America’s Shadow Wars

Big Game: U.S. Soldiers’ Secret Hunt for Jihadists in a Kenyan Forest

The U.S. is waging secret warfare around the world—but the operations in and around Kenya’s Boni National Reserve are some of the most mysterious.

02.08.17 1:03 AM ET

A short, bloody raid by U.S. Special Operations Forces on an al Qaeda base in Yemen in the second week of Donald Trump’s presidency was a fleeting reminder to the world that Americans are engaged in secret and not-so-secret wars around the globe. But most of the action is not as dramatic as the Yemen attack in which a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed, an 8-year-old girl died, and a $70 million aircraft crash landed and had to be destroyed. All that took place in the space of a couple of hours. But most of these wars are long grinds fought far from prying eyes in close cooperation with local forces that often are notorious for torture and other human rights abuses. And nowhere have those fights gone on so long, or in such obscurity, as in Africa. This is the first of an occasional series that will shine some light into those shadows.

LAMU, Kenya—Tucked into the northeast end of the country’s coast, the Boni National Reserve is a fairy-tale paradise, a resplendent ecosystem packed with elephantine baobab trees and hydra-headed doum palms. This mix of riverine forest and swampy grassland is home to some of the country’s largest herds of game, and to rare species like the wild dog, Somali lion, and reticulated giraffe.

There are no rhinoceros left here, but Doza Diza, 66, talks about seeing kifaru often. The safari word for rhino has been re-purposed by the locals as a name for the armor-plated Humvees whose machine-gun mounts recall the animal’s distinctive horn.

Tall, gaunt, and with a bad eye, Doza Diza wears a traditional Somali sarong and a Muslim skullcap. He describes himself as a former county councilor and crab fisherman.

These motorized rhino can be distinguished by color, he says. The dark green ones are vehicles operated by the Kenya Defense Forces, KDF, he tells me. Those painted the color of sand belong to the Americans.

Doza is an elder of his tribe, the Awer (also spelled Aweer). They are hunter-gatherers who seek out honey by following birds, talk to crocodiles and hippos in tongues the beasts are said to understand, and generally stick to their ancient way of life. The Awer are also Muslims, which is highly unusual among the world’s few remaining stone-age peoples.

They’ve long inhabited the Boni forest region, but slowly and surely their way of life is being stripped from them. Subsistence hunting was banned in Kenya in the 1970s, so any meat the Awer procure is illegal. Poverty further marginalizes them. And now the tribe is caught in the crossfire of the global war on terror.

***

How will the new administration in Washington deal with this and other semi-clandestine wars being waged by the United States around the world? Donald Trump has a penchant for former generals, with Michael Flynn, a longtime U.S. Army intelligence officer as his national security adviser, and retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, a veteran of counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, who is now secretary of defense. Trump’s close advisor Steve Bannon also fancies himself a brilliant armchair general. But Washington is a long way from the Boni forest and the very special sort of battlefield it represents.

As The New York Times reported in October and November the United States has been escalating the “shadow war” inside Somalia with “the potential for the United States to be drawn ever more deeply into a trouble country that so far has stymied all efforts to fix it.”

The Times, quoting unnamed “senior American military officials,” estimated that “about 200 to 300 American Special Operations troops work with soldiers from Somalia and other African nations like Kenya and Uganda to carry out more than a half-dozen raids per month.” And it outlined a program in which private contractors employed by the U.S. also play a significant role.

But the shadow war inside the failed-state borders of Somalia is almost transparent compared to the activities here on the ill-defined edge of that war. There is a long history of countries on the fringes of conflict being sucked into war themselves, the most notable example being Cambodia during the Vietnam debacle. Whether Washington will help prevent such an outcome—or provoke it—is an open question.

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***

The area in and around the Boni National Reserve is one of many places in Africa where American personnel are deployed with little fanfare and, indeed, as secretly as Washington’s representatives and proxies can manage.

Repeated and detailed queries to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) for clarification of the American role here on the frontier between Kenya and Somalia were answered this month with a brief response explaining why not even a background briefing was possible: “As these operations are currently ongoing, and have elements of U.S. special forces assisting, we cannot comment at this time due to operational security reasons.”

