Deadly love: Story of terror couple Violet Kemunto and Salim Gichunge
One of the terrorists in the attack on a Nairobi business complex was a son of a Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldier.
Ali Salim Gichunge, alias Farouk, is believed to have died in the Tuesday attack after commandos stormed the 14 Riverside Drive complex in the afternoon to end an attack that claimed 21 lives.
His father, Mr Abdala Salim, a Sergeant with the KDF, was yesterday summoned by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, while his mother, Ms Sakina Mariam, was arrested in Isiolo and brought to Nairobi for interrogation.
Isiolo County criminal investigation boss Raphael Wawire confirmed the arrest and summons, but did not disclose the subject of questioning.
He said the matter was being handled from the DCI headquarters in Nairobi.
He added that Ms Mariam had reported Gichunge’s disappearance in 2015, when he is suspected to have crossed into Somalia.
Police are investigating reports that Gichunge may have visited Nyeri’s Majengo slums during the December holiday season to link up with other Somalia-trained youths.
He is believed to have used the names Farouk Juma and Idriss in Nyeri.
Gichunge’s involvement in the attacks came as a shocker to the Kulamawe Kwa Franco neighbourhood of Isiolo Town, where he grew up.
However, and tellingly so, it did not surprise his relatives. Gichunge’s step-sister, Ms Amina Shariff, told the Nation from Mombasa that the family had long given up on their truant son.
“I went home for the burial of a relative just a week ago, and my mother asked whether I had seen him,” she said.
“I told her that we should forget about him as death would let us know where he is.”
Gichunge, known in Isiolo as Ali, schooled at Hekima Primary from nursery to Standard Six.
He then moved to Isiolo Barracks for the remainder of his primary school education.
He sat his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination in 2007 and scored 335 marks out of a possible 500.
His sister, Ms Shariff, said Gichunge left their Isiolo home in 2015 after completing his secondary school education at Thuura Boys in Meru in 2011 — after two short stints at Kibirichia Boys and Muthambi Boys. He attained a C+ grade.
He appears to have been a supple boy when growing up, as he left Kibirichia because he claimed he could not bear the cold, and Muthambi because he said he had been bullied by older boys.
“A minor accident in Form One put an end to his dream of becoming a rugby player, and so he shifted his dream to information technology,” Ms Shariff said.
After high school, Gichunge studied IT within the township, after which he was hired by a local hotel to run its cybercafé.
That exposed him to the endless possibilities of the Internet, and soon he told his sister that he wanted to enrol for an online course on religious studies.
“After a few months, he called me to say he was heading to Meru for a job interview,” Ms Shariff said.
A few hours after Gichunge left Isiolo, officers from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations raided the cybercafé on terror-related suspicions and carted away all the computers.
In early 2016, Gichunge told his family that he had moved to Mombasa to work at a construction site on the invitation of a friend.
But a month later, the friend informed the family that he had lost contact with their son.
Alarmed, the family reached out to Gichunge, who told his mother that he had landed a scholarship to study Islam in Uganda and Tanzania.
Meanwhile, the girl who would become his wife, Ms Violet Kemunto, had graduated with a Journalism and Public Relations degree from Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST) in 2015.
Records at the institution show she majored in PR. To her colleagues, she was entering the market to compete for elusive jobs in media companies.
But to her, this was just a rite of passage. She had other plans, and on Tuesday, those plans thrust her right in the eye of a terrorism storm.
Police believe she crossed into Somalia hours before Tuesday’s attack.
As detectives dug into the life of the terror merchants yesterday, Kemunto’s classmates painted the picture of a quiet and friendly woman, who wore loose clothing to class and always covered her head in a hijab, the head covering worn in public by some Muslim women.
“There was nothing unusual, except that we had initially assumed she was Christian, given her name,” a classmate at Masinde Muliro said.
“She was quiet most of the time and friendly to everyone she interacted with. She spoke only when taking part in class or group discussions and didn’t take alcohol or smoke cigarettes.”
At MMUST, competition for hostels had fuelled a construction craze as locals cashed in on the growing student population.
Kemunto, friends say, rented a hostel outside the university for most of her study period.
She was popularly known as Hadija, which she shortened to “Didge”, to her classmates.
She had three close friends, and the four of them were so tight that classmates referred to them as the Gang of Four, borrowing from the tag used on four Chinese rebel politicians — Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen — during Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution.
One of her friends shared contacts of Kemunto’s two family members, but they refused to talk when we called. They then switched off their mobile phones.
She had a boyfriend who studied the same course and they hang out together most of the time until she graduated.
Then she dumped him. “They were so close and planned to wed, but somehow things did not work out,” a friend said.
From there, she got a job at a phone shop in Nairobi. Then things moved so fast from there on and, before long, she had another boyfriend.
After that, she disappeared from the social scene. Friends didn’t hear from her again until she organised a wedding last year.
Neighbours at the Guango Estate home in Kiambu she shared with Gichunge described her as a quiet woman who liked to smile, but seldom spoke.
She was always wearing a niqab — a veil worn by some Muslim women in public, covering all of the face apart from the eyes — and seldom stepped out of the house unless in the company of Gichunge.
On her WhatsApp profile, Kemunto refers to herself as an Al-Shabaab bride.
A picture of a woman in a niqab laced with blood, believed to have been extracted from the Internet, serves as her profile picture.
But was she a victim of circumstance blinded by infatuation, or was she a willing participant driven by twisted moral judgments?
While she referred to herself as the bride of a terrorist — indicating she approved of the jihadist agenda of Gichunge — she liked to pamper herself on social media, suggesting she desired the earthly things most people want.
And she was a mystery. On her Facebook page, friends tried to find out why she had been so ‘lost’, street lingo for missing in action.
She didn’t respond. One photo shows her hand with a wedding ring on one of the fingers, and in another post, she declared: “Nothing will happen to us except what God has written for us.”
She still indicated she was single on the Facebook page, and one of the accounts — Junior Red — which had her name, was used to advertise a quick sale for household goods on Monday, a day before the 14 Riverside Drive attack.
“We are moving out of Nairobi this week, so it’s a quick sale. Prices slightly negotiable,” the caption that accompanied pictures of the goods read.
The goods included shoes, a fridge, beds, mattresses, rice cookers, a TV set and couches.
Yesterday, Western Region police boss Rashid Yakub said detectives were investigating her activities, but did not give any specifics.
Her husband Gichunge’s run down the wrong path gathered pace in early 2017 when he placed an anonymous call to his sister to inform her that he was in Lamu on his way out of the country, but would be back soon.
Ms Shariff says that call made her change her relations with Gichunge, because she knew he was on his way to Somalia. She did not hear from him for two years.
“We were born into a strict Muslim family and I do not understand how he turned this way,” she said.
“Our father is a KDF soldier, and that should tell you the kind of childhood he had. Our parents did not fail him, he chose to walk down this dark path.”
Ms Shariff reiterated that she was not going to sound the traditional chorus of families seeking “justice” for their truant sons, but to tell people that “Muslims are not killers”.
“The brother I know is the humble guy with whom I grew up, not the demonic one who chose to kill people,” she said.
In 2015 and 2016, Isiolo was in the limelight over increased radicalisation and recruitment of young people into terrorists groups, with the county being listed as one of Al-Shabaab’s recruiting grounds in the country.
In 2016 alone, authorities confirmed that more than 20 youth from Isiolo had joined the Somali-based terror organisation.
Reporting by Vivian Jebet, Mohamed Ahmed, Nyambega Gisesa, Stella Cherono, Aggrey Mutambo, Benson Amadala, and Ruth Mbula.