The "war on terror" still casts a long shadow in some unlikely places.
I had been away from Kenya for too long. So when I returned last August, I sought out two long-lost friends.
The first was Abdirizak Noor Iftin, an energetic and friendly teacher. He is 26, and he does not belong in Kenya. Iftin is Somali; we had met three years before in his ruined hometown of Mogadishu, where Iftin tutored his young students in English. The job sometimes required darting from house to house under mortar fire. In Somalia one is always in the middle of a war.
Iftin was brave and committed to his work, but even so the violence became intolerable. Last year he escaped to Nairobi, occupying a closet-sized room in a slum. When I arrived, the door guard at his tenement — a bearded giant with a zabiba, or Muslim prayer callus, on his forehead — attempted to block my entry. He relented only after I submitted to a pat-down. Iftin was apologetic and offered a tense smile. He had no power here, he said in a whisper. He told me anxiously that he must keep off the streets to avoid extortion by the Kenyan police, and he steered clear of the sympathizers of al-Shabab, the ruthless Somali militia linked with al Qaeda: They spied on the slum’s large population of exiles. Iftin’s dim cubicle had a curtain, but no door. I was drawing too much attention with my presence. After a few minutes, I pressed a bank note into my friend’s hand, wished him luck, and fled his rent-a-cell.
The following day I went looking for Al-Amin Kimathi. Kimathi is a middle-aged Kenyan human rights worker with the droopy eyelids of Yoda. When we had met four years earlier, he was an invaluable source for journalists working in the region. This time I dialed his phone number, but got no answer. I tried for days, but he never picked up. Then one morning more than a week later, I opened a newspaper and there he was — locked up in a jail cell in neighboring Uganda, a short article dryly announced, where he had been arrested on charges of terrorism. He had been incarcerated 11 months, awaiting trial.
I was stunned. In 2007, Kimathi had almost single-handedly exposed the largest extraordinary-rendition episode in Africa, in which Kenyan authorities had secretly flown more than 100 terrorism suspects, including their own citizens, to "black site" interrogation centers in Ethiopia. Kimathi’s investigation embarrassed the governments involved. It shamed the United States, which collaborated closely in the covert program. He potentially faced a death sentence. It felt like a setup.
When I finally reached Kimathi by phone weeks later, he told me Uganda had released him from Luzira Prison without charges and without apology. "I could use help," he told me. "I am starting over, from zero." He did not sound well. His voice was feeble, shaky. For almost a year he had lived in solitary confinement. It was hard to readjust to freedom, he complained.
Then it hit me: This was a conversation I would probably be having for the rest of my life.
Kimathi and Iftin do not know each other, but they have one thing in common: Their lives have been upended, directly or indirectly, by the fateful U.S.-backed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, an operation that was intended to crush Islamic extremists, stabilize Somalia, and install more tractable leadership — but accomplished the exact opposite. Although the assault did topple a burgeoning Islamist movement in Mogadishu and some brutal al Qaeda operatives have since been killed in clandestine U.S. helicopter and drone strikes, the intervention led to the death of at least 16,000 civilians and the internationalization of a self-contained civil war that had begun 15 years earlier. The Ethiopians declared victory and began withdrawing in 2007. Intense fighting, piracy, and war-enabled famines grind on, meanwhile, in a more radicalized Somalia.
What makes this tragedy unique among the many that have ravaged the Horn of Africa is what it says about the United States’ 10-year-old global war on terror, or however else we choose to rebrand it. A decade on, that shadowy conflict has crossed an underappreciated Rubicon of sorts. In fragile places like Africa, it has taken root and assumed a robust, independent life of its own. It continues to claim innocent victims. As we go forward, most of those victims will no longer be the "collateral damage" of combat, the bystanders killed by fanatical suicide bombers or U.S. troops in places like Afghanistan. No: They will be the Abdirizak Noor Iftins and Al-Amin Kimathis of the world, faceless refugees and political prisoners, anonymous casualties of a murky sea change in the rule of law, in tolerance, and in accountability.
