The unseen war

By Daniel Wesangula

The enemy within

On October 16 2011 when Kenya’s armed forces invaded southern Somalia in the middle of a severe famine hoping to eventually capture the port city of Kismayo and cut off what at that time was thought of as the most vital lifeline for the group, Fatma was a 15year old whose main concern was whether the henna she had applied the previous night would hold on to her fingernails for long. She had no idea that within three years, she would be in Somalia training new recruits, going toe-to-toe with people who had committed to protecting the family she had left behind.

I killed. I watched people kill

Fatma’s hands are not soft. Her body is not wrapped in layers of baby fat. Her face is kind and her smile bewitching. Her voice sounds like it is suspended in age, stuck somewhere between a tenor and a soprano. Too deep to be a woman’s, but not deep enough to be a man’s.

Her oval eyes are clear. Sometimes she sees you, sometimes she doesn’t. Most of the time, she sees the faces of the five men she shot dead. Her ears are hidden deep behind her head scarf. Sometimes she hears you, sometimes she doesn’t. Most of the time she hears screams from the dozens of men and women she saw beheaded for something as trivial as a refusal to sleep with yet another man.


A burn scar runs across her right forearm. For her though, the scars in her life run deeper than her skin. They are in her soul. In her heart. And most importantly, in her mind. Three years after she came back home, the memories of her life as an Al Shabaab wife have refused to leave her.

“I can never forget what I went through,” she says. Unknown to her, neither can the country she once called home.

She spoke to the Sunday Standard ten days after giving birth to a son whose father remains in the dark about her previous life.

“He knows nothing about me,” she says. Only three men know her story. The first is her father. The second is the man who took her to Somalia. And the third is a Kenya Defence Forces soldier who saved her from the forest then made her his wife.

Her story could start from Mombasa, her place of birth, but it really doesn’t. It starts when she turned 19 and fell in love with a 24 year old food vendor in Mombasa who had a lot more going on than the viazi karai and tamarind juice he sold off the streets.

“He was good to me,” she says. “Treated me right and said all the good things.”

Just months after meeting him, she moved out of home to stay with him in Mombasa’s Bombolulu area. He was giving her all the things she couldn’t get at home.

“He was attentive to my needs. He brought me gifts and listened to me,” she says.

One day, he came from work and said business was not good. And that he wanted to try his luck as a fisherman.

“He said he had friends who were leaving for Lamu by boat and were willing to have us on board,” Fatma says. With all her heart, she followed him. But the boat did not dock in Lamu. It proceeded further north to Kismayo. No fishing happened.

“But I couldn’t ask any questions. He was the man of the house,” she says.

Even when handed her over to a group of strangers and then walked away, she didn’t ask questions. When this second group handed her over to yet another group she chose silence again.

“They had guns. I was in a forested area, I felt helpless,” she says.

The recruit

Research by Pwani University Professor Halimu Shauri indicates that many of the women who end up fighting alongside the jihadists in Somalia are victims of circumstance.

They are duped by husbands who are already members of the group. Some are kidnapped while others are betrothed to Shabaab husbands by their fathers.
Professor Halimu Shauri

Many of those who get there die from the vagaries of a war they know nothing about. Those who survive become part of the war fabric, their lives a synonym for bloodshed, terror and pain.

A year into her captivity, Fatma had risen through the ranks somewhat even as she received news of the death of her husband in battle. She was entrusted with her own unit. This was when the little traces of innocence that still clung to her fell off.

“I had to be hard,” she says. She was in charge of ammunition and explosives in one of the camps. “I know about C4. I know about IEDs. I know about blowing things up.”

She also knows how to kill.

You were either with them or against them.

“Did you kill any soldiers,” I ask.

At full height Fatma is not small. She stands at just over 6 feet. Her thin physique, straight back and long arms make her appear even taller. Imposing even.

“Yes,” she says. “I am not proud of it. But it was war. Kill or be killed.”

Her war came to an end as her second year as a Shabaab operative drew to a close.

In a night ambush, the Kenyan military overran their camp. Casualties were heavy on the Shabaab side. That night, none of the things she had heard in the preaching of slain cleric Aboud Rogo or his counterpart Makaburi could save her.

