“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.