A major part of the mission those U.S. special forces are “assisting” in this part of the continent is, in fact, to hunt down and kill members of the Somali group known as al-Shabaab who threaten Kenya’s security and, through the group’s close relationship with al Qaeda, are believed to threaten America’s as well.

The counterterror and counterinsurgency forces operating in the region would like the Awer to help them track the Somali guerrillas and terrorists. But that project is not going well in an operation reminiscent of many sorry histories around the world where local tribes and minorities have been instrumentalized, abused, and very often abandoned.

U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets), other Special Operations Forces of various stripes, State Department officials, the inevitable slews of American contractors, and spooks and commandos from countries with close ties to the United States, including the Brits, Israelis, and Jordanians, have all deployed here in an undeclared if not unmentioned U.S.-backed war.

Kenya’s government and its international partners—the heavyweights being the U.S. and the U.K.—are desperate to make this region safe for engineers, imported skilled workers, and, yes, tourists. But the current intense counterterror focus has been a slow build, and not hugely effective. For the moment, anyone who ventures into the Boni forest risks getting blown up by an IED.

Indeed, as if mocking attempts by the Kenyan government to establish the forest and its coast as a destination resort, al-Shabaab released a recruitment video in 2015 boasting about the bountiful game in the forest provided by Allah to sustain jihadi fighters.

One ranch with a tourist concession that had been a haunt of jet-setters and celebrities (Kristin Davis, one of the stars of Sex in the City, had been a guest) found itself converted into a haven for al-Shabaab sympathizers in 2014. They stole food and medicine then torched the facility’s guest huts.

There is a long and bloody history behind such incidents, which we’ll look at in a subsequent installment of this series. But the short history has been the stuff of fleeting headlines for more than five years.

In October 2011, Kenya sent troops into Somalia. Since then al-Shabaab has carried out massive retaliatory hits on targets in Kenya resulting in more than 300 deaths.

Kenyan officials believe that after the spectacular 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that killed at least 70 people, al-Shabaab retreated from Kenya’s urban areas and melted into the dense Boni forest—which sits on the coast, right on the country’s north-south border with Somalia and adjacent to what was once a Somali national park.

Officials say another massacre, the 2014 Mpeketoni attack, which left 48 dead, was staged from within the forest, and that the Garissa University attack of 2015, which left at least 148 dead, was organized within the enormous Dadaab refugee camp nearby (which the Kenyan government plans to shut down, further displacing more than 300,000 people).

Jaysh Aman, the al-Shabaab cell in the forest, reportedly was comprised of some 300 fighters in 2015, but its numbers certainly vary.

Following the Westgate attack (which was later the subject of an extraordinary HBO documentary) national and Western forces were in an all-out scramble to protect Kenya from further cross-border terrorism. After the Garissa attack, Kenya asked the U.S. and other Western nations for more and better assistance.

According to human rights groups, the counterinsurgency tactics that accompanied the build-up of U.S. assistance have featured mass police sweeps, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and summary executions targeting not only al-Shabaab suspects, but alleged sympathizers and Muslim communities generally.

In October 2015 the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights (KNCHR) released a report documenting disappearances and killings of residents and suspects along the Somalia border and the Kenya coast. Worshippers were grabbed as they left mosques and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers allegedly shot dead cattle herders, most of whom are Muslim, in east Kenya (PDF).

During President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya in July of 2015, he stepped into the fray, allocating $100 million for the Kenya Defense Forces for weapons, materiel, and vehicles. The allowance was a 163 percent increase in counterterrorism assistance over the previous year. Among Kenya’s purchases: a Boeing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle—a drone—at a price of $9.8 million. Each year since 2012 the Kenyan government has asked for security assistance from the West.

The most recent installment—approved by the State Department days after Trump’s inauguration, but still not through Congress—is a $418 million package that includes crop dusters converted for low, slow, high impact attacks targeting people on the ground.

