Rumblings Along the Coast

Are Kenyan counterterrorism death squads behind the latest spate of targeted killings in Mombasa?


The international community’s attention to Kenya has been sharply focused on the upcoming March 2013 elections and preventing the type of horrific ethnic violence that surrounded the 2007 election. But other things, big things, are afoot.

Ever since it sent its military into Somalia to fight al Shabaab in 2011, Kenya has been battling a serious rash of grenade attacks, kidnappings, and improvised explosive devices in Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kenya’s northeastern region. The U.S. embassy in Nairobi has recorded 17 attacks that killed 48 people and injured roughly 200 from January to July 2012. The targets included police stations and police vehicles, nightclubs and bars, churches, a religious gathering, a downtown building of small shops, and a bus station.

Terrorist attacks are not new to Kenya. In 1998, Kenyans suffered the brunt of an attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, which killed 212 people. In 2002, another bomb killed 14 people at the Paradise Hotel near Mombasa. That same day, missiles, which missed their target, were fired at an Israeli plane departing Mombasa’s Moi International Airport.

In response, the United States has poured in security assistance to expand the capabilities and reach of Kenyan counterterrorism forces at home and in the region. Kenya has been one of the largest recipients of U.S. State Department Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) in the world (including $10 million going to the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit in 2003), and has received Special Operations trainings worth several million dollars and FBI assistance to terrorism investigations.

The support the United States provides is in keeping with its insistence that it wants to maintain a "light footprint" in the region instead of sending in ground forces. But in doing so, the United States must ensure its security assistance is being used effectively, which means Washington must take considerable efforts to ensure that the assistance is not contributing to, or legitimizing, human rights abuses by Kenya. Too often, security forces forget that quick heavy handed responses, such as detainee abuse, denial of fair trial guarantees, extrajudicial killings, or unlawful extraditions, create instability by undermining the rule of law and can enflame the situation rather than reduce terrorist violence. And when these abuses are supported by foreign security assistance, donors may rightly be criticized for aiding and abetting human rights violations.

This brings us to the events of August 27, when a Muslim cleric, Aboud Rogo Mohammad, was gunned down by unknown men in Kenya’s port city and tourism hub of Mombasa.

Rogo was a controversial figure, to say the least. The United States and United Nations had placed him on terrorist sanction list (he’s accused of assisting in recruiting for al Shabaab), and at the time of his death he was facing other criminal charges for terrorism-related activities; he had previously been charged for involvement in a 2002 hotel bombing in Kenya, but was acquitted.

While the assailants remain unknown, many in the Muslim community suspect that the Kenyan government murdered him. The murder occurred in broad daylight when two gunmen in a vehicle overtook Rogo — who was also in a vehicle with six passengers, including his wife, their 5-year-old daughter, and his father — and riddled it with bullets. Al-Amin Kimathi, a human rights activist and chair of the Muslim Human Rights Forum in Kenya, reflected on several cases of disappearances of men since April 2012 — men, like Rogo, who were alleged to have been involved in terrorist-related activities. Witnesses to some of the disappearances have told local human rights groups that the abductors identified themselves as police. Kimathi told me: "When you look at circumstantial evidence, the pattern of events, the modus operandi, and the audacity with which the killing took place, it all points to the hand of the state."

Kenya’s willingness to take out unsavory characters is nothing new, making the government’s security apparatus an easy target of suspicion. In 2008, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission documented hundreds of cases of extrajudicial killings and disappearances by security forces of alleged members of the criminal gangs that terrorized Kenyans, known as Mungiki. There are also reports from 2007 of at least 90 Somalis in Kenya being illegally rendered to Somalia and then to Ethiopia. And Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit illegally detained and transferred several of its nationals to Uganda in the wake of the 2010 bombings in Kampala that left 76 dead and over 70 injured.

Kenyan officials have vehemently denied involvement in the most recent killings and disappearances. But whether Kenyan counterterrorism death squads are killing and disappearing people or not, there is an undeniable and palpable fear, anger, and angst in Mombasa due to the Kenyan government’s failure to put an end to these crimes, and to punish those responsible. And after Rogo’s murder, it finally boiled over.

Three hours after Rogo was buried, police were already out on the streets and tensions were building. Soon, angry protests turned to violent riots.

During the chaos, rioters killed a man near a mosque in Mombasa; on Tuesday, Aug. 28, and the following day, hand grenades were thrown at police, killing at least five and injuring several others. Rioters set fire to at least three churches and there was heavy looting in Mombasa. Protestors threw stones at riot police and security forces fired back with tear gas. According to media reports and civil society groups, some of the protestors were Rogo supporters; some were poor, unemployed youths angry at their government; others simply took advantage of the chaos to loot stores for personal gain.

"Rogo’s death was the immediate event that sparked the riots," said Kimathi, who strongly condemned the violence. "But there were also demonstrations — though not bloody — when Samir Khan’s body was found." Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit had arrested Khan in 2010 on weapons charges and again in 2011 for allegedly being a member of al Shabaab. Then, in April 2012, Khan was hauled out of a public transportation vehicle in Mombasa by unidentified men and disappeared. Two days later, his mutilated body was found off the side of a highway 150 kilometers from Mombasa. "So there has been a build-up leading to the riots," Kimathi continued. "The disappearances and killings, taken together led to the riots."

The riots also occurred in the context of long-standing disillusionment of people in the coastal region who believe that the Kenyan government has not taken their interests and needs into account. At its most extreme, this marginalization has taken the form of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a group that wants to secede from Kenya and has threated unrest. There’s also a religious component to the tension. With three churches attacked in the recent riots, and several similar cases in the past, the riots also have the potential to unleash darker forces. But Muslim and Christian religious and community leaders pleaded for restraint. Fortunately, the weekend immediately following Rogo’s death passed without further escalation.

The other good news, if you can call it that, is that the public prosecutor’s office announced that there would be an investigation into Rogo’s death. The investigation team, according to my conversion with Hussein Khalid, the head of the Mombasa-based Muslims for Human Rights, includes members of the Kenyan Law Society and the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, both of which should, in theory, help ensure that the investigation is impartial and independent. But only time will tell whether the investigation will really get to the bottom of things, or if it will be a hollow promise used as a short-term diversion tactic to help calm boiling tensions. There is a lot at stake, and if the investigation comes up empty handed and the abductions and killings continue, last week’s riots will likely not be the last.

The events in Mombasa are also a clear warning to the international community, in particular the United States, which correctly said that Rogo’s murder needs to be investigated. Washington has funded in large part the development of Kenya’s anti-terrorism capabilities through partnered operations, intelligence sharing, counterterrorism training, military equipment, and surveillance technology. This "light footprint" approach, which dodges the politically unsavory decision of bringing in Western ground forces to the region, nonetheless means that the United States must double its efforts to ensure its security assistance is not contributing to, or legitimizing, human rights abuses. Given what we have seen in Mombasa, and the good chance that terrorist attacks will continue, it would be a wasted effort if the growth of Kenya’s security forces resulted in an increase in human rights abuses, fewer protections from the rule of law, and distrust of the Kenyan government.

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