Somalia returnees recall chilling experiences under Al-Shabaab

Al-Shabaab recruits at a military training base in Afgoye, west of the capital Mogadishu in February 17, 2011. [Photo Courtesy]
MOMBASA: In early April, police in Ukunda claimed they had dealt terrorism a major blow when they killed two suspected terror suspects who had returned to Kwale from Somalia.

The two, Alfan Said Mwamtaka and Hamisi Shaaban Kulunda, were killed at Shamu area at 4am in a fierce exchange of fire with the police.

Intelligence availed to The Standard on Sunday confirmed that Mwamtaka was hiding dangerous weapons for Somalia returnees and under his cell were nine other terrorists suspected to have come from Tanzania.

Mwamtaka was killed before he could reveal where the weapons were hidden, thus creating anxiety among security forces and the county security committee.

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Various authorities, including Msambweni OCPD Joseph Omijah and Kwale County Commissioner Evans Achoki, without delving much into the allegation, confirmed that they were aware that Mwamtaka was indeed hiding weapons.

On the night the duo were gunned down, Mohammed Bakari Mazuri, 38, was shot dead by suspected returnees after he tried to “change his ways” and get rehabilitated.

“He was sitting outside with his wife when his phone rung. He moved aside to pick it when someone appeared from the bush, shot at him three times and disappeared into the darkness,” said Omijah.

The OCPD claimed a cartridge was found at the crime scene, confirming the bullet was fired from an AK47 rifle.

After the killings, The Standard on Sunday learnt that many young trained militants who had joined Al-Shabaab had secretly returned to the country. This, it is said, is the reason the government offered them amnesty to surrender.

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A man who returned from Somalia but does not want his identity revealed said he was part of an Al-Shabaab recruitment team that returned to Kenya at the time Mazuri was eliminated.

Mazuri was said to have been related to a man who surrendered recently to Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery in Nairobi and who is also believed to have played a crucial role in recruiting youths though he has never stepped in Somalia.

Hassan Suleiman Mwayuyu and Hassan Bakari, who have also been killed, were also engaged in the recruitment of youth to join Al-Shaabab.

Deadly repercussions

“In total, the main recruiters were five but other peripheral actors are still active. Those willing to talk fear revealing their identity because of the deadly repercussions that may follow,” said the returnee.

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Another man recounted how they left the country for Somalia around July 2008 having been radicalised by Sheikh Aboud Rogo (now deceased).

“We were put into clusters of five people that also had Tanzanians. We then travelled through public means to Malindi, took another vehicle to Lamu where a private Pajero car picked us up late in the night,” he said.

“We were picked by different people in various stages. The entire journey took around five days.”

Upon reaching Kismayu, Somalia, they were warmly received after which everyone was given a new name. They were instructed to make one last call before disposing off their mobile phones.

The new recruits were asked to either join the military wing of the Al-Shabaab or stay in the camp, although everyone was trained on how to use weapons.

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“We went at a time the war against foreign forces had just begun. Those of us who did not join the military could be picked once in a while to assist those on the frontline,” he said.

According to the source, there were more than 600 Kenyans in Somalia, some of them with their families,  when he left. Women are confined in special places while some were married off to people who had contacted them before they left Kenya.

“When a man wants to marry, he is given a woman by the commanders,” said the man who stayed in Somalia for seven years.

He described how easy it was to bribe security personnel at the border whenever he wanted to cross into and out of Somalia.

“A vehicle can only cross the border after handing out bribes. The vehicles are then dumped once across the border for fear of being pursued,” he said.

Terrorists could also sneak arms into Kenya by hiding them in boats or lorries that ferrying fish to the border.

So how many returnees does he know? The man estimates that in Kwale alone, dangerous terrorists still in communication with their commanders in Somalia could be 20. Fifteen of them are known by the police and other security officers.

Recently, the police published names of Abdalla Suleiman Makhtur and Ramadhan Mbwana Mbega from the South Coast.

Another returnee, Andrew Shee (not his real name), claims to be among the first Kenyans to be recruited into Al-Shabaab. Shee, who now lives in a remote village in Mtwapa, was initially a Christian and was taken to Somalia in 1999.

Terror students

“I was staying in Mwamambi area of Kwale County and our journey was facilitated by a local sheikh. He paid all our tickets to Nairobi where we went by bus and stayed at a mosque in Ngara,” says Shee, who adds that he does not know where his two other colleagues came from or where they are now.

In Nairobi, he met 40 other ‘students’. They were not allowed to get out and were trained to hate other people especially non-Muslims. They were also trained in self-defence.

“The government knew what was happening. Sometimes, policemen with pistols came into the mosque in civilian clothes. I am not sure whether they were investigating something or protecting us,” he says.

Eighteen of the youths were picked for the onward journey to Somalia, where they travelled for two days in a lorry covered with canvass.

Shee says they all escaped from Somalia without the knowledge of their hosts, embarking on late night journeys. He says he still fears for his life.

“My worry is that both the Al-Shabaab and police are looking for me,” he said.