Hunt for Suspects In Embassy Bombings Elicits Anger in Kenya

Kenyan Premier Raila Odinga, second from left, visits a Nairobi memorial Aug. 7 for victims of the embassy bombings. Authorities, hunting for suspects, conducted raids around the same time.
Kenyan Premier Raila Odinga, second from left, visits a Nairobi memorial Aug. 7 for victims of the embassy bombings. Authorities, hunting for suspects, conducted raids around the same time. (By Khalil Senosi -- Associated Press)

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 15, 2008

MALINDI, Kenya -- Almost 10 years to the day after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, dozens of Kenyan anti-terrorism police busted their way into two homes in this sleepy resort town on the Indian Ocean.

The early-morning raids on Aug. 3, including one based on information from FBI agents, produced a frenzy of front-page headlines and some boasting on the part of Kenyan authorities, who cast the operations as evidence of their hot pursuit of terrorist sympathizers.

But the raids did not turn up the intended target: al-Qaeda operative Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, considered the chief organizer of the embassy bombings and a 2002 attack on a hotel near here. Mohammed is a man with more than 15 aliases who has been in Kenyan custody twice and targeted by U.S. airstrikes across the border in Somalia -- only to slip away again and again.

Over the years, the pursuit of Fazul and two other suspects in the embassy bombings has enraged Kenyan Muslims, who have complained of being harassed by Kenya's U.S.-funded anti-terrorism unit. In Somalia, the American military has carried out six airstrikes. The only target confirmed dead in the strikes is Aden Hashi Ayro, the leader of a Somali insurgent faction described by U.S. officials as a top al-Qaeda commander who aided the embassy bombing suspects. Many civilians have also been killed in the strikes, drawing criticism that the tactic is inspiring radical Islamist insurgents in that fragile country.

"The pursuit of these four suspects has had a huge impact in the Horn of Africa," said Ali Said, director of the Center for Peace and Democracy, based in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. "They always say, 'We almost found him!' But then they don't find him. After a decade, they are still after these suspects, still bombing the wrong places, killing cows and camels and herders and arresting the wrong people. . . . The whole community is paying the price."

The latest raids aroused suspicion among Kenyans for their timing, so close to the anniversary of the 1998 embassy bombings, which killed more than 200 people in Nairobi and 11 in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital.

Several human rights activists and a U.S. official familiar with the situation suggested that the Kenyan anti-terrorism unit, which has been called ineffective, essentially staged the raids and then leaked an embellished story to the news media to justify continuation of its U.S. funding.

"They want to create the impression that Fazul has a huge network in Kenya so they can merit more resources," said Ali-Amin Kimathi, chairman of the Muslim Human Rights Forum who has tracked the anti-terrorism unit's activities for years.

Though hundreds of Kenyans have been arrested on suspicion of terrorist activities, only one has been successfully tried in court, he said. At least 85 people from 17 countries, including 15 Kenyan citizens, have been sent to Ethiopia without charge or access to lawyers, and many say they have been tortured in Kenyan and Ethiopian custody. As of late last year, at least 40 were still being held in Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally in the region. One Kenyan citizen has been transferred to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But U.S. and Kenyan authorities say their work has weakened al-Qaeda's operations in East Africa and that Fazul only narrowly escaped this time.

"We were this close," said Elijah Karia, the anti-terrorism unit chief in this area, pressing his fingers together. "He must have felt our wind."

U.S. Embassy and FBI officials in Kenya declined to comment on the operation, but an American official briefed on it said the FBI had been monitoring several cybercafes here for months. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said agents had focused on one cafe and Ibrahim Mahfudh Ashur, a young man who had allegedly been communicating with Fazul.


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