The extent to which the Trump administration will continue or cut back economic assistance in Africa is unclear, with some reports suggesting those funds will be reduced. In one of several pointed queries the Trump White House sent to the State Department it said bluntly, “We’ve been fighting al-Shabaab for a decade, why haven’t we won?” But such questions offer little hint of a new strategy, apart from efforts to shore up Fortress America at its frontiers. Somalia was one of the seven Muslim majority countries whose citizens were banned temporarily by Trump’s controversial executive order.

Obama’s theme was known as “the 3-D approach” to the region’s conflicts—defense, diplomacy, and development. And in the two months following his historic visit to the land of his father, Kenya’s government announced that a “multi-agency” security force had been assembled to carry out counterterror measures against al-Shabaab.

The force consisted of paramilitary units within Kenya’s police, Kenya Defense Forces special forces, and various state agencies, including the National Intelligence Service, Military Intelligence, the Kenya Wildlife Service and Forest Service—all trained by Western police units and special forces.

***

On Sept. 11 of 2015, Kenya formally launched “Operation Linda Boni” (Linda Boni being Swahili for “protect the Boni”). The goal set a two-month timetable to drive the insurgents from the forest. It is still going on.

The first stage of this effort was cordoning off the Boni forest as a collection of “no-go zones,” and evacuation of all residents. Those who remained would be regarded as al-Shabaab sympathizers.

This branded the Awer, Kenyan citizens, as the enemy.

Security officials contend that Somali fighters have taken up residence, with their wives and children, deep inside the Boni forest.

Doza Diza and other Awer leaders say that is true.

They say al-Shabaab has coerced them into providing shelter in mosques and schools, logistical support, chiefly in the form of food and medicine, and have forced tribespeople to track game for them.

But the Awer also are quick to say that violence and threats against them come from both sides in this conflict.

Kenyan officials claim that Somali attackers burned the huts of the Awer, while the Awer say that Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) burned those shelters in an effort to force them to comply with the evacuation.

Doza reports that guerrillas took his people’s food and issued warnings not to reveal their whereabouts to Kenya security, “Otherwise, we’ll deal with you.” Aside from this, he notes, the insurgents are polite. “Al-Shabaab rob from us, but they don’t beat us or grab our land—the way Kenya forces do.”

Linda Boni has not only run long beyond its planned two-month timetable, it has extended far beyond the forest and its region into much of northeast Kenya.

In the process it has become apparent that the KDF’s counterterror tactics involve more than eradicating the al-Shabaab presence in the forest.

By the end of 2015, the KDF announced it was expanding its area of deployment into neighboring counties along the Somali border and south some 200 miles, to the Tana River, constructing additional police stations and military camps. The Baragoni camp on the southern fringe of the Boni-Dodori National Reserve expanded its area to 800 acres of ostensibly public land.

Kenya is building a 435-mile Western-funded security wall at the nation’s eastern border. On a visit to Kenya last year, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a big fan of walls in the Holy Land and in the U.S. as well, committed funds to the project. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta reportedly has suggested building a terrorist-only prison facility within the Boni forest.

Land grabs in northeastern Kenya are nothing new. In the ’80s the Kenyan government seized land during a counterinsurgency operations against ethnic Somalis inhabiting the area. Now locals—ethnic Somalis and Muslim communities generally—suspect that military expansion is an excuse to take more land in and around an area where the Kenya government, the Chinese, and several multinational companies have plans for an oil-related infrastructure mega-development.

The KDF concedes that the forest is a national reserve but insists it is gazetted as government land, not communal land.

Doza suggests that the only power able to help his people stop the abuses is the U.S. government—the people behind the people in the “rhinoceros” Hummers.

Since the Westgate attack, the KDF base at Baragoni has grown from a temporary camp to a permanent one, and by 2015 Kenya had deployed enough of its troops there with sufficient transport to foil a Shabaab attack aimed at destroying the Baure camp, which is 36 miles north of the Baragoni base.

(In that action a year and a half ago the KDF killed 11 militants, including an British man named Thomas Evans who’d been dubbed “the White Beast” in U.K. tabloids. The KDF paraded his corpse—along with others—in nearby Mpeketoni, where counterterror operations are headquartered. The British press subsequently posted video that appears to show the nighttime engagement filmed the day he died.)

