Boni Forest

For more than six years now, Kenyan security agents have been holed up in the Boni Forest, one of the operational and hiding areas for Jaysh Ayman, hunting down the fighters in a mission that has brought different results.

| File | Nation Media Group

Inside Jaysh Ayman, al-shabaab's terror wing in Kenya

Last week, the US government labelled two al-Shabaab leaders, Abdullahi Osman Mohamed and Maalim Ayman, as specially designated global terrorists.

Notable in the designation was the mention of Jaysh Ayman, especially through the listing of its leader Ayman, in the blacklist.

“Maalim Ayman is the leader of Jaysh Ayman, an al-Shabaab unit that conducts terrorist attacks and operations in Kenya and Somalia. Ayman was responsible for preparing the January 5, 2020 attack on Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Kenya, that killed one US military service member and two American contractors,” read the statement made by Mr Nathan Sales, the US coordinator for counterterrorism.

What started out as a small outfit has grown to become al-Shabaab’s specialised fighting force responsible for carrying out commando-style attacks and cross-border raids.

Civilian and military targets

In their often successful raids, fighters travel across the land border between Somalia and Kenya to target individuals and conduct attacks against civilian and military targets.

For more than six years now, Kenyan security agents have been holed up in the Boni Forest, one of the operational and hiding areas for Jaysh Ayman, hunting down the fighters in a mission that has brought different results.

The story of Jaysh Ayman goes back to 2006 when Kenyans started joining other East Africans travelling to Somalia to join the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government in Mogadishu.

The ICU was overthrown in 2007, but Kenyans continued to travel to Somalia, where they joined the resistance against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and allied Ethiopian forces.

“Many, if not most of these fighters were funnelled towards al-Shabaab’s Majimmo sector in southern Somalia – an area of operations assigned predominantly to East African mujahideen under the command of Titus Nabiswa ‘Mwalim Khalid’ (also known as ‘Mwalim Kenya’),” notes the Igad Security Sector Programme (ISSP) and Sahan Foundation report titled Al-Shabaab as a Transnational Security Threat.

A number of the recruits in the Majimmo sector had close ties to Al-Hijra also known as the Muslim Youth Alliance, the terror outfit that sprung up from Nairobi’s Pumwani area.

Quite a number of the early recruits were inspired by Sheikh Iman Ali, the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) engineering graduate, who helped found the Muslim Youth Alliance.

For several years, Sheikh Ali was the leader for the al-Shabaab outfit in Kenya before he travelled to join the war in Somalia. He was finally hunted down and killed in Jilib, an al-Shabaab bastion in southern Somalia.

Notably, Mwalimu Khalid was close to Sheikh Ali.

Low level attacks

Despite having a deep ideological backing and support of youth, for various reasons, Mwalimu Khalid’s team only had little success in their jihad in Kenya.

First, they only managed to conduct low level attacks involving grenades in Mombasa, Nairobi and Garissa between October 2011 and early 2013, according to surveillance reports by the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

Second, there were operational differences between Somali-trained fighters and local affiliates in Kenya.

Third, issues arose over operational issues such as chain of command and attack planning.

In September 2012, security agents gunned down Mwalimu Khalid in Majengo, Mombasa. He was killed alongside another terror suspect, Omar Faraj.

Although the official explanation was that he died in a “fierce shootout,” it was a targeted killing. In the shooting, one report pointed out, the house in which the two terrorists were caught “bore hundreds of bullet marks”.

In late 2013, al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane ordered the establishment of a new East African unit to be called Jaysh al-Usra or Jaysh Ayman.

Godane named the new unit after Maalim Ayman alias Dobow Abdiaziz Ali, an ethnic Somali from Mandera County, who was among its founding commanders.

Under the command of Maalim Ayman, Jaysh Ayman started carrying out large scale ruthless attacks targeting churches, hotels and police and military installations, characterised by brutality captured on video.

2013 Westgate attack

“Among the attacks executed by Jaysh Ayman fighters are: (i) A June 16, 2014, attack in which al-Shabaab fighters opened fire in a hotel bar in Mpeketoni, Kenya, killing approximately 40 people; (ii) A July 2014 attack in Hindi, Kenya, in which approximately 12 al-Shabaab fighters opened fire at a trading center and set fire to government buildings and a church, killing nine people; and (iii) a June 14, 2015, attack in which al-Shabaab fighters ambushed a Kenyan Defence Forces base in Lamu County, Kenya, using various weapons, including AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, killing two Kenyan Defence Force soldiers (the “Lamu Attack”),” the US government said in a press statement released in May 2018.

Abdilatif Abubakar Ali, another of Jaysh Ayman’s founding commanders, was among the terrorists who planned and executed the 2013 Westgate Shopping Mall attack, which left 67 people dead.

In April 2015, they killed 148 people at Garissa University College, the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1988 Nairobi US embassy bombing.

In the same month, they raided Mangai village in Lamu County, harvested foodstuffs from farms, carried out sermons in the local mosque and carted away medical supplies from the local dispensary.

On the same day, the militants were repulsed when they attacked the Bauru KDF military base, resulting in the death of at least 11 KDF personnel and more than 16 Jaysh Ayman members.

In July 2017, they abducted PS Mariam El-Maawy on the Mokowe-Mpeketoni road as she travelled in Lamu County to inspect development projects.

Although the PS was rescued by the Kenyan Special Forces, she died three months later while undergoing treatment in South Africa for injuries suffered in the attack.

In one of their propaganda videos titled “No Protection Except by Eeman (belief) or Aman” (‘Covenant of Security’), al-Shaabab spoke about Jaysh Ayman’s role:

“The aim of our Jihad is to make the word of Allah the highest, striking the falsehood of disbelief with the invincible sword of Tawhid. It’s the birth of a new dawn and a new era is on the horizon. And now, with the mujahideen making inroads into the occupied Muslim lands in Kenya and beyond, it’s time to redraw the East African map.”

Some of the footage revealed a number of their members and commanders.

For instance, in 2015, the militants released a series of videos featuring members of its Jaysh Ayman force, many of whom have now been killed.

In one of the videos, they revealed that one of their fighters, Abdifataah Hersi ‘Umar Nadheer’ had been killed in the Mpeketoni raid.

The Mpeketoni videos also highlighted the leadership of Jaysh Ayman among them showing some of its members such as Ramadan Kioko, Omar Owiti, Luqman Issa Osman, Andreas Martin Muller alias Abu Nusaibah and Said Hemed Abdalla.

Unconfirmed reports pointed out that Luqman Issa Osman was the “Amir” or commander, of Jaysh Ayman until June 14, 2015.

The video was reportedly filmed by British national Thomas Evans, who was killed during an attack in Baure, a military camp located close to the border with Somalia.

Some of the other known members of the outfit, most of them who have since been killed include Erick Achayo Ogada and Anwar Yogan Mwok,  the suicide bomber who was behind the vehicle borne improvised explosive drive (VBIED) that killed dozens of Kenyan soldiers  during the Kulibiyow attack in Somalia.

The others are Abdullahi Jarso Kotola and his brother Hassan Jarso Kotola, Hassan Abdalla Mushi, James Kimanthi Masai, Hamisi Swaleh Abdalla, Rama Mbwana Mbega and Mohamed Kuno alias Gamadhere, the Garissa University College massacre planner.

Foreigner jihadists in the group included Ahmed Muller -- a German citizen who uses several aliases, including Andreas Ahmad Khaled, Muller Martin Muller and Abu Nusaibah -- and Malik Ali Jones, an American currently in jail in the United States.