So she ran

“I escaped the perimeter being set up by the army and hid in a hole in the ground.” But the hole could not hold her forever, she emerged from it to plunge right into the next phase of her life. One that saw her move from outlaw, to living within Kenyan military barracks as the wife of a serving soldier.

Stockholm’s Syndrome

“Something must have attracted me to him,” she says of the Kenyan soldier who stumbled upon her in her hiding place. “He ordered me to be still. He said if I moved he or any other soldier around would shoot me dead on sight.”

Tired and with no energy to fight back she obeyed.

She says the soldier, and a friend later came for her, tied my hands and feet and wrapped me in some form of canvas and bundled her onto a vehicle.

“I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t see outside. I was moved like cargo from one vehicle to another. Every time this happened I was given some water and biscuits,” she says.

The next time she saw daylight she was being helped out of a lorry in darkness and led into a house.

“The soldier then told me he would lock me inside the house for my own safety and that I’d be taken care of,” she says.

Twice a day, someone would bring her food and water.

“He used to visit me in the house. He told me about his life and eventually we became close and he proposed to make me his wife. I had nothing to live for. I knew if I went back home id be dead,” she says, her eyes moisten up a bit as she talks about the soldier who got her from the frontline to a house in Garissa town.

“He got me a new ID with a new name,” she says. “Soon he was transferred to a military base in central Kenya.

Together they left Garissa for his new deployment as husband and wife.”

“But why couldn’t you run away? How did you trust that he would not kill you,” I ask.

“If he were to kill me, he would have done it in the bush. Not in a house that everyone knew was his. But perhaps he liked me,” she teases.

The fairy tale ending she hoped for was not to be.

In 2017,less than a year after beginning her new journey, her soldier died.

“He died from complications from HIV. I don’t know if I gave it to him or he gave it to me,” she says.

And just like she had done so many times before, she picked up the different pieces of her life and ran.

This time to Malindi, where she has started yet another life with a new husband unaware of the blood on her hands.

Many of her former peers registered as returnees with various government agencies, an option she is against.

“Once you get on any list either the police or the Shabaab will hunt you down. Either way you will be dead before long.”

Forgiveness, not death

On 15th January 2016 Mohammed Awadh left Mombasa with three of his friends for their home in Kwa Jiwa in Malindi town, some 115 kilometres away.

Mohammed, like the rest of his friends had never been home in close to three years. But they were convinced that Kwa Jiwa, the sprawling settlement on the edge of town was the only safe space left for them.

Particularly after a billboard on the Likoni Crossing and another one in town had some of their faces.

They were wanted, with a Sh2million bounty on their heads.

Mohammed felt indebted to one person, his mother. It had been years since the man saw her. What he didn’t know though, was that as the band of friends moved from one coastal town to the other, an unshakeable shadow too was trailing them.

Barely days after they made it to Malindi, all four lay dead. Mohammed was shot through the mouth. A post-mortem report showing he was shot at close range. A single bullet that made a mess on its way out, opening up a hole the size of a tennis ball at the back of his head.

“They never gave him a chance,” (Zeinab Awadh), Mohammed’s mother says. “He wanted to come home and was ready to surrender.”

Mohammed, a slim boy of dark complexion curly hair and stubborn forehead was the first born in a family of three. His mother was respected member of the community. In fact, for many, she remained the link between the community and the state as a village elder in an ecosystem in which distrust between the people and the state runs deep.

As a mother I believed he was destined for greater things. He had drive and ambition. He wanted to be an engineer.

For an outsider, Kwa Jiwa looks like another settlement in coastal Kenya. Narrow, dusty streets on which houses share walls with business premises on one side and mosques on the other. Little children run around oblivious of the dangers posed by the numerous tuk tuks and boda bodas. They hardly notice the odd car.


The Recruiter

But in 2014, Mohammed came face to face with another kind of danger. And it lurked in the house next door, personified in a respected, religious businessman who spent his time between Malindi and Mombasa.