But the reach of the Baragoni base stretches far beyond a few satellite camps.

***

Swaleh Msellem, a Swahili resident of Lamu Island, manages a petrol station at the Mokowe jetty a few kilometers across a channel on the mainland. Msellem, now 30, told me how one morning he’d docked his boat at the jetty where at least a dozen non-uniformed men, whom he claims were with the paramilitary wing of Kenya’s National Police Service, had been waiting for him.

Someone pulled a hood over his head and tossed him into a vehicle. Familiar with the area and its roads, he said he could tell he was driven some 40 kilometers away to the Baragoni military base, where he was detained in a shipping container and tortured.

Some of the techniques used on him were repeated mock drownings (a variation on waterboarding) and crushing of testicles. These were done, he said, to extract a confession that he planned a deadly attack in the nearby village of Hindi, soon after the Mpekatoni massacre. He denied this. The interrogators asked where the weapons were that were used for the attacks. “Which weapons?” he answered.

The KDF continued to grill him, insisting he had information. He told me that during that detention he was driven from Baragoni to an area nearby where he witnessed the execution of two al-Shabaab fighters by a firing squad. One afternoon he complained of feeling ill. Guards took him outside to a pond where he vomited. Through his loosened blindfold he was able to glimpse crocodiles on the berm of the pond.

Why were crocodiles being kept inside a military base, he wondered.

Msellem said soldiers later threatened that he’d be fed to the crocodiles like others had been if he didn’t cooperate. After two weeks he was transferred to the port town of Mombasa, to the south, and held several months at the infamous Shimo La Tewa prison in a wing reserved for terrorists. Msellem eventually was taken into court, where he was acquitted of all murder and terror-related charges for lack of evidence.

When I interviewed Msellem, he was grimly philosophical. Although he did not see or talk to any U.S. personnel, as far as he knew, he had no doubt they played some role behind the scenes. “The Americans are very complicated, aren't they? On the one hand they are helping us by building roads, dispensaries, schools, but they also seem to want to kill us.”

In that one observation Msellem summed up the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the “3-D approach to U.S. Foreign Policy”: defense, diplomacy, and development.

A human rights report from the government-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights documents the abuse of Msellem (PDF), but does not cite it as having taken place in part (or at all) at Baragoni.

I spoke with Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, about the possibility of suspects being thrown to the crocodiles. He said he'd interviewed a local who was one survivor among four al-Shabaab suspects thrown in the Tana River behind a military camp. But as it was a single source he couldn't report it. “This is Kenya—anything can happen,” he said.

For information from inside the Baragoni base, I spoke with a man who identified himself as a Western-trained Kenyan Special Forces soldier serving with one of the SF battalions. (Photos of him clad in fatigues and standing with fellow soldiers in a garrison in Somalia would seem to confirm his identity.)

This soldier described to me the process of “enhanced interrogation”—torture—used at Baragoni military base. He confirmed that people were detained in shipping containers, but said he hadn’t heard anything about suspects being thrown to the crocodiles.

He said that sometimes the National Intelligence Service detains and interrogates suspects at the nearby Manda Bay navy base. “But they [NIS] don’t force you to say anything,” he told me. “When you're brought to Baragoni you're forced to talk.”

According to a map I was shown and was able to examine at length, the Baragoni base is operated by Kenya’s Directorate of Military Intelligence.

It would seem prisoners taken in action have little hope of survival. “If there’s been direct engagement [with al-Shabaab] we capture them and they're taken to Baragoni,” said the same soldier. “If they don't have any useful information then they are being killed. Those that give information or say where the weapons will be are shot dead.”

By the time the soldier’s deployment ended, he said, several dozen detainees remained in the shipping containers with partitions. Former detainees and a law enforcement official said that as recently as July 2016 there were as many as 16 containers, each housing at least six prisoners.

