A Kenyan security operation launched to push suspected al Shabaab cells from the coastal forest region near its border with Somalia has succeeded in dismantling five camps believed to have been used by the militants, according to officials, as fractures within the radical Islamist group grow.
James Ole Serian, who is directing the effort to rid the Boni forest of suspected militants out of fear that they are carrying out attacks in Kenya from the area, said that fighters began escaping from the camps when the operation began two months ago.
"The combined security units discovered five different al Shabaab hideouts inside the forest," Serian told Reuters. "The hideouts have already been destroyed and the weapons handed to the government."
Serian noted that security forces had arrested people suspected of being members of al Shabaab, and said that he expects the suspects to be charged and put on trial.
"We are not leaving the Boni forest anytime soon until we ascertain that every terror element in the forest has been cleared," he added.
Amnesty International's East Africa researcher Abdullahi Boru questioned the validity of the military's announcement, but explained that al Shabaab's decentralized command structure is connected to local affiliate cells in Kenya, particularly along the coast, with a presence in Nairobi as well as parts of northern Kenya.
This presence has made a number of high-profile attacks in Kenya possible. In September 2013, an attack on the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi rattled the country and drew international attention. Al Shabaab gunmen entered the shopping center and killed at least 68 people and injured another 175 during the siege, which ended after three days.
Earlier this year, al Shabaab-linked gunmen stormed Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya in an attack that left 147 people dead and dozens injured. Since the attack, the government has ramped up internal security efforts to thwart the development of homegrown terrorism connected to the Somali-based group.
Meanwhile, across the border in Somalia, the group has been divided by a public disagreement in recent weeks over a small rebel faction's desire to ally with the self-declared Islamic State (IS), a radical insurgent group entrenched in Iraq and Syria with affiliates in Libya and Egypt. The Nigerian Islamist insurgency Boko Haram pledged allegiance to IS in March.
One of the Shabaab faction's leaders, Abdul Qadir Mumin, who was previously stationed in the UK before relocating to central Somalia, pledged his allegiance to IS in October. He publicized the announcement in a video flanked by a number of other militants.
While some al Shabaab fighters have previously allied with IS, this was one of the more high-profile gestures, which controversially contravened the group's alliance with al Qaeda that was formed in 2012. IS was originally an al Qaeda-linked group before al Qaeda disavowed their association in February 2014 over an internal dispute.
Boru said that the desire for some members to join IS is not likely to change anytime soon, nor is the anti-IS stance held by the group's leader Abu Ubaidha, who is committed to al Qaeda. Ubaidha became the chief of al Shabaab after US airstrikes took out former leader Ahmed Abdi Godane in September 2014.
Watch the VICE News documentary Somalia: The Fight Against al Shabaab
While the internal struggles continue, Boru said Ubaidha has managed to fashion the group into an effective guerrilla movement that has inflicted significant damage. Recent attacks have ranged from bombing UN convoys to waging assaults on an African Union base and a hotel in Mogadishu. Most recently, on November 1, armed militants detonated car bombs and infiltrated the Sahafi hotel, leaving at least 15 people dead.
This trend in attacks developed as a result of the ongoing military offensive that has pushed al Shabaab out of many of its strongholds.
"This was the group making virtue of necessity," Boru said. "They've been pushed from many territories."
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