Kiunga in Lamu.

| Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

A daring journey into the heartland of Al-Shabaab

What you need to know:

  • Kenya has been unable to completely eliminate the Shabaab problem.

We had been on the open ocean for almost an hour when the most terrifying thing happened. The boat’s engine suddenly shut down.

Within seconds, the rumble of the Indian Ocean’s water as it splashed past the boat into the horizon stopped. Everything, suddenly, went silent. Our journey towards the Kenyan border with Somalia was about to end and the ocean was now completely in control. The vastness of the sea, on all sides, disappeared into the horizon.

The vessel, a white boat christened ‘Kishuna’, slowed down to a halt. The sea can be breathtaking and frightening at the same time, depending on circumstances.

“It’s another two hours before we get to Mkokoni,” the boat’s operator, Karisa Bukaro, who preferred to be called ‘captain’, broke the silence.

“You see right there,” he said, pointing to nowhere specific, “a family of 10 died two years ago when their boat capsized. At least 10 miraa boats heading to Somalia capsize every year right here. People say this is where the ghosts of the sea are.”

'Nation' journalists on a boat to Kiwayu in March 2020.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

As we pondered his next move, Bukaro immediately jumped to the back of the boat to diagnose the problem: the engine needed more petrol. The ‘captain’ did his magic and within minutes we were back in motion.

We needed at least six jerrycans of petrol for the 174-kilometre trip to Mkokoni, a small fishing village about 84 kilometres north of Lamu. We hoped to reach Ras Kamboni – the Linda Boni security operation village on the Kenya-Somalia border in Lamu.

To do this, we needed to go by speed boat from Lamu to Mkokoni – where we hired a junky cream Toyota Land Cruiser, the only one that exists in the village – for a 50-kilometre journey through Dodori forest up to Kiunga.

Ras Kamboni is about 20 kilometres from Kiunga. After months of planning, we disregarded all advice around us and began our journey into the base of Al-Shabaab. Our mission? To investigate why Kenya has been unable to completely eliminate the Shabaab menace after a decade of war.

Fishing in Kiunga, Lamu.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

We also wanted to experience warfare beyond enemy lines, where you are trapped between the government on one side and extremist groups on the other. Al-Shabaab had earned notoriety for its use of suicide bombers, recruitment of foreign fighters and its links with Al-Qaeda. It’s categorised as a terrorist organisation and relies on a jihadist philosophy to survive and motivate its members.

On the Kenyan coast, it has taken advantage of ethnic hatred, religious feuds, politics and long-standing community grievances over economic exclusion to radicalise the youth, in a region that has been the backwater of the country.

The ripple effect is a deadly mix of extremism that has enabled the Shabaab to thrive and kill. Today, the Shabaab has propelled itself into a potent militant group controlling not just parts of Somalia but creating a huge influence on the borderlands and coast of Kenya, where Islam is the predominant religion.

By managing to silence the communities, under a climate of fear, the group has combined complex, headline-grabbing attacks on low profile targets, including police stations and communication masts to stay in circulation.

A telecommunications mast in Saretho in Dadaab, Garissa, that was destroyed by Al-Shabaab, in this March 2020 photo.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

It has had a deadly grip on the people ever since it was formed as the youth wing and radical offshoot of the Union of Islamic Courts – formed to bring order in chaotic Mogadishu – but opposed to the internationally recognised Transitional Federal Government.

And while the Kenyan government has managed to push the militant group away from its major cities and reduced the possibility of large scale attacks, it holds sway in some parts of the country.

This is why we opted for a dangerous journey across the sea, and through a thick forest, to reach Ras Kamboni. The other option would have been to go by road from Mkokowe in Lamu, through Hindi, Bargoni, Bodhei and Mararani – at the risk of being blown up.

Most of this journey would have been through the vast, dangerous Boni forest. We considered this route, but after eight days on the road visiting villages – where police have little say – and sites of previous Al-Shabaab attacks, we opted for the Ocean where the only danger would have been the sharks.


A week before, we traversed the refugee-town of Dadaab in Garissa – where ghost settlements dot the landscape, thanks to the insecurity posed by Al-Shabaab.

The headteacher of Saretho Primary School, where four pupils lost their lives in January through an Al-Shabaab attack, said she stopped believing in the government ages ago: “If this is not Kenya, tell us, where do we belong?” posed Sophia Guchu.

“The curriculum is the same; we raise the flag every week like other schools. That is where the similarity ends because schools are empty and teachers don’t want to come and teach here.”

Down in Hola, Tana River, we met Al-Shabaab recruits who had returned home after realising that the good life they had been promised in Somalia was just a ruse. Joining extremist groups was an easier option than having no source of income, they said. “We have no jobs. If someone comes with Sh20,000, which you have never earned in your life, you will join them,” said Hillary Ngatana, while refusing to refer to the Shabaab by its name.