And it is this man, armed with the allure of success, a warped idea of Islam and looked like the son every mother wished for,  who unbottled the young man’s secret ambitions. Ambitions birthed after an encounter with the police, that would later, according to Kenyan security agencies, mature into a blood thirsty orgy of violence.

“He became angry after the incident,”  Zeinab says. The incident she talks about happened one evening in mid-2014. He had just received his first salary from his first job as a cybercafé attendant.

On his way home, his mother says, Mohammed met a police officer who demanded to know why the young man was not at home.

“He frisked him and got took away all the money he had been paid, some Sh18,000,” Zeinab says. “That’s when he vowed revenge.”

By the end of that year, he disappeared from home, becoming a living statistic in the number of Kenyan citizens who crossed over to Somalia to join terror group Al Shabaab.

Nothing in the boy’s life would have indicated that he would be a recruit for the terror group. There were no red flags. No outward signs.

“This is what security agencies are grappling with now. There is no template for an Al Shabaab recruit. Their backgrounds and motivations are diverse,” Pwani University Halimu Shauri, Associate Professor at Pwani University says. “None of them join for a holy war.”


From phone conversations with Mohammed, Zeinab says her son joined the terror network for two reasons, both of them entirely selfish.

He wanted to Kill as many policemen as possible because of the incident he had with them. And equally important was that he was promised a joining fee of Sh1million,
Mohammed's mother

Only one of these ambitions came through.

“He never got any money. After he came back, he used to call me and say he didn’t even have food for the day,” she said.

Mohammed may have been the apple of his mother’s eye. But through his own admission, he was no saint. The two million bounty on his head was as a result in his involvement in some of the most brazen attacks including the random shooting of policemen within Mombasa County as well as links to the Garissa University massacre that led to the death of 147 people, most of them students.

“He said he never went to Garissa. But he admitted that he had done some bad things to men in uniform,” the mother said. For her, mistakes on earth shouldn’t go unpunished.

“But only God has the right to take away someone’s life,” she says. “People who want to change can be forgiven.”

Unlucky for her and her first born son, the state hardly forgets. Neither does it forgive. And in the end,  the punishment was death, and it was swift and painful bringing to an end a mother’s four year wait for her son and some closure to the ones who survived those killed by Mohammed.

A botched amnesty


On April 14 2015, General Joseph Nkaissery, the then Minister for Interior made an announcement that threatened to tear the country's top security organs right through the middle.

After years in the bush that were punctuated by periods of unwarranted bloodletting, some 300 men and women with paramilitary training and a cultivated penchant for war wanted to come back home with nothing but the guns on their shoulders to try and pick up the pieces of lives they had abandoned in their quest for jihad.

A  series of events, including  the brutal assassination of a friend of the state forced the government’s hand, and on that hot, sunny Tuesday in what just missed the threshold for a roadside declaration,  the General announced an amnesty to all men and women who had  crossed the Kenyan borders to train with terror group Al Shabaab in Somalia.

But this didn’t go down well. One group, led by a high ranking public servant in the Interior Ministry was against any form of leniency towards the returnees.

Army generals, who had gone to battle with some of these boys wanted nothing to do with the amnesty. The thought of having these boys back home was upsetting. Hundreds of Kenyans had died as a result of their direct actions. At the very least, the public servant insisted, the boys had to at least confess to their sins.

The other group respectfully acknowledged these fears but backed the decision by Nkaissery. Led by a long-term Provincial Commissioner as well as the then intelligence chiefs, this group argued that any form of violence against the returnees would spiral into something unmanageable that would play out in more violence. They said the war on terror had to move away from the battlefields and into the communities that supplied the terror group with willing participants. To win, reason had to triumph over brawn.

With the uneasy calm that followed Nkaissery’s announcement, many more came back. But life for them and those who knew them was never the same. The toddlers the young men and women had left behind had grown into teenagers who learnt about their parents from hushed conversations.

But voices of these Al Shabaab returnees continue to sip out, upsetting both former comrades and law enforcement who would rather pretend that they do not exist. The truth, however, is that hundreds roam the country, running from the shadows of police and remnants of the terror group, carrying with them memories of a troubling period. Memories and experiences that can be tapped into by remaining Al Shabaab hardliners to devastating effect.

