Workers at this Indian Ocean city's bustling port say drug lords can sneak 600 pounds of cocaine into the country by slipping a crisp $100 bill into a policeman's pocket. Land mines, guns and fake passports can sail through the port for what dockworkers and police call in Swahili kitu kidogo -- literally a "little something," but more commonly understood to mean a fat wad of cash.
"In Kenya, you can bomb the whole country for a $50 bribe, and everyone knows it," said Joseph Mutisya, 34, a laborer who works at the port. "There's a lot of poverty here. People come from all over -- Yemen, Somalia, the Middle East. They bring weapons. They bring whatever they want if they pay a bribe."
That kind of Wild West atmosphere, combined with desperate poverty, porous borders and increasingly pro-Palestinian feelings among the large Muslim population along Kenya's coast, has made this country an easy target for the kind of terrorist attacks that claimed 16 lives here on Thursday, Kenyan officials and Western diplomats said.
The 16 people -- 10 Kenyans, three Israelis and three suicide bombers -- were killed at the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel when a four-wheel-drive vehicle laden with explosives crashed into the hotel lobby at 8:30 a.m. Moments earlier, two missiles were fired at -- but missed -- a Boeing 757 as it took off from Mombasa's airport bound for Tel Aviv.
Kenya was also the scene of a suicide attack four years ago, when a truck bomber hit the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, the capital, killing more than 200 people. The same day, another truck bomb killed a dozen people at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, capital of neighboring Tanzania.
Investigation of the coordinated embassy bombings led to indictments against Osama bin Laden and members of his al Qaeda network, four of whom were convicted in U.S. courts. One, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, allegedly set up a fishing business in Mombasa with al Qaeda money and handed a portion of his revenue over to the organization; another, Wadih el-Hage, reputed to have been bin Laden's secretary, was accused of setting up al Qaeda's East Africa cell in Nairobi in 1994.
In the wake of Thursday's attacks, suspicions again have turned toward al Qaeda. Though a Palestinian group claimed responsibility on Thursday, U.S. officials in Washington have said a likely suspect might be al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, a Somali Muslim group with links to al Qaeda and a record of activity throughout the Horn of Africa, including in Mombasa.
Kenyan authorities continued to hold four Somalis and six Pakistanis in connection with Thursday's attacks. But Internal Security and Defense Minister Julius ole Sunkuli said today that no evidence had been found that would link the 10 to al Qaeda. He emphasized, however, that al Qaeda involvement had not been ruled out.
"Kenya is a country frequented by people of so many backgrounds and nationalities coming in and out," Sunkuli said. "Kenya has been attacked before. Any place can be attacked, but we are looking at how these missiles were brought into the country and how the bombers got in."
Kenyan police have said that the 10 men aroused suspicion when they arrived at Mombasa's port on Monday with false passports aboard a dhow, one of the traditional sailboats that have plied the Indian Ocean for centuries, and that they were arrested on Friday. Today, however, an Israeli intelligence source said the men had been arrested when they arrived Monday and confined to their boat since then, making it unlikely that they could have participated in Thursday's attacks.
Two others detained Friday were released today, police said. After hours of interrogation, Alicia Kalhammer, 31, an American, and her Spanish husband, Jose Tena, were determined to be tourists who had no connection with the attacks. The two were arrested as they attempted to leave their Mombasa hotel about two hours after Thursday's bombing.
After being released, Kalhammer, who lived in Nairobi as the daughter of a foreign service worker in 1976, said she and her husband had gone on a 10-day safari in northwestern Kenya before coming to the beaches of Mombasa. Freed from two days' detention in a tiny cell in Mombasa's port, Kalhammer said she wanted to get a beer, return her rental car and continue her vacation in another part of Kenya.
"There are no hard feelings. We love Kenya. We love the Kenyan people, and we know they were doing their job," Kalhammer said. "We want to come back, if they let us."
Not everyone who wants to enter Kenya worries about such formalities. Nairobi, one of Africa's largest and busiest cities, is a well-known haven for shady characters from other countries. Human rights groups report that leaders of Rwanda's 1994 genocide and fugitives from other African wars frequently have fled to Kenya, which ranks as one of the most corrupt nations in the world, according to the watchdog group Transparency International.
"Everyone knows that in Kenya you report something to the police and nothing happens, you end up having to pay a bribe," said Ben Mwashoti, a Mombasa dock worker. "Illegal documents, sugar, electronics and people sneaking in, all come through here because people have no money. They take bribes, and now we're all suffering because of it."
After the embassy bombings, there was a crackdown on the ports, workers say. But before long, they say, the bribes began to flow again, everything was allowed in, and no questions were asked.
"There is no question that the failed system here has made it a real easy place to do something like this," said a Western diplomat based in Kenya, who asked not to be identified. "Maybe now the Kenyan government will work to change that."
Like the coastline, the border between Kenya and Somalia is extremely porous, allowing goods and people to move easily back and forth. Intelligence agencies have blamed the Somali-based al-Ittihad for attacks in Somalia and Ethiopia and say it has been active in Kenya as well.
Today, Somalia's transitional government, a fledgling institution that controls only a small portion of a country fragmented for more than a decade, condemned the Mombasa attacks. "The government feels it is time to work together as a region and international community to dismantle terror groups wherever they are," said a Somali official, who said he was quoting Prime Minister Hassan Abshir Farah.
But many Kenyans say their country is simply too poor to root out terrorist groups. There are few jobs in the weak economy. Some of those who do find work as police or border guards are frequently unpaid because government workers, according to corruption watchdog groups, pocket salaries. Sometimes, Kenyans say, they have no way to feed their families other than by taking bribes.
That kind of poverty makes intelligence officials wonder whether terrorist groups will find a willing labor pool in East Africa.
Kenya's population of 31 million is about 10 percent Muslim. Militancy was seldom a concern until the 1998 embassy bombings, and today, many Kenyan Muslims say they share the anger felt by Muslims elsewhere, especially regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the embassy bombings made them feel that Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were the cause of the international violence.
At the Bawaryz Mosque in Mombasa, some of those attending afternoon prayers said that the Palestinian cause has become as important to them as the struggle against white-minority rule in South Africa once was.
The mosque's leader preached peace, but many outside said anger at the United States and Israel was justified. They praised bin Laden, calling him a defender of Islam.
"Kenyan Muslims have started to care about this, and we think it's a good cause," said Garib Kassim, a businessman, who smoked a cigarette as he stood outside the mosque. "No one should be surprised that this bombing happened here. We don't want people to die. But it will keep happening more and more here and around the world unless Israel leaves Palestine alone."