The soldiers said some suspects were ferried by helicopter to an especially inaccessible area inside the Boni forest, where they were shot dead. Hunters from the Awer report finding human remains where they collect honey.

***

In November 2015, a Lamu resident I see often told me that Lamu County’s government was organizing a baraza—a meeting—between Awer elders and government representatives from Nairobi, to enable the tribespeople to voice complaints about the KDF’s actions. The baraza was to take place at a restaurant on the mainland. I decided to crash the event.

When I arrived near the entrance of the restaurant there was quite a crowd milling around. At least three dozen Kenyan soldiers and police stood guard, blocking the road to the venue. At the cordon, I observed uniformed military personnel, mostly white, driving sand-colored armor-plated Humvees, those that Doza Diza had called “kifaru.”

Officers on the ground were armed with what KDF personnel identified as U.S.-manufactured FN SCAR automatic assault rifles, a very high-tech killing machine capable of firing 625 rounds a minute. Indeed, they are the U.S. Special Operations Command’s newest service rifle. German, Belgian, and Japanese special forces also reportedly used this gun. Kenya reportedly is the only African nation where the U.S. has issued this type of weapon.

In addition, representatives of the Red Cross and Safari Doctors were on hand for the Mokowe meeting but had until recently been barred from the Boni forest altogether.

Also on hand were personnel with U.S. Civil Military Affairs, the guys who handle the hearts-and-minds component of counterinsurgency, building on experiences in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Central America. CMA is a key part of the Linda Boni effort focusing on wildlife and indigenous peoples. It sees to the building of the latrines, the roads, the schools, and medical dispensaries while “denying sanctuary” to insurgents.

Through USAID Civil Military Affairs has partnered with the Kenya Wildlife Service and rangers with wildlife conservation NGOs. KWS training is funded by USAID, and, after the 2013 Westgate attack, its rangers have been trained by Maisha Consult.

The only people present at the meeting who were up front about their identities were KDF officers, whom I spoke to on arrival. One guarding the perimeter identified himself as a GSU officer, referring to the paramilitary wing in the Kenya National Police Service. I asked him whether I could attend the meeting, shortly after which a blonde-haired blue-eyed uniformed soldier returned.

I explained I was a writer researching the Awer’s predicament.

“Are you an American?” he asked. I handed him my tattered U.S. passport. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said with an engaging smile, and left promising to return to let me know whether I could attend the baraza.

Others present, also heavily armed, wore civilian clothing—Dockers, polo shirts, and wraparound sunglasses. The locals refer to such armed Western personnel in casual wear as "sport sports.”

One source, within the U.S. government, preferring to remain anonymous, identified these figures as a U.S. Diplomatic Security Service contingent protecting American diplomats at the baraza.

I never did gain access. (Media outlets associated with the Kenyan government had been invited; international press had not.) Awer leaders who spoke at the meeting, including Doza Diza, said they were eager to tell the U.S. representatives they no longer wanted to deal directly with the KDF or Kenya government because those entities had failed to make good on promises of land compensation.

Locals told me that the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, had given each tribal elder 4,000 Kenyan shillings (about $40) to attend, and provided meals and transport.

As part of counterinsurgency strategy, such meetings are supposed to help build local security forces, legitimize local government, and ultimately delegitimize the insurgents. But as long as the locals believe the government is stealing their land, meetings are unlikely to have much of a legitimizing effect. And meanwhile the fighting continues.

A former U.S. Army colonel with long experience in civil affairs, who did not want to be named, added another layer.

“Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is a relatively lean organization and continues to rely on contracted support for administration, logistics, operations, intelligence, and physical security,” he told The Daily Beast. “Think the old Blackwater and Executive Outcomes.”

It’s not uncommon to hear about U.S. Special Forces on the ground in fragile states like Somalia and Iraq, but seeing them in a sovereign democratic state—Kenya—seemed unusual.

U.S. military presence in Kenya had been sparse until the 9/11 attacks. “Boots on the ground” in Kenya was practically unheard of. In Somalia it also was virtually nonexistent for more than 20 years after the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993.

But clearly all that has changed.

—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey

follow the author on Twitter @margotkiser1

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