Even as the 9/11 attacks recede from the day-to-day consciousness of Americans, the enormous bow wave of U.S. anti-terrorism policy still rolls heavily across the globe, diffracting off friend and foe alike, giving rise to secondary conflicts and unforeseen struggles, and empowering hotheads and autocrats. Millions living far from American-contested battlefields are swept up by it, tossed around by it, capsized by it. All the while, this new order becomes more "normal" — more invisible — to both locals and the distant policymakers in Washington who set it in motion long ago.
I asked Kimathi over the phone: What kind of help did he want?
"Anything," he replied. "Anything."
ALLOW ME TO TELL YOU about my two friends. It is unlikely you will read about them anywhere else.
One night in 2008 I lay on the roof of my safe house in Mogadishu watching the fireworks of red tracer bullets arcing across the sky. In the morning, my security detail brought in a skinny young man in a powder-blue tracksuit, and draped in fake bling. He was Abdirizak Noor Iftin. He wanted to practice his English. He had learned it from BBC radio and bootleg Arnold Schwarzenegger DVDs. He couldn’t contain his glee at meeting someone from outside the warfare that had been his weather for 17 years. "Hey, man," he said, grinning.
In Mogadishu, Iftin often sported American hip-hop fashions: a hoodie, a backward-turned ball cap, baggy jeans. It was a political statement, an act of rebellion — and of terrible yearning. Al-Shabab’s illiterate gunmen yank men without Islamic beards off buses and beat them. In the south, they flog women who wear bras. They stone people. They cut off heads.
Iftin defied them, and he did it by learning. He took business administration courses. (Somehow, two universities still function in Mogadishu.) He drilled his private students in English grammar. He was also a prodigious e-mailer, possessing the soul of a great diarist. After I wrote an article about Iftin for a U.S. magazine in 2009, he began recording dispatches for a public radio station in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, about his surreal days in what is one of the world’s most dangerous cities. In his slangy reports, he documented how a self-contained civil war had metastasized into an international jihadi bull run after the 2006 Ethiopian invasion. He described losing his girlfriend to emigration. He reported that his mud-walled house got stomped by a grenade; the shrapnel holes in his tin roof, he said, shone like stars.
By the summer of 2010, Iftin’s mother had had enough. She plodded to a vast refugee camp outside Mogadishu. Iftin gave up, too — only he went farther. Like at least 1 million others, he joined Somalia’s swelling international diaspora.
Eastleigh slum in Nairobi, where I found Iftin again, is nicknamed "Little Mogadishu." Hotels sheathed in smoked glass — built, the residents whisper, with loot from the epidemic of Somali piracy — squat amid mounds of filth. There are wire-transfer offices and the "Heltz" driving academy. Sewage pools like tar. Women wear hijabs. Open-mouthed young men throng trucks bringing in khat, the chewable narcotic. Iftin marveled at all the unarmed people. But Eastleigh has its own dangers. "There is no freedom of speech here," he told me in his tenement cubbyhole. "The Shabab I saw in Mogadishu are here too."
Iftin wore a clean shirt for our reunion. A poster was tacked to his wall, a still life of fruit on a table. Out in the roofed courtyard of the honeycombed building, laundry hung in tiers, five stories high, as in an African prison. Refugees, crouching over charcoal braziers in the halls, stared warily up at me.
"They must go," huffed my taxi driver, an old Nairobi hand named Joseph, referring to the Somalis. "They are taking over. They push up the prices of property and control too much!" Joseph refused to park while I visited Iftin. Instead, he circled the block, fuming, with his windows rolled up.
AL-AMIN KIMATHI DIDN’T SHARE Joseph’s contempt for the new arrivals. He liked Somalis. Many had been his clients. Kimathi is a tall, bookish man of 50 who dresses in a white djellaba. I had met him in early 2007, when he challenged Kenya’s illegal deportations of more than 100 people, mainly Somalis, who had stampeded across the border after the Ethiopian army rolled into Mogadishu. Teams of agents from the FBI flew to Kenya to sort the tide of refugees for wanted terrorists, such as the men who planned the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. U.S. special operations soldiers rode with the Ethiopians as "observers."
Certainly there were bad guys among the deportees — apprentice and veteran jihadists, including at least two Americans, fighting for al-Shabab. But the dragnet scooped up mostly noncombatants, including 11 women and 11 children. Most were freed after enduring detentions that lasted as long as a year, without legal representation or trials, in secret compounds in Ethiopia. It was the second-largest case of extraordinary rendition in the George W. Bush era, after the inaugural post-9/11 shipment of prisoners to the Guantánamo Bay detention center.
