Just before his torturers pushed him out of the van, they told Abdi* that he was one of the lucky ones. “You were supposed to die tonight. But we believe your story,” he was told. Barely conscious, Abdi collapsed onto the Nairobi pavement. Half an hour later, he came to – without his wallet, phone, or spectacles, and with no idea where he was, or what he was believed to have done wrong.
Welcome to the African edition of the War on Terror. The plain-clothed security operatives who targeted Abdi may have been Kenyan, but research suggests they are being funded from Washington as part of a continent-wide counterterrorism strategy that is leaving a trail of dead and damaged bodies in its wake.
The strategy is at odds with the United States’ oft-professed commitment to human rights in Africa. Abdi is not the first victim, nor will he be the last – especially now that US President Donald Trump has reiterated his support for torture against terror suspects, and has already started making good on his campaign promises to aggressively crack down on terror groups.
Trump has yet to spell out details of his plans on foreign policy and counterterrorism. But judging from statements he made on the campaign trail, it is safe to assume that authoritarian leaders who use counterterrorism as a guise to repress opponents will have even less reason to fear reductions in US support than they do now.
Any country that shares the aim of halting radical Islam, Trump said in a foreign policy speech, “will be our ally. We cannot always choose our friends, but we can never fail to recognise our enemies”.
‘Get in or get shot’
Abdi is in his early 20s, a student at a prestigious Nairobi law school. He’s well spoken, and sharply dressed. Although he was raised in the Kenyan capital, his family hails from the north-east of the country, home to most of Kenya’s ethnic Somali population. Abdi himself is ethnic Somali, although he considers himself entirely Kenyan.
Since 2011, when Kenya invaded Somalia in a bid to dislodge the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, Kenya’s ethnic Somalis have found themselves in the crosshairs of the country’s brutal counterterrorism programme. Thousands have been detained on dubious grounds in government crackdowns – at least 4,000 in just one such operation in 2014 – while security forces involved in the counterterrorism response, in particular the US-sponsored Kenyan Defence Force and the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, have been repeatedly accused of committing human rights abuses, including torture and summary executions.
Abdi’s turn came in mid-2015, at around sunset. Given the nature of his account, it is difficult to independently verify what happened, but the details do conform with trends reported by local civil society organisations such as the Independent Medico-Legal Unit, which documents incidents of torture and political violence in Kenya.
Kenyan officials, including State House spokesperson Manoah Esipisu and National Counterterrorism Centre head Martin Kimani, did not respond to repeated requests to comment for this story.
Speaking at a central Nairobi café, Abdi said he was walking out of his university when a white Nissan people carrier pulled up next to him. The door slid open, and a pistol was pointed at his face. He’s watched enough Hollywood movies to recognise that the pistol was fitted with a silencer.
“They say I have two options. Get in or get shot. I got in,” he said.
Inside, the vehicle had been repurposed, with seats stripped out and restraints built into the frame. Abdi was tied down, so that he couldn’t move his hands or his neck. There were five other men in the car, all in plain clothes. The lead interrogator told Abdi that they were from the police, and he had been under surveillance for several years.
They had the documents to prove it. A thick folder contained photographs, call logs, and records of his movements. As they drove through the streets of Nairobi, they went through it with him, asking detailed questions about people he had met – including friends, family and clan elders – and why. Whenever they didn’t like an answer, they would shock him with an industrial cattle prod, until he fainted, then repeat the question when he regained consciousness.
In particular, his interrogators were suspicious that he was living in a house outside of Eastleigh, Nairobi’s predominantly Somali suburb, with non-Somali Kenyans. They kept asking him: “Are you trying to recruit them for al-Shabaab?”
Abdi’s ordeal lasted seven hours. He can’t remember how many times he had been jolted with the prod. It was long past midnight when he finally woke up, on the side of the road in a part of the city he didn’t know well. Bruised and bowed, and half-blind without his glasses, he begged a ride from a passing minibus, and stumbled home.
