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.
Acting upon that information -- but apparently without informing FBI agents or Malindi authorities -- Kenyan anti-terrorism agents descended on the cafe, where they found Ashur and questioned him. They suspected his family was harboring Fazul, but when they reached their apartment, he was not there.
They arrested Ashur and his parents and confiscated two passports and a computer they said Fazul had left behind. A second U.S. official in the region expressed frustration that FBI agents were not involved.
"We would have loved to have been with them when they knocked those doors down, but they didn't inform us," said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter.
Around the same time, about two dozen Kenyan anti-terrorism police descended on Amina Adan's house, down the road. Adan and her three children, terrified that they were being robbed, barricaded themselves in an upstairs bedroom as the officers broke through three heavy wooden doors and rifled through the family's belongings. The authorities confiscated their cellphones and passports.
Adan said she is an acquaintance of Ashur's family but had no idea why her house was raided.
"They are just looking for something to do so they can say they are working," said Adan's daughter, Mumina Fazzini, 21. "I think they have failed -- they are poor in their jobs so they have to try something."
Karia would not comment further on the raids but said legitimate operations are often wrongly interpreted as a crackdown against Muslims. He added that capturing Fazul has been "a challenge" because of the support he receives from Kenyans who live along the coast.
"It's only the sympathizers who are keeping him from being arrested," Karia said.
Kimathi, the human rights advocate, said the Kenyan anti-terrorism unit has cultivated a network of informants who often supply its agents with names of people who turn out to be business enemies, or others with whom they are trying to settle scores. The informants receive a stipend for information, he said.
In the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh, mostly composed of Somali immigrants and Somali Kenyans, residents say they and their neighbors have been harassed routinely by the unit, arrested without charge and asked for bribes for their release.
"Americans must know they're dealing with police in a third-world country . . .," said Guled Hassan, 42, a businessman. "Only this week several people have been arrested just for ransom, because anyone who paid the police was released."
Similar stories are common in Mombasa, a nearby resort town where the city's old Arab area, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood, is full of skepticism about the anti-terrorism campaign.
"They just harass people because they want a bribe," said Salim Mohamed, who works at a fabric and tailoring shop in the neighborhood. "The government is making money off Fazul."
On Friday, Ashur's family appeared in a Mombasa court, where their attorneys complained that police had prevented access to their clients and were holding them without sufficient evidence.
"The first time I saw my client is today," said Abdallah Mazrui, Ashur's attorney. "When I go to the police station, I'm told he's been moved."
As the judge deferred her ruling, dozens of members of the group Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose goal is to reestablish the Islamic caliphate, sat in the gallery. Mohamed Ahmed, a member, said the group's numbers have been growing in Kenya.
"These arrests are just to please the American government," he said outside the courthouse, as an impromptu Hizb ut-Tahrir rally of several dozen people got underway. "It's just aggression against the Muslim community."
Sharahil Mohamed, a relative of the accused family's, shrugged as he looked on. He is not a member of the group, he said, but he could understand their point of view.
"We know that Kenya gets funding for anti-terrorism," he said. "And they have to justify the money rolling in."