Kenya’s fight against terrorism may be creating more terrorists
Abdullah Iddi Waitutu foresaw his own abduction.
In early February, the 33-year-old Kenyan was giving us an interview while sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Pumwani Riyadh Mosque, where he was treasurer and a member of the executive committee. Pumwani is a Nairobi slum whose population is almost 100 percent Muslim, and at its center, the five-story mosque towers over muddy streets and homes made of tin.
Waitutu was answering our questions about the mosque’s reputation as a recruitment center for extremists. That reputation had been cemented nearly a decade ago when, according to Kenyan intelligence officials and a U.N. anti-terrorism report, a charismatic preacher named Sheikh Ahmed Iman Ali took over the mosque and convinced hundreds of worshipers to follow him to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group aligned with al-Qaeda.
Iman Ali became the leader of al-Shabaab’s propaganda effort and Kenya branch, and helped mastermind the group’s most notorious attack: the 2013 siege of Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall in which at least 67 people were killed.
Waitutu told us that the mosque has had no relationship with Imam Ali or al-Shabaab since 2009, and he said he had proof: the fact that he was still alive.
If Kenyan intelligence officials, who launched a crackdown on al-Shabaab after Westgate, had “a hint, or knew that the [executive] committee was really involved in recruitment,” Waitutu said, “I think by now we wouldn’t be here.” He was convinced security officials would kill him and other members of the committee if they believed they were al-Shabaab recruiters.
Two months later, Waitutu disappeared. Three months after that, fellow executive committee member Abdul Karuri Mwangi disappeared in remarkably similar circumstances.
The official spokesperson for the Kenyan police says he’s unaware of the two disappearances, and no charges have been brought against the two men or others at the mosque. But the men’s friends and family, as well as some of the country’s leading human rights advocates, accuse anti-terrorism police of ignoring due process laws and kidnapping Waitutu and Mwangi.
Advocates say the disappearances aren’t simply a matter of the police targeting a mosque with a problematic past. Instead, they claim they’re emblematic of the relative impunity with which police all over the country operate.
In August, a Kenyan court ruled that human rights lawyer Willie Kimani, his client, and their driver had been murdered by police. The ruling was described as a “watershed moment” by Amnesty International: a rare official acknowledgement that these kinds of abuses regularly take place.
Kenyan counterterrorism forces in particular are alleged to target the country’s Muslim minority, which comprises just over 10 percent of the population.
“Once the police label you as a terror subject or a sympathizer of jihadism or a member of the al-Shabaab, then they are free to deal with you as they wish,” said Mbugua Mureithi, the Pumwani Riyadh Mosque executive committee’s attorney and a prominent human rights lawyer. Mureithi alleges police have killed more than 20 of his clients during his decade of terrorism-related work, a charge the police deny. “If they feel that they have no evidence to have you convicted in a court of law, then they simply disappear you.”
An American diplomat who focuses on East Africa but isn’t authorized to speak to the press told VICE News that the more Kenyan police are perceived as abusing Muslims with “heavy-handed tactics,” the easier it is for al-Shabaab to recruit Kenyans. That, in turn, threatens U.S. interests, since al-Shabaab targets American forces and their allies in neighboring Somalia.
“Do [the police] do things that hurt their own cause? Absolutely,” the U.S. official said. Security officials, he went on, are “blind to the impact” of what they do.
Al-Shabaab is based in Somalia but has launched some of its highest-profile operations in Kenya, including the Westgate Mall attack and the 2015 siege of Garissa University, in which 148 people were killed. Kenya’s military is deployed in Somalia as part of a five-nation force — it’s supported by U.S. military personnel — whose mission is to degrade al-Shabaab. Inside Kenya, counterterrorism forces work to prevent the group’s recruitment and attacks.
Kenyan police say that in the last three years, they have prevented multiple al-Shabaab assaults, including one they say would have involved anthrax. But human rights groups say the police sometimes act as judge, jury, and executioner for people they believe are affiliated with al-Shabaab.
