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Al-Shabaab's Martyrdom Brigade: Kenya's most recent security threat

By East Africa correspondent , Garowe Online

NAIROBI, Kenya - Martyrdom Brigade, Al-Shabaab's wing in charge of deadly operations, is the latest nightmare in Kenya's concerted effort to combat terrorism, multiple security sources have said.

When security chiefs held a closed-door meeting with President Uhuru Kenyatta on Friday, the name kept coming up, an indication of the danger it poses.

Initially, the Al-Qaida associated group based in Somalia would only use IEDs and to a smaller extent, direct combats to deal with "their enemies".

But in recent weeks, security forces say, the group has heavily invested in the Martyrdom Brigade, which comprises of "volunteers ready to die".

Martyrdom behind Manda Bay attack

A fortnight ago, the Al-Shabaab was quick to link the group to the US Naval Base attack in Lamu, signifying their strategic role in Al-Shabaab's advanced strategies.

"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”, Al-Shabaab said.

The attack left three Americans dead besides dismembering six aircraft meant for sophisticated operations by US and KDF.

When at the battlefield, multiple intelligence sources say, the group's fighters are always "ready to die and they don't run away".

Group activated in recent times

Although the group was in existence during Ahmed Godan's era, it has been upgraded, a fact that Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Omar admitted in October.

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

In the video released before the attempted raid at Ballidogle army base, Ahmed Omar said the group was directly in charge of such operations.

Eleven members died during the crackdown. The group works closely with Amniyat, Al-Shabaab's intelligence wing, security forces say.

And it's the operations of this group that has further worried Kenya, which has been a soft target for the terrorists due to it's proximity to Somalia.

Kenya's main concerns about Al-Shabaab

President Uhuru Kenyatta is said to have emphasized strategies to counter a possible infiltration by the group to Kenya during Friday's meeting.

“It comprises fighters who are ready to die but after taking as many lives as possible," a security source said, adding that it's Kenya's main target.

"These kinds of fighters were there before, but as time went by, the terror group set them aside and increased their capacity."

Increased surveillance at Kenya's border and using elders to identify radicalized elements was one of the strategies agreed in the bid to counter possible recruitment of gullible youths to join the group.

What analyst says about Martyrdom

Denis Nthumbi, a security analyst and scholar, believes the name is just used by Al-Shabaab to re-energize 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 told the Nation.

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

Thwarting possible infiltration to Kenya is now the government's main agenda, given that the group was also linked to the attack at Nairobi's Dusit D2 Hotel.

Somalia vigilant about the group

Somalia, which has heavily suffered under the Al-Shabaab, has already earmarked the group as a dangerous entity out to destabilize the nation.

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

A military court has been instrumental in sentencing those found culpable of the attacks. Already, dozens have been jailed, Somalia said.

The Martyrdom Brigade is also linked to the Westgate attack in Nairobi in 2013, which left over 71 people dead after three days of intensive fighting.

Active recruitments in Kenya

Northeastern and coastal regions in Kenya have been the major targets for the deadly group, which is keen to use homegrown fighters, Uhuru said.

There are concerns by security forces that the active recruitment may have been extended to interior parts of the country, sources said.

“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.

Kenya has witnessed at least eleven attacks waged by Al-Shabaab in the past one month, further raising concerns about a possible escalation.