabaab, has been buried in northern Kenya after formal identification was carried out with DNA from his family.
An intelligence official in the Kenyan capital Nairobi described the former electrician as a ‘significant and totally integrated figure’ within the units of Al Shabaab operating in northern Kenya during the last two years.
He is said to have taken part in the attack last year on the predominantly Christian town of Mpeketoni last year in which 70 people were killed. Gunmen went from house to house singling out Christians, shooting them in the head and chest in front of their families before torching homes.
Evans has also been linked to the horrific attack on Garissa University College in north east Kenya this April that left 147 people dead and over a hundred injured.
Gunmen took over 700 students hostage, freeing Muslims and killing those who identified as Christians. Survivors of attacks by Evans are said to have told how he broke down doors with an axe to find victims, and personally beheaded one man whose hands were tied behind his back.
On previous attacks, most notably Mpeketoni, Al Shabaab is known to have taken photographs and video for both propaganda and to use as part of their training camps.
Officials believe Evans was tasked with capturing the build-up and attack on Baure but, it is understood, security forces had a tip-off and were waiting for the attack in which two soldiers died.
The son of a devout Christian and Conservative party agent, Evans converted to Islam in 2010, aged 19, after splitting up with his girlfriend.
His mother Sally Evans said she believed he was radicalised after leaving a moderate local mosque to attend a hard-line prayer centre.
Evans attempted to fly to Kenya in February 2011, when he was 21, but was stopped by counter-terrorism police at Heathrow. He flew to Egypt in June, telling his family he was going to learn Arabic and funding his travel through a car-boot sale.
Kenyan police revealed the following month he flew from Cairo, via Ethiopia, to Nairobi where he was stopped by Kenyan authorities because his name was on a terror watchlist provided by the UK. A police report said : ‘The subject indicated his motive of visit was to spend Ramadan prayers in Kenya.’ Officers said that in his luggage they found a Koran, sleeping bag, pair of boots and a black kanzu robe and perfume.
He was travelling with three friends and told officers, who sent him back to Egypt, that he planned to stay at the Incas Hotel in Mombasa, at the time seen as a hotbed of radical recruitment.
Transformed: Thomas Evans’ mother Sally (pictured) said she believed he was radicalised after leaving a moderate local mosque to attend a hard-line prayer centre
She described her son as a ‘normal teenager’ who enjoyed visiting the pub on a Saturday night. She said she was initially happy with his decision to convert to Islam as he had ‘done one or two things that I was not proud of’.
He attempted to convert his mother and brother to Islam and refused to use the same crockery as the rest of his family, resented music being played in her home and would not enter the front room during Christmas.
Evans brought a friend, Donald Stewart-Whyte, a fellow Muslim convert, to the family home. Stewart-Whyte was arrested in 2006 in connection with the liquid bomb plot to blow up planes but was later cleared of any involvement.
Despite being prevented from travelling to Kenya by police, authorities failed to contact Mrs Evans.
‘I wish that they had contacted us,’ she told MPs. ‘I know he was 21, but as his mother and his brother, we could have helped them maybe, or if they had told us their concerns, we could have acted on it. We could have worked with them to help save Thomas.’
His brother, Michael, said a ‘tipping point’ came when Evans went on a charity trip in 2010 to Palestine called Road to Hope, from which he returned angry with strong views against the UK and US’s presence in the Middle East.
Mrs Evans phoned a helpline for people with concerns that their relatives or friends were being radicalised but felt ignored because she was not a Muslim. When she learnt of the death on June 14th, Mrs Evans said : ‘I just went numb. I couldn’t believe that was my son, my little boy, my little babe who I loved.’
Swaleh Msellem, a Swahili resident of Lamu Island, manages a petrol station at the Mokowe jetty a few kilometers across a channel on the mainland. Msellem, now 30, told me how one morning he’d docked his boat at the jetty where at least a dozen non-uniformed men, whom he claims were with the paramilitary wing of Kenya’s National Police Service, had been waiting for him.
Someone pulled a hood over his head and tossed him into a vehicle. Familiar with the area and its roads, he said he could tell he was driven some 40 kilometers away to the Baragoni military base, where he was detained in a shipping container and interrogated aggressively to extract information on who planned a deadly attack in the nearby village of Hindi, soon after the Mpekatoni massacre. He denied any knowledge. The interrogators asked where the weapons were that were used for the attacks. “Which weapons?” he answered.
The military intelligence officers continued to grill him, insisting he had information. He said that during that detention he was driven from Baragoni to an area nearby. One afternoon he complained of feeling ill. Guards took him outside to a pond where he vomited. Through his loosened blindfold he was able to glimpse crocodiles on the berm of the pond.
Why were crocodiles being kept inside a military base, he wondered.
Msellem said soldiers later threatened that he’d be fed to the crocodiles like others had been if he didn’t cooperate. After two weeks he was transferred to the port town of Mombasa, to the south, and held several months at the infamous Shimo La Tewa prison in a wing reserved for terrorists. Msellem eventually was taken into court, where he was acquitted of all murder and terror-related charges for lack of evidence (a wanted Al shabaab militant had been in contact with him by phone leading police his way.)
When I interviewed Msellem, he was grimly philosophical. Although he did not see or talk to any U.S. personnel, as far as he knew, he had no doubt they played some role behind the scenes. “The Americans are very complicated, aren’t they? On the one hand they are helping us by building roads, dispensaries, schools, but they also seem to want to kill”
For information from inside the Baragoni base, I spoke with a man who identified himself as a Western-trained Kenyan Special Forces soldier serving with one of the SF battalions.
This soldier described to me the process of “enhanced interrogation”—used at Baragoni military base. He confirmed that people were were going to pay up.”
Operation Linda Boni: Gains Against Jaysh Ayman Terrorists
In vast forest, the government has established a military camp; nine police stations fully staffed with staff, the police stations hosts the anti-terrorism unit for profiling and prosecution of suspected terrorists.
The government is in the process of establishing a permanent Kenya Wildlife Service camp with paramilitary rangers and combat trained forest officers.
During the operations, camps have been discovered and several weapons recovered.
Security forces drawn from KDF army, General Service Unit and regular police operations have been able to recover more than a tonne of food supplies, guns and ammunition, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and bomb-making materials in trenches.
Residents neighbouring the forest, Bondhei, Pandanguo, Witu and Pangani – which are in Garissa and Tana River counties have been very collaborative with security apparatus and have confirmed that security is sufficient.
Sources: Jamestown.org & Daily Beast News