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How Al-Shabaab commander's widow escaped to Somalia before deadly Nairobi attack

By East Africa correspondent , Garowe Online

NAIROBI, Kenya - A woman believed to be the widow of Salim Guchunge, the lead attacker in Nairobi's Dusit D2 Hotel, played hide and seek with authorities before sneaking to Somalia.

Investigations conducted by the UN Panel of Experts expose a complex network used by the Al-Shabaab attackers during the January 2019 attack.

Violet Wanjiru alias Khadija, left security forces flat-footed by using simple tricks to sneak back to Somalia, the report revealed.

Having spent several months in the suburbs of Nairobi, there was no doubt that the attackers could easily be identified at least by their neighbors.

Photo tracking goes wrong

A vehicle used by the deadly Martyrdom Brigade was easily identified at the complex, partly explaining why the widow started early preparations to quit from Nairobi.

To trick the police, Ms. Wanjiru, also known as Kemunto, sent a parcel with her phone to Mandera to a non-existent person, which was on police surveillance.

Security forces would later intercept the phone without necessarily locating her whereabouts, the report released last year said.

But the widow used the longer Garissa-Mandera route before connecting with an Al-Shabaab operative in the North who hosted her.

Housed in Mandera for four days

“She remained in Mandera until January 14, and then crossed into Somalia. Throughout this journey, she was aided by Yusuf Ali Adan, a Mandera-based al-Shabaab operative, with whom she communicated on a newly-activated phone line,” says the report.

While in Mandera, her husband was killed after gunfire exchange with the elite Recce Squad at Dusit D2 Hotel where he had, with other operatives, killed 21 people.

After a brief stay near the border, the report reveals, she crossed over to Somalia to Al-Shabaab controlled territories.

The reports state that Violet — who was christened ‘the Black Widow’ after the death of her husband — was in Somalia but “her exact whereabouts were unknown”.

Left Nairobi before the attack

Before leaving Nairobi, the widow posted on her Facebook account stating that "we are selling households because we are leaving Nairobi."

Several neighbors at their rented Guango estate identified Gichunge and the vehicle used during the attack. He was a son to a military officer, police said.

The report further states that Violet was married to the cell leader Gichunge in 2016 after he had left Somalia's Al-Shabaab 'capital' in Middle Juba.

“Her role was in assisting Gichunge with the management of the safe house,” it states.

Complex identity of the suspect

Conflicting reports emerged about Ms. Wanjiru after her photo went viral on social media, with some people saying she studied at a university in Western Kenya.

During her stay at Masinde Muliro University, reports revealed, she was "a reserved lady who rarely interacted with classmates".

An intensive search was launched in Kisii, around 400 KM West of Nairobi after it emerged that she hailed from the region given her other aka Kemunto.

Even though security was tightened at the border, efforts to trace her or even her family have all hit a dead end. Nobody has been identified as her kin.

Raid planned for a month

The Dusit D2 Hotel raid was planned a month earlier, with Gichunge given authority to coordinate and unleash, reports said.

A day before the attack, the militants gathered at the Guango estate to finalize their plans, intelligence reports noted.

“Evidence extracted from these devices revealed communications between Ali Salim Gichunge and a cell co-ordinator based in the al-Shabaab ‘capital’ of Jilib, in the Middle Juba region.

“Electronic communications also revealed that the co-ordinator in Jilib had arranged for the manufacture of a falsified secondary school identity card for one of the non-Kenyan attackers, Dadaab refugee camp resident Siyat Omar Abdi,” the UN panel stated.

Apart from Gichunge, the other attackers were suicide bomber Mahir Riziki, Siyat Abdi Omar, Osman Gedi Ibrahim, and the unidentified Somali attacker.

Kenya's puzzle in Al-Shabaab war

So complex is her story that Kenya has struggled to unravel her real identity. It's not clear whether she was using a fake photo to hoodwink security officers.

Cases of homegrown terrorists have escalated in the past, causing anxiety among the security top brass in the country.

President Uhuru Kenyatta on Friday asked security forces to work with local leaders in northeastern to curb radicalization.

Kenya has witnessed at least eleven attacks within two months, with the most daring coming at Manda Bay at a US Naval Base.