Why Mpeketoni residents are still hurting over bloodletting that shocked Kenya

Residents and security officers view bodies of slain Al Shabaab militants and weapons recovered from them at the Mpeketoni hospital mortuary. (Photo: Maarufu Mohammed/Standard)

Towards the first anniversary of the mid-June 2014 carnage in Mpeketoni and adjoining villages in Lamu and Tana River counties, the fog of new terror attack fear has been gathering in these troubled areas. Again.

And as sure as night follows day, militants believed to be Al-Shabaab attacked two places in Lamu and left death, despair and frustration in its wake.

Early last Sunday, Al-Shabaab militants raided a Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) post at Baure near Bargoni and opened fire with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades, sparking a fierce exchange.

“The attack was aggressively repulsed,” said KDF spokesman Colonel David Obonyo. Col Obonyo told The Standard on Sunday that two KDF soldiers and 11 “Al-Shabaab terrorists” were killed in the attack that began at 5.45am.

Obonyo said there were a Caucasian among Al-Shabaab’s dead, raising the spectre once again of the role of foreign jihadists in Al-Shabaab operations in Kenya, a role first exposed when the militants raided Mpeketoni last year.

Shocked villagers

KDF has since released photos and names of the foreign jihadist fighters as Briton Thomas Evans, who was killed in the attack, and German national Andreas Martin Muller aka Abu Nusaibu, who has a Sh10 million bounty on his head.

Meanwhile, on April 2, terrorists killed 147 students and other residents at Garissa University College in Garissa, which shares a border with Lamu County to the north.

Mid May, the threat to Lamu moved closer when armed militants attacked a KDF truck convoy at Korahindi in Ijara sub-county of Garissa, destroying a truck and injuring three soldiers. On May 19, militants, said to be under the orders of Mohamed Kuno alias Gamadheere, the supposed mastermind of the April 2 Garissa University College carnage, took over mosques at Kabasalo and Tumtish in Ijara.

The militia forced worshipers at the two mosques to listen to lectures on their fiery ideology. They threatened the shocked villagers and reportedly read out names of alleged spies and traitors during a two-hour ordeal that began at 6pm without State security intervention, even though there are two KDF posts nearby at Sangailu and Hulugho.

An intelligence officer among the worshipers said, “we listened in petrified silence as the men in jungle uniform with heavy weapons rounded us up and began to preach against the Kenya government, KDF and local officials they claim are spying on them.”

Local police reported that the militiamen were led by a Mohamed Bilal, a wanted terror suspect. They disappeared into the nearby Boni forest without trace, only to emerge on May 28 in a brazen attack on a police convoy in Yumbis in Garissa County where two policemen were killed.

The militants then raided Mangai village, North of Lamu, took over mosques and razed down a school after preaching to locals. The southernmost reaches of Garissa County are 45 minutes by road from Kiunga and Hindi, where suspected Al-Shabaab militants struck in July last year, killing 22 residents and security forces (including those killed on the raid on Gamba Police Station in Tana River County). Garissa and Lamu share the impenetrable Boni forest that starts in Somalia and which Al-Shabaab militants have used to deadly effect.

Lamu West MP Julius Ndegwa says, “there are still fears of a new attack due to rumours and recent leaflets”. He says locals are still afraid despite the heavy presence security forces in the area.

Most residents of Mpeketoni, Hindi, Kiunga, Pandanguo and other areas hit by last year’s attacks are still waiting for answers on how and why the brazen and bloody massacres occurred.

An intelligence officer summarises the locals’ fears thus: “It is clear that the State has learnt no lessons whatsoever after Westgate (Shopping Mall attack). Mpeketoni was an improvement of Westgate and without a doubt the Garissa college massacre was a vast improvement from the failure to learn from Mpeketoni.

“Terrorists are becoming emboldened by the knowledge that the Kenyan state is unable to combat them. They have created an impression that security forces are either too fearful or disorganised to face them.”

And as Mpeketoni marks one year after last year’s bloodbath, residents are still questioning how safe they are from the terrorists.

Families that have spoken to The Standard on Sunday in Mpeketoni praise their slain kin, calling them martyrs killed for refusing to betray their religion. “He could have lied that he was a Muslim (and escaped murder). But he remained steadfast in our Lord. We are proud of him,” said Mary Waithera whose son James Macharia was killed in the massacre.

Macharia was 30 when he was killed, leaving behind a 24-year-old wife with three children. Families who lost loved ones in the attack are bitter that the State has neither explained the spectacular collapse of the police force on that day nor charged nor reprimanded any of the senior security officials suspected to have slept on the job.

They point to the comedy of errors they believe were committed when the State ignored intelligence about an imminent attack on Mpeketoni and the President’s own mischaracterisation of the attacks.

Massive attack

“Why has the President not found it fit to come to Mpeketoni? We were expecting him recently but he suddenly cancelled the trip and this makes us fear security was the real reason behind the cancellation,” says Peter from Pandanguo.

From press reports preceding the Mpeketoni attacks, there was an indication of increased militant activity in Lamu, including a May 26 assault on a KDF convoy in Kiunga in which two soldiers were killed.

According to a government document leaked by Al Jazeera, the government was aware that Al-Shabaab was planning a massive attack after Westgate. The document dated May 13, 2014 suggested that Kenyan officials believed Al-Shabaab was plotting an incident bigger than Westgate.

Says the document from the National Police Service to all police stations in part: “The threat of terrorism in the country remains very high largely due to the determination by Al-Qaida and Al-Shabaab to inflict pain and fear to the citizenry (sic). This is largely driven by the feeling that the Westgate terror attack did not achieve the intended objective.”

This is largely driven by the feeling that the Westgate terror attack did not achieve the intended objective."

This document depicted refugee camps in Dadaab as a cesspool of terrorist networks and admits that terrorists walk "at will" across Kenya's border with Somalia. The assessment suggested that besides Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had infiltrated Kenya and introduced new tactics and plots, including the use of Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs).

In March last year, two men were caught with a massive VBIED at the Mombasa police headquarters and the state appears to have been aware they had entered from Somalia's Gedo region and were in constant touch with militants jailed at Shimo la Tewa Prison in Mombasa.

It is unclear if the National Security Council ever acted on this information to map out possible areas of attacks.

On May 17 2014, The Standard reported that hundreds of General Service Unit officers deployed in southern parts of Tana River, bordering Lamu County, were suddenly withdrawn despite militia movements in the general area. The GSU officers were withdrawn to Nairobi and a post at Witu shut down without explanation.

Reacting to recent leaflets threatening a new bloodbath in Mpeketoni, local officials claimed no such thing can occur again.

"Security is on top gear and we assure the residents that they are safe," said Jonathan Chebasa, the Assistant County Commissioner of Mpeketoni.

Meanwhile, a report by the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) last year supported claims that the State was aware of an impending attack on Mpeketoni, including reports that the planning began in 2013 with a senior official within the Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU) taking a lead in importing arms through Liboi in Garissa County.