The discussions at the village baraza somewhere in Kwale were getting to Mohamed Bakari Mazuri’s nerves.

Increasingly, speaker after speaker was talking about something that was close to his heart. A chief and an NGO- type were busy telling the villagers to look out for danger signs that could mean their sons or daughters had joined Al Shabaab, the blood thirsty militia that had declared war on Kenya and its citizens.

“They might start to keep beards or to lock themselves in rooms. They might even become intolerant to any other kind of religion apart from what they think is holy and only listen to specific preachers,” the chief said. “If you see any of these signs, come and report.”

Bakari, himself a returnee, exhibited none of these stereotypes. He didn’t spot an unkempt beard. He wasn’t locking himself in a room and listening to radicalised preaching all day. He wasn’t even remotely withdrawn. In fact, Bakari was the life of any gathering he was in.

So after the baraza, Bakari approached the chief, pulled him aside and said:

I want to tell you a few things in confidence and colleagues know I am talking to you. If something happens to me, they will come for you and you will not like it.
Mohamed Bakari Mazuri

He said he was a returnee. And there were 300 others just like him living dangerously on the fringes of society.

“They are tired and want to come home,” he said. “If you can guarantee us our safety then we will come out in the open.”

With his message delivered, Bakari faded back into the crowd of locals he had emerged from.

Up until that point, the return of the returnees had had devastating consequences. Daughters were disowned by their fathers. Sons were frog marched to police stations by sobbing mothers who knew deep in their hearts that the time with their wanted sons was limited and that hiding them without the knowledge of authorities would put whole families in danger.

Those taken to police were registered, to remain within earshot distance of law enforcement while walking around with targets on their backs.

The majority however survived outside the boundaries of being disowned or outed to the police. They retreated into their cells in different parts of the country with nothing but the guns on their shoulders and their experiences of guerrilla warfare.

After coming back from the brutal war, they never really found forgiveness from the state. Neither were they free from suspicion from other returnees with whom they served in Somalia. A compromise became necessary.

Trial and terror

The compromise came in the form of a proposal by Bakari, the charming man who somehow got the ear of those in charge of security within his county, Kwale.

When bakari next made contact with the chief, the state was ready for him. The state was ready to grant them amnesty on condition that they fully surrender and know that they would be under surveillance for the rest of their lives.

He had no problem. He left the meeting location somewhere in Ukunda Town and took the news back to his people. He told them the government was ready to give them three things: Amnesty, facilitation and integration.

“The returnees agreed to first register 60 of their members with government as a pilot. They wanted to see how this would go,” a source who was part of setting up the government amnesty programme said.

The 60 were the less militant ones. Men and women who’d been in Somalia for less than a year. Their experience in combat and participation in terrorism paled in significance to what others had done.

After a series of consultative meetings between different county commanders from Tana River, Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi and Lamu, the list was pushed further up to the Ministry of Interior where insiders say it was received by the then minister Joseph Nkaissery in Nairobi.

But there was a problem. No one in government knew what would happen after the 60 men and women presented themselves to the state. It didn’t seem like there was a plan in place.

“Some of those in charge of the amnesty did not understand the complexity of the problem properly,” Joseph Kaguthi, the former chair of the Nyumba Kumi Initiative and one of those entrusted by government to midwife the program said.

There was no history of such a project and, like many other government projects, the Amnesty Programme remained in place only on one side of a piece of paper. The other side contained names of 60 individuals who had given up one life for the hopeful pursuit of another. Another source says after the surrender of the initial 60, there was no urgency in the program.

Bakari, the exuberant returnee, was on the other hand becoming anxious. He had held his end of the bargain by brokering the safe surrender of his people to the state. But safety was not all they wanted. They wanted more. And in the absence of it, murmurs of a betrayal started going around and people started pointing their noses towards him every time they thought the government had sold them a bad deal and that Bakari had brokered a nightmare.

Karma always gets around. At roughly the same time when these discussions of potential betrayal were going on something else happened that would break the trust between government and the returnees and in the process catalyse the coldblooded murder of Bakari.