Since then, Abdi has been forced to move house – “I am against tribalism, but it’s just safer to live with other Somalis, looks less suspicious,” he says – and suffers from chronic back pain from where the electric shocks damaged his spine. But incredibly, he agrees with his torturers: yes, he was one of the lucky ones. “I wasn’t surprised that I was taken. Three days before me, someone else was taken from Eastleigh. He didn’t come back. Out of 10 taken, maybe one comes back.”
‘I don’t normally look like this’
Dr Abdallah Waititu was not so lucky. He left work on the afternoon of April 4, 2016, and has not been seen since. His prize possession, a second-hand Mercedes Benz, is still parked in the car park of a government hospital in Machakos County, where he was a pharmacist.
The 33-year-old Waititu, affectionately known by his title, Duktur (Doctor), was a pillar of the Eastleigh community. His qualifications made him a role model in what is a very poor suburb, and he was generous with his time and his money. Not many people escape Eastleigh’s poverty, but Duktur was the exception. He was proof that it is possible. Now he’s vanished.
“Our friends tell us not to worry, that he’s still alive. But I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it until I see him.” This is Waititu’s brother, Imran*. He’s speaking in the back of a taxi on an Eastleigh back street, slouched so that no one can see him speaking to a foreign journalist. It’s a warm evening, but the tinted windows are up. He’s worried that he might be next, but he also hopes that some publicity, any publicity, might bring Duktur back.
“We have been suffering a lot. Look at me, I don’t normally look like this.” Imran’s face is gaunt, and his shirt sags over his shoulders. He speaks in nervous, staccato sentences, constantly looking around him.
At first, Waititu’s three wives and five young children weren’t too concerned when he didn’t make it home. Nairobi traffic is notoriously unpredictable. But as it got dark, they started to worry. They phoned his colleagues, who confirmed that he was not at the hospital, but that his car was still there. They knew then that something was very wrong.
The search began. Duktur was not at home, and he wasn’t at work. He wasn’t at the mosque. He wasn’t at any of the local police stations. He wasn’t at another hospital, nor was he in the morgue. He had disappeared.
For Waititu’s family, life has changed drastically in the months since they last saw him. Along with their grief, they have had to adapt to a new financial reality as Waititu was the sole breadwinner. They have moved into a smaller apartment, and his brothers are working overtime to cover rent and food. Imran’s life savings have evaporated, and he has had to put his dream of starting a community radio station on hold while he does double shifts at his market stall, selling second-hand clothes.
Every week, Imran or another brother will do the rounds of local police stations and morgues, just to check if Waititu has ended up in a holding cell, or if his body has been found. His family have also sued the government, demanding that they reveal Waitutu’s whereabouts. Without success: the government says it has no idea where he is.
Imran says the government is lying. He has no doubt that Waititu was picked up by the police. “And if it wasn’t the police, then it was the Kenyan military,” he said. His accusations are well grounded. Disappearances have become a central plank of Kenya’s counterterrorism policy, and Waititu’s position as treasurer of his local mosque makes him an obvious target.
For several years, the Kenyan government has railed against Eastleigh’s Pumwani Riyadha mosque, describing it as a key conduit of finances for terrorist groups. A former member of the mosque, Ahmad Iman Ali, went on to become al-Shabaab’s Kenyan leader. Although the mosque vigorously denies any links with terrorism, the accusations shadow the congregation.
Waititu wasn’t the last of the mosque’s leadership to disappear. In late June, Abdul Mwangi Karuri was on his way to morning prayers when he was bundled into a vehicle by several men in plain clothes. Karuri is a senior figure in the mosque, and a budding politician. He’s the youth leader of the Democratic Party, a minor political party. The party has accused police officers again of being responsible.
Intimidation, arrests, torture, disappearances. These are the hallmarks of Kenya’s War on Terror. But Imran warns that the brutal tactics are counterproductive. “Disappearances are not the way to fight terrorism. Kenya is just doing this to please the outside world. Every abduction is proof to donors that their money is being spent,” he said.
The United States is the biggest donor of all.