Human Rights Watch says Kenyan security services have “forcibly disappeared” at least 34 people from Nairobi and northeast Kenya since July 2014 in operations targeting people never proven to have any links to terrorism. Human Rights Watch also documented 11 cases of people who were last seen with state security forces and who later turned up dead.
Al-Shabaab in turn publicizes the alleged police mistreatment in order to recruit Kenyans. In a video released earlier this year, Iman Ali argues that Kenyan Muslims “are being oppressed,” and urges Kenyans to join the group to exact revenge.
“We are inside Kenya,” he warns. “There will be blood, just like one of the colors in your national flag.”
Two of the most high-profile suspected abductions were those of Waitutu and Mwangi. In the early afternoon of April 4, Waitutu walked out of the hospital where he worked as a pharmacist and placed his laptop bag in the backseat of his Mercedes. He was then approached by three men in plain clothes, according to friends, family, and eyewitnesses who spoke to local media. No witnesses reported what happened after the men intercepted Waitutu — but it was the last time anyone saw him.
Waitutu’s wife, however, believes she knows who took her husband.
“I am suspecting he is with the different government forces,” Khadija Ali says. “I don’t know which one, but I know he is with the government.”
She had been married to Waitutu for less than a year, and during that time, she says, men who identified themselves as police officers visited their home on multiple occasions and asked about his work at the mosque.
Two months after Waitutu disappeared, Pumwani mosque chairman Ali Abdul Majid received texts from a blocked number. They contained the only clue to date about Waitutu’s fate.
“Duktur is talking,” the text read, “and his survival depends on you.”
Majid was convinced that “duktur” — or doctor — meant Waitutu. The text threatened both Waitutu and Majid unless the latter left the executive committee. Majid resigned the following week.
“I [left] because there is nothing that is worth more than… the life of someone else,” he says.
Abdul Karuri Mwangi, then the committee’s most senior member, was last seen on July 1, walking near the mosque while flanked by two men in plain clothes. The three men happened to bump into Mwangi’s cousin, according to an affidavit filed with the human rights division of Kenya’s high court.
Mwangi tried to hand his cellphone to his relative, but one of the men flanking him grabbed it and said, “What are you trying to achieve?” The cousin said he saw “the expression of deep fear and fright all over Abdul’s face,” according to the affidavit.
“The officers walked Abdul toward a black saloon car with a sliding door,” the cousin said in court documents. “The door was opened by the ‘officer’ in a dark jacket, and then Abdul was bundled into the car.”
Mwangi has not been seen since.
The threat from al-Shabaab in Kenya is very real. But, says Mureithi, so is the threat from Kenyan police.
“Enforced disappearances are being incorporated as part of law enforcement techniques,” Mureithi says. “We are a lawless country…. [And] if you choose to suspend the law, where the hell are you heading?”
Police spokesman Charles Owino urges the lawyers and family of the disappeared men to register an official complaint with groups that oversee police misconduct, including the Independent Police Oversight Authority, instead of going straight to Kenya’s high court.
“We don’t want to defend ourselves and say, ‘It is not possible for a police officer to have been involved,’ but what we are saying is, ‘Make use of the [oversight committees],’” Owino says. “If somebody is of the opinion that the police are involved in the death of these particular two people, then the person should raise this complaint and provide the evidence.”
Some of the people who led the search for the two missing men, and in the process indicated that they believed the police were involved, subsequently received threats on their lives.
Mwangi’s wife, who also filed an affidavit with Kenya’s highest court, was threatened via text message on August 1, according to the affidavit.
“You think you are clever,” the message read. “You will be killed within three days!”
Khadija Ali, Waitutu’s wife, says she was approached on the street by a stranger who told her, “You need to drop it, or you will be killed.” She is now living in hiding.
After the apparent abductions, remaining members of the mosque committee resigned en masse, and a new interim committee took their place. But Majid, the mosque chairman who resigned after receiving threats, worries the changes at the mosque won’t keep Muslims there — or elsewhere in Kenya — any safer.
“For a long time, this has been happening in Kenya. Muslims, the youth, have been abducted,” he says. “I am afraid.”