GARISSA AND MANDERA, Kenya – The men who form Kenya's first line of defense against the Somali militant group al-Shabab wear sneakers or rubber tire sandals, bucket hats, and mismatched, hand-me-down fatigues.
They are Kenya Police Reservists, also known as Home Guards. But they're also goat herders, retired civil servants, and casually employed locals who are paid a meager $90 monthly stipend for their service. Anyone but active police and military professionals, really. Many of them hold their battered 1980s service rifles awkwardly, as if they're not quite sure how to handle them.
This ragtag bunch of reservists has become a cornerstone of Kenya's new security strategy for its restive northeast, put in place after the devastating al-Shabab attack on Garissa University College last year that left 148 people dead. Overseen by Mahmoud Saleh, a native of the northeast who was recalled from the diplomatic corps, the new strategy aims to professionalize these volunteer militias — and leverage their superior local knowledge to patrol Kenya's wild and largely unprotected border with Somalia.
Following its 2011 invasion of Somalia, Kenya has faced a surge in terrorist attacks, including mass-casualty sieges like the one in Garissa and at Nairobi's Westgate Mall in 2013, which killed 67 people. In the northeast, al-Shabab has carried out regular bombings, kidnappings of aid workers, and ambushes on lonely passenger buses. The ability of the group's fighters to blend in with local communities, which often span the porous border, and to disappear back into Somalia after carrying out attacks, has made them difficult to stop.
Until recently, this threat was compounded by the government's policy of assigning police officers to areas far from their homes. Intended to reduce corruption, the policy also meant that the police sent to northeast Kenya didn't speak the language and had little understanding of local conflicts. So back in the 1990s, communities here began forming their own volunteer militias to manage clan infighting and cattle rustling — two of the region's biggest problems that government police officers were poorly prepared to tackle.
Saleh is now reversing the policy of deploying police officers away from their home regions. But he's also counting on the Home Guards to play a bigger role in countering the al-Shabab threat. In addition to increasing their numbers from about 300 in early 2016 to more than 1,000, the regional security chief says he plans to train them and start paying them an official government salary. It's his way of saying thank you for taking on what might be the most dangerous job on this side of the Kenya-Somalia border.
Because they're drawn from local communities in the northeast, the Home Guards can "go places the police can't go," Saleh said. They patrol dried-out riverbeds and cross-border goat tracks deep in the bush, operating mostly at night. They "know the types of Somalis, the dynamics of the place," said Job Boronjo, the police commander in Mandera County, wedged in the farthest northeast corner of the country.
Most units begin their patrols in the afternoon. First they gather information from herdsmen bringing their livestock in from far-flung pastures and from hotel owners, picking up tips on who might have arrived from out of town that day. Then they set out on foot, eyes sweeping the darkness for anything out of place, listening for unexpected sounds. They follow remote footpaths or stake out empty crossroads until dawn, often chewing a local stimulant called "miraa" to stay alert.
On a recent evening near the town of Mandera, those patrolling a parched riverbed were particularly anxious; al-Shabab had planted an IED here a couple months earlier. Elsewhere in the arid border town, and just a stone's throw from Somalia, another group of Home Guards waited in the shadows for militants who might use the cover of darkness to cross over into Kenya. There's only a battered wire fence separating the two countries here.
"The nights are the crucial moment. That is the time things happen, when they use the panya [rat] routes," said Abdullahi Khalil Ibrahim, a reservist in Gababa, a small town 110 miles east of Garissa, using the local term for the goat tracks and back roads that traverse the 420-mile border.
The Home Guards have had some notable successes. Late last year, after a Kenyan teacher was kidnapped from Dadaab, a Somali refugee camp in the northeast, reservists from the area tracked the militants across the border to their camp in Somalia. Acting on their intelligence, Kenyan and Somali security services were later able to launch a joint rescue operation that resulted in the teacher's release.
Yet as the Home Guards become better integrated with Kenya's other security forces, they are changing in important ways. Previously, anyone could join the reserve police force. But now as a condition of formalizing the Guards, Saleh must vet its members, checking for criminal histories and ensuring that a recruitment drive won't upset the sensitive clan politics of the region. He also wants to coax some of the oldest and least physically able reservists to retire.
To Khalef Hussein Mohamed, a 62-year-old reservist who has been with the Home Guards for more than a decade, that's a slap in the face. "I'll stay doing the job as long as there is insecurity in this place," he says.
There are also growing concerns that the Guards are abusing their new power. As they grow closer to the regular security services, which have been accused of widespread human rights violations, tensions are building between the Home Guards and the people they're supposed to protect. Some young men in Mandera said the Guards have started arresting people arbitrarily, a common complaint lodged against security services here, and that they are becoming as corrupt as the regular police force.
"The public is losing trust," said Ali Ugay, a community organizer who works with young people in Mandera. "They are the locals. We thought they were going to help us."