The backlash

On April 16th 2015, some two weeks after the bloody Garissa University massacre and 6 months after the initial 60 returnees presented themselves to government, residents in the coastal resort city of Mombasa woke up to something new.

Two billboards with photographs of nine individuals wanted over links to terrorism were placed along major streets in Mombasa.

“Wanted! Dead or Alive. Ksh2million each (reward),” the billboards read.

Some of these names were also on the initial list of returnees only known by a handful of people.

The returnees felt slighted. Someone might have leaked the names to elements outside the agreement. Again, the noses pointed to Bakari, who a few weeks before had held a modest public wedding. His looked like the only life that was back on track.

To the eyes of his former friends, the math just didn’t just add up. He was in talks with government. Many of them had just been publicly outed. He had just done a wedding.

“They found themselves between a rock and a hard place,” Sociology professor at Pwani University Halimu Shauri says. “He was never fully embraced by the community and his former colleagues in Al Shabaab never trusted him again. He was walking around with too many secrets.”

Because of this, death became the only guarantee for lifelong silence.

One evening Bakari, the man who had been to Somalia, Uganda and even Afghanistan on various missions, received a call while in the company of his wife in their house in the outskirts of Ukunda. As he often did, he slowly excused himself and walked out of the house to talk to the other person on the line.

The second he closed the door behind him a lone gun man walked right to him and shot him three times from point blank range before calmly walking away. He had survived many things, but not the assault from the rifle.

With no link to the returnees, the government came up with another initiative to placate the initial 60 after intelligence reports showed the continued involvement of some returnees in criminal activities all along the coast. Subira Sudi Mwangole, was now the link between the returnees and the state.


It was ten months later that some movement with regard to the amnesty program was seen again.

On Monday February 22nd 2016, the then Interior Permanent Secretary Karanja Kibicho unveiled a group of 19 youths at Matuga Training Institute, including five women, whom he said were part of a group of 48 former radicals who had surrendered to government.

As an intervention he said the returnees would get brand new motor cycles as well as dairy cows on a livelihood programme supported by the state and other non-state actors.

“These announcements were an oversight. You can’t do it overtly. The enemy is within us. Anyone paraded as a returnee would be dead in a few days,” Kaguthi says.

This, the returnees said, made them marked men and women. Plus, it pitted them against the thousands more disenfranchised youth within the coast region. All in all, before the news had settled, returnees who had chosen not to surrender quickly repossessed thee motorcycles and used them for their own gain. The intended beneficiaries were left at a worse place. First, they had been outed. Secondly, they had no livelihood.

“Young people in their prime left to be spectators to development were seeing their age mates, wanted by police, being given livelihoods. They were bound to get angry,” Prof Shauri says.”

Subira was gunned down barely weeks after the launch of the motor cycle and dairy cow returnee livelihood program.

Learning Curve

Four years after the Amnesty Programme was introduced by government it has had chequered successes. Critics say the set-up was wrong from the initial stages. When it was still at conception stage, the team that included Kaguthi and a host of religious leaders and scholars proposed to go to Columbia and see how the South American country set up its own amnesty programme for thousands of FARC rebels who had denounced their bloodthirsty ways.

A key difference between what Colombia had done and how Kenya was going about with her amnesty was that one was anchored in law and the other, according to Professor Shauri ‘just fell short of being a roadside declaration.’

Colombia's parliament passed laws protecting FARC’s guerrilla fighters from persecution for minor crimes committed during the country's 52-year civil war. Rebels found guilty of committing serious crimes, such as massacres, sexual violence or kidnapping, do not fall under amnesty.

The Colombia trip never materialized.

“Someone up there decided we should go to Indonesia instead,” Kaguthi says. 

But even the Indonesia trip aborted over what the career civil servant terms as ‘vain competition and barren bickering’ within different institutions entrusted with the country’s security.

“There is no legal basis for protecting anyone in the Kenyan amnesty,” Prof Shauri says. “But it is all we have.”

After all this though and the deaths of Bakari, Subira and many more, coastal Kenya remains an ideological battleground for radicalisation and counter radicalisation narratives and time remains the only judge in this duel.