Following the money trail
In July 2015, Barack Obama gave a speech in Addis Ababa. It was a homecoming of sorts – the first African-American president addressing the African Union (AU) for the first time – and Obama used the opportunity to describe his vision of a democratic, prosperous, human rights-respecting Africa. “Africa’s progress will depend on upholding the human rights of all people, for if each of us is to be treated with dignity, each of us must be sure to also extend that same dignity to others,” said Obama.
Obama promised to help African nations to expand freedoms, and improve democracy. “Democracy is not just formal elections,” he told African leaders.
“When journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs, or activists are threatened as governments crack down on civil society, then you may have democracy in name, but not in substance. And I’m convinced that nations cannot realise the full promise of independence until they fully protect the rights of their people.”
It was a beautiful speech; one of the finest to have ever graced the AU’s Nelson Mandela Hall, according to old AU hands. Obama received a standing ovation, even from his Ethiopian host, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose government regularly detains, tortures and executes political opponents.
Sadly, the money trail betrays Obama’s lofty rhetoric. Far from promoting freedom, the United States is actually funding some of the worst violators of human rights on the continent. No end to that trend is in sight under the Trump administration. On the contrary.
“We do not yet know how… Trump’s own brand of international relations will affect the already precarious situation of human rights globally,” Amnesty International’s Secretary-General, Salil Shetty, said after the November 8 elections. “But if his poisonous rhetoric in the campaign translates into policy, the implications will be grave and far-reaching.”
Trump has repeatedly stressed that he believes torture works. But a week after taking office on January 20, he said in a television interview that he would allow his Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, to “override” him on the issue. Mattis has spoken out against torture.
Where to even begin on the question of US support and human rights? Let’s start in Nigeria, where the United States is sponsoring a regional task force against Boko Haram to the tune of $40-million, along with $600-million in development aid to Nigeria this year.
Direct military support is to set to increase, according to Reuters, who said that then-Secretary of State John Kerry made a commitment to ramp up military assistance during an August 2016 visit to Abuja, as well as to assist Nigeria with the purchase of attack aircraft from US manufacturers. This despite the State Department’s own finding, in a report released in April this year, that said Nigeria’s “security services perpetrated extra-judicial killings, and engaged in torture, rape, arbitrary detention, mistreatment of detainees, and destruction of property”.
Then take South Sudan, where United States funding (prior to the outbreak of civil war in 2013) helped to train and modernise the national army – despite the widespread and repeated use of child soldiers by government forces. Instead of halting the practice – or the funding – the US effectively condoned it.
Every year since 2012, the Obama administration has issued a special waiver for South Sudan, allowing the US to flout the Child Soldier Prevention Act – American legislation designed to prevent aid money going to regimes that use child soldiers. Similar waivers have been granted to Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Somalia. In a terse memorandum, Obama stated that this was in the “national interest”.
Current information on the scale of funding to South Sudan is not available, but the waiver was re-issued in 2016, strongly suggesting that the South Sudanese armed forces continue to receive US military aid, despite a litany of horrific human rights violations committed during the course of the civil war. According to a March 2016 United Nations report, these include burning civilians alive; suffocating them in containers; and gang-raping women in front of their families.
Or what about the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Project (TSCTP)? This flagship War on Terror initiative, which has been running since 2005, disburses between $90- and $160-million per year to security forces and judicial services across 10 countries in the Sahel and Maghreb: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia.
Many of the countries involved in the TSCTP have dubious records when it comes to respect for democracy and basic freedoms. A small, but by no means exhaustive, sample: in Mauritania, suspected Islamic terrorists are routinely tortured or disappeared; in Chad, teenagers between 13 and 17 have been recruited as soldiers by government forces; in Mali, government soldiers have been implicated in theft, extortion and summary executions of prisoners; in Algeria, authorities are abusing counterterrorism laws to detain political opponents. All are nonetheless receiving consistent US funding.
Big Brother’s got your back
Kenya is a particularly striking example of how US funding for African security forces seems to be divorced from the behaviour of its recipients.
