“We were shaking,” recalled Abubakar, 41. “They broke apart every room. They confiscated our passports, our cellphones, our laptops. They even took my client list.”
Abubakar, of Fairfax, is of Somali origin. She also happened to call and text a friend who was at an upscale mall during a four-day siege by Islamist militants with ties to al-Shabab, a Somali militia linked to al-Qaeda. Together, that was enough for Kenyan authorities to take her into custody.
On Tuesday afternoon, Abubakar and her roommate, a Somali Canadian, were released after the U.S. Embassy intervened at her family’s request.
The arrests, and possibly many others, are a sign of an emerging backlash against Kenya’s Somali community in the aftermath of the bloodiest terrorist assault in the country since the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing, raising fears among one of the most vulnerable communities on the continent.
The detentions, and their reversals, are also a sign of the troubling murkiness of the investigation a week after the end of the mall standoff, which the government said killed 67 people and injured more than 200. Kenyan officials have revealed little about what happened, even as they publicly claim that the probe is progressing. Dozens of FBI investigators, as well as forensic specialists from Britain, Germany, Israel and Interpol, are combing the wreckage of the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall for clues.
Yet basic questions, such as the number of assailants and victims, remain unanswered. Kenyan officials said throughout the siege that their forces were battling 10 to 15 militants. After the standoff, they said five of the militants had been killed, but they haven’t accounted for the others. Also unclear is the nationalities of the militants, whether any escaped and, if so, when and how. The Kenyan Red Cross says 39 victims are still missing.
“They are rounding up anybody just for the sake they are Somali, or who looks Somali,” Abubakar said. “What makes me mad is that the time and resources they spend on arresting Somalis, they could spend on tracking the real culprits.”
Initially, Kenyan authorities said 11 suspects were in custody, but Somali clan elders said many of those picked up were merely Somalis living near the airport or leaving on international flights. A few days later, eight suspects remained in custody.
After Abubakar was arrested, Kenyan authorities began tracking down anyone of Somali origin she knew, including the friend she had tried to reach inside the mall two Saturdays ago when the militants stormed it.
“They are profiling Somalis,” said the friend, Buri Hamza, a member of Somalia’s parliament who was visited by five counterterrorism unit officers Sunday night. The officers demanded his phone and wanted to search his place but backed off when he produced his diplomatic credentials, Hamza said.
At the time of the attack, Hamza, who like many Somali lawmakers has a home in Nairobi, was having breakfast at the mall with a former Somali prime minister and a senior official of the U.S.-backed African Union forces that are fighting al-Shabab in Somalia. All three men escaped, Hamza with minor injuries to his hands and right leg.
“Then these guys give us a hard time here,” said Hamza, referring to the counterterrorism officers. “If I did not have a diplomatic passport, I would have been arrested.”
Kenyan police officials denied that they are profiling Somalis and said that any arrests of Somalis are part of the ongoing investigation of the mall attack.
“There is no tribe that we are targeting, neither any community,” police spokeswoman Zipporah Mboroki said.
Abubakar, though, said she met other arrested Somalis, mostly young men, in the police station where she was held. At the antiterrorism police unit’s base, where she was interrogated for two days, officers repeatedly asked her questions, such as where she was born, her reasons for living in Kenya, whether she knew anyone who was killed or injured in the mall attack. Abubakar said she was not allowed access to a lawyer or phone calls to her family or the U.S. Embassy.
“We had lost hope,” she recalled. “We thought we would never leave.”
Her brother, Mohamed Abdirizak, who works for an international nongovernmental organization in Nairobi, learned of her fate from a neighbor and contacted the U.S. Embassy. When an American consular official visited her, Abubakar said, she broke down and cried.
The arrests come as lawmakers are urging the government to shut down the U.N.-run Dadaab refugee camp in northeast Kenya, the world’s largest such facility, and deport more than 400,000 refugees to their war-ravaged Somali homeland. Many of the refugees fled al-Shabab’s brutal interpretation of Islamic sharia law, enforced by public amputations, whippings and stonings. But Kenyan lawmakers say the camp has become a breeding ground for terrorists.
“The U.N. must now understand the security of Kenyans comes first,” Asman Kamama, a lawmaker who heads Kenya’s parliament committee on national security, said at a gathering over the weekend. “Even if it is about human rights, it should not be at our expense.”
Kenyan security forces are also facing growing allegations of intelligence and security failures before the mall massacre, a slow response to the attack and looting of stores during the siege.
“The police will be under pressure to identify the people responsible for this horrific crime, but they need to respond with professional law enforcement operations that respect the rule of law,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
That has not always been the case. Since October 2011, when Kenya dispatched its military to fight in Somalia, there have been numerous small attacks in Kenya, which have killed more than 100 people and injured hundreds. Most are thought to have been perpetrated by al-Shabab, which said it targeted the Nairobi mall in retaliation for Kenya’s military deployment in Somalia. After such attacks, Kenyan security forces have often abused Somalis, both refugees and Kenyans of Somali descent, said rights activists.
During the siege, Somalis in the mall hid from the assailants. One Kenyan of Somali descent, Abdul Haji, was hailed as a hero for saving many lives, including an American family.
Somali businessmen in Nairobi donated food to the Kenyan security forces trying to end the siege and organized blood drives for the wounded. Yet several survivors immediately blamed the Somali community.
“Personally, I have nothing against Somalis, but they should all be thrown out,” said Aquilah Kauser Ishaq, 32, a marketing manager at a radio station who was hospitalized with grenade and bullet wounds.
Fears of retribution
In Eastleigh, a predominantly Somali enclave of Nairobi, residents are bracing for retribution. Many shops now close before nightfall. Business has slowed down, as people remain indoors or are too afraid to come to the area. Residents have postponed traveling abroad for fear of being detained at the airport.
It didn’t help that a Kenyan politician declared last week, despite a lack of evidence, that some of the militants who attacked the mall came from Eastleigh.
“Somalis are soft targets whenever there is an explosion or any attack,” said Hassan Adan, a Somali elder and businessman.
Eastleigh, according to U.N. and Kenyan officials as well as regional analysts, is a haven for al-Shabab operatives and an important source of recruitment and funding for the militia. That has made it particularly vulnerable to Kenyan security units, which have long extorted bribes from residents by threatening to throw them in jail or deport them, Somali elders and human rights activists say.
“The police see the Somalis as an ATM machine,” said Ahmed Mohammed, the secretary general of the Eastleigh Business District Association. “Somalis are arrested here every night.”
In November, a device detonated on a crowded minibus in Eastleigh, killing at least 10 people. That sparked riots by youth gangs from neighboring areas, whose members assaulted Somalis and looted Somali-owned stores. Kenyan police assaulted and arbitrarily detained at least 1,000 people, mostly Somali refugees, according to Human Rights Watch.
“If the authorities made a crackdown, arrested people and tortured them, that will not help their cause,” Mohammed said, adding that such actions might drive some Somalis “to join al-Shabab.”
Outside Eastleigh, many Somalis say they now receive suspicious looks from Kenyans. Mohammed Khayrad, 25, who runs a Somali youth group, said the owner of a downtown restaurant called him a terrorist and ordered him to leave.
Before he left, Khayrad recalled, he confronted the owner: “I told him, ‘I hurt the way you hurt. I hate the way you hate. I am not one of the terrorists. I am part of the community who loves Kenya.’ ”