Kenya: Concern as Al-Shabaab's 'Martyrdom Brigade' Intensifies Attacks

KDF soldiers on guard in Pandanguo Village in Lamu (file photo).
18 January 2020

"An elite group of soldiers from Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen's 'Martyrdom Brigade' launched a daring dawn raid on a US naval base known as 'Camp Simba' in Lamu County, Kenya", is the statement the terrorist group sent out as it claimed responsibility for the attack last week.


The statement may have passed as just another of the insurgent's propaganda material, but in statements after subsequent attacks that have rocked the northeastern parts of the country, the group has conspicuously acknowledged the 'Matyrdom Brigade'.

The first mention of the name was in a 52-minute-long audio sent out two months ago. Al Shabaab leader Abu Ubeydah Ahmed said the 'Brigade' would increase attacks targeting the US and its sympathisers.

Ahmed said the "fighters are constantly prepared to sacrifice their souls whenever they are called upon."

Sources within Kenya's counter-terrorism circles said the brigade presents the newest headache in the fight against violent extremism.

"It comprises fighters who are ready to die but after taking as many lives as possible. These kinds of fighters were there before, but as time went by, the terror group set them aside and increased their capacity," a source said.


Mr Denis Nthumbi, a security analyst and scholar, believes the name is just used by Al-Shabaab to re-energise its fighters mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

"Al-Shabaab is just Al-Shabaab. All those who join it do so to be martyrs. This is a name they adopted in 2019 for their total confrontation brigade. But they are still Al-Shabaab," he said.

Mr Nthumbi, however, said within terrorist groups, members are trained differently, depending on their tasks.

Although the operations of the Martyrdom Brigade dates back to when Ahmed Abdi Godane was at the helm of the group, it was not until recently that the group has singled them out and acknowledged them after an attack.

Al-Shabaab had after the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi stated that the 'Martyrdom' group do not flee an area of attack, saying they are always ready to die.

According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the brigade works together with the intelligence arm of Al-Shabaab -- Amniyat -- to plan and stage attacks in targeted prefectures both by suicide bombers and suicide infantry.


Just last week, Al-Shabaab members believed to be the leaders of the brigade -- Ramadaan Mursal, Sharmake Cumar, Nasir Ahmed and Abdullahi Kuusane -- were sentenced to death in absentia.

The Government of Somalia issued a bounty worth an undisclosed amount of money to anyone with information leading to their capture.

And as States craft their counterterrorism strategies to fight Al-Shabaab, the brigade continues to recruit members in northeastern region and other parts of the country.

"They have recently been aggressive in recruiting fighters in Meru and Isiolo counties," a counter-terrorism expert said, adding that home-grown terrorists are the hardest to detect.

The existence of the brigade, believed to be having sleeper cells in Kenya and Somalia, has caused sleepless nights to security forces in East Africa, in the US and globally.

The African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and the United States' Africa Command have warned that Al-Shabaab have built sufficient resilience and weaponry to keep launching deadly attacks in the country.


The warning came after the brigade's January 5 attack on the military base in Lamu that hosts American and Kenyan personnel, and killed one soldier and two Department of Defence contractors.

"Somalia remains key to the security environment of East Africa, and its long term stability is important to advancing US interests in the region. US military operations and activities are part of a whole-of-government approach working in support of diplomatic and development efforts," Lt Christina M. Gibson, a spokesperson for Africom, said in a recent interview with the East African.

She noted that since 2006, Al-Shabaab has continuously increased its combat capability by seizing heavy weaponry, armoured vehicles, explosives, small arms, ammunition and other supplies from assaults on Somali National Security Forces and Amisom, overrunning various African bases within the region.

The latest UN Report of the Panel of Experts on Somalia published two months ago stated that Al-Shabaab continued its policy of abducting children for recruitment purposes, particularly in Bay, Middle Shabelle and Bakool regions.


The report says the insurgents remain in administrative control of most of Juba Valley, including the major urban centres of Bu'ale, Sakow and the Al-Shabaab "capital" of Jilib.

To fund its operations, the UN says, Al-Shabaab functions as a shadow government even in areas that it does not physically control, collecting "taxes" and providing some basic services.

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