Determining exactly how much that funding amounts to is tricky, however. For this article, requests for information were made to the Department of State, Department of Defence, and the US embassy in Kenya. All were rebuffed or ignored. The US Africa Command, meanwhile, maintained in an e-mail response that “funding assistance is generally denied in those cases where there is determined to be credible information that such members or units of a foreign security force have committed a gross violation of human rights”.
Human Rights Watch, in a July 2016 report documenting 34 enforced disappearances in Nairobi and north-east Kenya – all linked to counterterrorism operations – ran into similar inconsistancies. After plenty of digging in both Nairobi and Washington, they found that Kenyan police receive at least $8-million per year in funding from the US, while US support for the Kenyan military will reach over $120-million in the 2016 financial year. This could amount to more than 10% of the Kenyan Defence Force’s total budget (officially a secret, but estimated to be between $800- and $900-million). In addition, the Congressional Research Service notes that Kenya is the largest recipient of US bilateral aid in Africa, receiving more than $740-million in the 2015 financial year.
“More transparency regarding how much US money is going to support what units and operations in Kenya is critical for ensuring that funding isn’t supporting abuses,” said Otsieno Namwaya, author of the Human Rights Watch report. “I think [Kenyan police and military] rely on US funding a lot. In addition, their officers regularly travel to the US for training. They rely on this relationship fully, and they would really be hurt if the funding was withdrawn.”
Despite the odd public chastisement, there’s no sign that the US is preparing to cut the purse strings. The opposite is true. Since 2013, the US has increased funding to Kenyan military threefold, a de facto stamp of approval for its activities.
On January 24, the US State Department approved a possible $418-million sale to Kenya of a package that includes military aircraft, weapons, and technical support. Also in January, a State Department official told us that “we remain concerned by the allegations of human rights violations in Kenya” detailed in the Human Rights Watch report. “We have urged the Government of Kenya to take this report and other allegations of abuse seriously.”
More than financial support, the US is providing the kind of relationship the Kenyans need. Kenya can argue, “We are doing this, it’s good, even the Americans say so.” It’s like an endorsement from a big brother. It’s not just about the money,” said George Kegoro, executive director of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission.
America is not supposed to fund human rights abusers. In the late 1990s, Senator Patrick Leahy pushed through the Leahy Law – actually two amendments to existing legislation – which forbids both the Department of Defence and Department of State from giving money to dodgy foreign security forces.
Senator Leahy told the New York Times in 2013, “We can help reform foreign security forces, but they need to show they are serious about accountability. If not, we are wasting American taxpayers’ money and risk prolonging the abusive conduct that we seek to prevent.”
The law reads: “No assistance shall be furnished… to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”
The wording here is crucial. By specifying assistance at the unit level, the Leahy Law permits funding of other, supposedly untarnished units within the same security force. It presumes that the good cops can be separated, and funded separately, from the bad cops. In Kenya, to comply with this provision, the US has been redirecting its support within Kenya’s security establishment, most notably reducing funding to the notorious ATPU while increasing support to the military.
Kegoro argues that this is nothing but an enormous loophole – and one that Kenya is adept at exploiting. It’s like a shell game: Kenya’s security forces are skilled at juggling personnel, responsibilities and budgets so that it doesn’t really matter which specific unit receives the foreign funding. Their latest tactic, according to Human Rights Watch’s Otsieno, is the creation of temporary, ad hoc units with personnel drawn from across the police and military. Funding cannot be withdrawn from these ad hoc units because they don’t officially exist. “They know the Leahy Law and are trying to circumvent that process,” said Otsieno.
Furthermore, the US is not always in the best position to distinguish between so-called “good” and “bad” units. “The Leahy Law also presumes the Americans have perfect knowledge of what’s going on. But they have nowhere near perfect knowledge. It’s at best perfunctory. They can’t be in a position to judge who is good and who is bad. So ultimately the answer has to be that they don’t really care about the distinction,” said Kegoro.