It is about money.

“It’s like a job. The youth here don’t join these groups because of religion; let no one lie to you. It is about money,” he offered. From Tana River to Lamu, we had to be given military and police escort from Gamba Police Station to Mpeketoni, where more than 60 people were killed in a June 2014 terrorist attack.

Gamba is located a few kilometres from Garsen and lies on the edge of the Boni forest, a rich coast ecosystem and which has turned to be the hideout of the militants.

We drove through the highway that runs parallel to the forest and whose construction has taken years to complete due to incessant attacks on the contractors. All vehicles heading to Lamu must move in a convoy for security purposes.

The escort itself is a symphony of sorts. Drivers are first warned that they have to speed up whenever they hit a rough patch of the road in case there are Improvised Explosive Devises (IEDs) planted on the way. IEDs get triggered when a vehicle tyres run over them. If the contact time is short, the chances of an explosion is minimised.

Trailers are let to drive ahead on their own for 15 minutes since they are not attractive targets for the militants and because they are slow. The officers completely mask their faces to prevent being identified.

Torturous experience

It was a torturous experience. After every 30 kilometres or so we were stopped, asked to step out of the vehicle for screening and identification.

The entire process took about 30 minutes to inspect all the vehicles in the convoy turning us into sitting ducks that could be attacked any time. Strangely, as the heavily secured convoy snaked its way to Lamu through Minjila, Witu, Mambosasa, Pandanguo and Hidio, life outside was going on as normal.

We saw children swimming in paddles, waving at us, women in the farms tilling and men herding cows or just chatting by the roadside. It was a false sense of calmness. The Garsen-Lamu road is the most dangerous in Kenya.

Dozens of people have lost their lives attempting what is arguably Kenya’s most dangerous road trip without security. Many more will lose their lives unless Kenya completely eliminates the Shabaab.

On January 2, three passengers were killed and three seriously injured after militants ambushed a convoy of buses heading to Lamu from Mombasa. Three hours later, a multi-agency operation killed four terrorists and captured one.

’15 minutes’

“We heard a blast and everything went dark for a moment before gun shots started,” one of the officers who was providing escort to the buses when they were attacked told us. “The gunfire went on for about 15 minutes before the militants fled into the forest. We gave chase.”

On February 9, militants burnt two construction vehicles near H Young & Co’s camp at Milihoi. This attack forced the government to deploy Special Forces from the military to provide security for H Young, which is constructing the 135km Garsen-Lamu road. On reaching Lamu, our driver, Muvele Musyoka, told us over dinner at the Lamu Police Station that he was unwilling to subject himself to another round of terror by going on a three-hour boat ride to Kiunga.

“I still have a long way left in this life, there is no way I am touching the water,” he said. “Since there will be no mobile network wherever you are going, if you don’t come back by night fall, someone has to tell the company what happened to you,” he said.

We arrived safely at Mkokoni after a brief stopover at what used to be called the Kiwayu Safari Village Resort where a British woman was kidnapped by10 years ago. It is this kidnapping that ignited Kenya’s invasion of Somalia. 

“You will leave your IDs here and make sure you report to Kiunga Police Station when you arrive,” the officer in charge of Mkokoni Police Station told us before allowing us to proceed.

People load drinks onto a vehicle in Mkokoni, Lamu.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

On enquiring why we were leaving our IDs behind, we were told that it is to prevent us from crossing over into Somalia. From here, we were on our own for about 50 kilometres. We never made it to Ras Kamboni after officers in Kiunga warned us that it was too dangerous to try any movement five kilometres from their station. Our movements were being tracked and the Shabaab knew there were journalists around.

'Need permission'

“Even the people who brought you here, ask yourselves why there is only one vehicle operating between Mkokoni and Kiunga, or why were you not attacked?” an officer posed. “You need their permission for you to be allowed to use that road. We are officers but our vehicle cannot patrol beyond the village. All our supplies come through the ocean,” he explained.

If Mkokoni is located on the edge of hell, then Kiunga is right inside it. The only beautiful thing about Kiunga is its name.

Though it sounds like a tourism destination, its beachline could be the dirtiest on the entire coastline. Decades of neglect have turned this piece of paradise into an under developed village whose only symbol of state presence is a camp belonging to Kenya Power, a primary school and a police station.

The 700-kilometre wall, dubbed the Kenya-Somalia Border Securitisation Project, would have created more security. It starts a few kilometres from Kiunga. But the construction is slow since the government doesn’t want to risk its own workers by transporting construction materials through Boni forest.

Thus, the materials have to be brought by boat from Lamu. It’s a slow process that can only move a few bags of cement and ballast at a time.