To me, Kimathi is one of the net positives in the aging war on terror, like the schools that Green Berets built in the Philippines or the old Cormac McCarthy novels appearing in Baghdad book stalls. Kimathi proves that even in a tough neighborhood like the Horn of Africa, civil society can stand up to the culture of fear and surveillance that permeates an open-ended war that Barack Obama’s administration has so blandly renamed the National Strategy for Counterterrorism.
Kimathi was working for the Muslim Human Rights Forum in September 2010 when he was arrested in Uganda. He had traveled there to advise a group of renditioned Kenyans accused of planting bombs for al-Shabab in that country. The bombs had slaughtered 76 people gathered in pubs to watch soccer. The attack was seen as evidence of the spreading "Somalization" of the Horn of Africa.
Security agents posing as human rights activists lured Kimathi from Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport to a hotel, shoved him into a car, and then hooded him. He says Ugandans, Kenyans, and Americans participated in his interrogations. "It was payback time," he told the BBC, "for my previous human rights defense of victims of extraordinary rendition." Kimathi’s wife, Farida Saad, lost her postal service job while toiling for Kimathi’s release. The couple is now broke.
Uganda is a major U.S. military partner in the Horn of Africa. It provides troops to an increasingly robust African Union peacekeeping force in Mogadishu. It has also passed some of the world’s most draconian anti-terrorism laws. If you are a suspected terrorist in Uganda, prepare to grow old on a prison floor mat: Kimathi was held for 362 days without trial — a fraction of the wait of some Guantánamo detainees but an eternity by any normal democratic standard.
Nearby Ethiopia, meanwhile, has enacted anti-terrorism laws that have resulted in the arrests of more than 100 citizens, among them opposition journalists. Kenya’s record is better, but watchdog groups say its Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, which has received U.S. funding, ethnically profiles Somalis and deports its own citizens without due process. "What we have seen is a huge erosion of civil rights in the region under the guise of fighting terrorism," Ben Rawlence, an East Africa expert with Human Rights Watch, told me. "It has been a long-term trend."
ACCORDING TO A LARGELY OVERLOOKED investigation published in September by the Associated Press, almost 120,000 people have been arrested on terrorism charges worldwide since 9/11, a steep increase from the years before, representing a "surge in prosecutions under new or toughened anti-terror laws, often passed at the urging and with the funding of the West." Some of the suspects did, in fact, slaughter innocents, assault hotels, and blow up buses. But there must be numberless thousands of Kimathis caught up unjustly in the nets of the terror war by now — a population collaterally damaged by obscure, knock-on crackdowns, unfamous people uprooted to dingy apartments in Jordan or the deserts of Somalia, travelers pulled from U.S.-bound planes because of misspellings in their names, civil rights activists confined on dubious terrorism charges to cells in Xinjiang or Anatolia. That a relatively small cabal of madmen hallucinating a new Islamic caliphate caused all this seems unreal. That Americans are weary of it all seems moot. The distraction of 13 million jobless at home helps.
So the U.S. national security bow wave ripples on. Abdirizak Noor Iftin applied recently for a student visa to the United States. He was rebuffed. The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi cited his lack of a home — or even a country — to return to. In November, the Kenyan government tore down his slum tenement, citing security concerns due to its proximity to an air base, temporarily rendering Iftin homeless yet again.
Al-Amin Kimathi, meanwhile, is planning to start a new human rights organization, this time for all Kenyans, Muslim and Christian alike. But the last time I spoke with him, in January, he sounded dispirited. Piled with debts, he was struggling to find funding, and his wife was still scrambling for work.
One afternoon four years ago, I had tea with Kimathi at the New Stanley, a hotel in downtown Nairobi frequented by political types. One of these pinstriped bureaucrats walked up. "Eh, eh, you must tell this boy to behave," he told me, wagging a finger in mock sternness at Kimathi. "He is too hot. He must calm down."
Had I been listening more closely that day, I would have understood even then that it wasn’t really about U.S. interests anymore. The war had slipped away from us.
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