What the United States does care about, however, is Islamic terrorism, and specifically al-Shabaab. The al-Qaeda-offshoot is on the back foot in Somalia, and has been ever since the Kenyan intervention in 2011. As part of the African Union Mission in Somalia – which also received US funding – Kenya continues to play a major role in maintaining Somalia’s all-too-fragile stability. Domestically, Kenyan security forces are supposedly preventing further radicalisation, no matter the legality or otherwise of the tactics employed.
Effectively, Kenyan security forces are being subsidised by the United States to do the dirty work it is unwilling or unable to do. It’s counterterrorism by proxy.
How to lose a War on Terror
That the War on Terror trumps basic rights has become a familiar refrain in the post-9/11 era. Security beats civil liberties, seemingly every time.
If the United States was winning the War on Terror, then it just might be able to make this argument convincingly. But it’s not winning. This is especially true in Africa, where terrorist activity has increased dramatically in recent years. Islamist terrorist attacks have quadrupled since 2009, and fatalities are up by 850% (In 2009, Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre recorded 171 militant Islamist attacks on the continent, causing 541 fatalities. In 2015, there were 738 attacks and 4,600 fatalities).
What the bald numbers don’t explain is why the increase has been so steep. The collapse of Libya plays a major role, as does the expansion of the Islamic State. But an even more significant factor may just be those same human rights abuses to which the United States keeps turning a blind eye.
In 2014 Anneli Botha, a researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, did something no one in Africa had ever done before. She approached members of militant Islamist groups and asked them what made them tick. Her research focussed on Kenya, and specifically the Kenyan branch of al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC).
“When asked to clarify what finally pushed them over the edge [to join up], the majority of both al-Shabaab and MRC respondents referred to injustices at the hands of Kenyan security forces, specifically referring to ‘collective punishment’.” said Botha. Some respondents complained that “all Muslims are treated as terrorists”, while others pointed to specific incidents, such as the assassination of a Muslim cleric or an alleged assault by Kenyan police on a group of Muslims.
The evidence was overwhelming: Kenya’s counterterrorism measures aren’t just morally and legally wrong. They are also counterproductive. Every time someone like Abdi gets tortured, al-Shabaab gets a propaganda boost; every Duktur who disappears creates more potential recruits. This alone should be enough to make the United States rethink how it funds the War on Terror, and with whom it chooses to work with. If Botha’s research is right, then continued financial support to serial human rights violators is hastening, not curbing, the spread of terrorism in Africa.
Who are the terrorists?
A year after his ordeal at the hands of Kenyan police, Abdi says he no longer walks around in fear. “I have one life. If someone wants to take it away, especially the government, how can I fight it? So I accept it and move on,” he says. “I can’t hide. I can’t disappear. I can’t leave my country. It’s painful to see your aggressor walking around, but when your hands are tied there’s nothing to be done.”
He’s still angry, although he tries not to be. “I fight the inner me so that I don’t feel fear or hate. If I feel that, how can I change things?” But the inner Abdi has plenty of reason to be mad. His government betrayed him, and he doesn’t know where to turn for help. “The people I’m supposed to run to for protection, they are the ones attacking me. They are supposed to fight terror, but they are the terrorists.”
In Kenya, as in other parts of Africa, the line between government and terrorist is increasingly blurred. In combating al-Shabaab’s brutality, Kenyan security forces mimic its atrocities. And they do so with a multimillion dollar stamp of approval from the world’s only superpower. Not only does US money help buy the trucks and train the men who commit these crimes, but it also tells Kenya’s top brass that they’re doing the right thing.
Because money speaks far louder than words, the same message is being sent to Nigeria, to Chad, to Algeria, to Ethiopia, to Mauritania, to South Sudan, to Burkina Faso, to all the other African security forces with which the United States has a financial relationship. In the War on Terror, human rights abuses tend to be seen as inevitable collateral damage.
The argument that they are counterproductive has been falling on deaf ears. Under Trump, that is unlikely to change. DM
Names changed at request of interviewees.
Lawn gnomes used to be real people. The original gnome ornaments were known as Ornamental Hermits.