NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenyan police have fueled the fires of Islamic extremism and may actually be undermining the country’s security in an overzealous attempt to protect it, according to human rights activists and advocates for police reform.
Widespread allegations of police corruption, brutality and arbitrary arrests that target Kenya’s Muslim minority population appeared to inform President Obama's comments in a joint press conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Saturday, part of Obama’s first trip to his father’s homeland since becoming president of the United States.
“What we have found through hard experience — I have shared this with President Kenyatta — is that if you paint any particular community with too broad a brush, if in reaction to terrorism you are restricting legitimate organizations, reducing the scope of peaceful organization, then there can have the inadvertent effect of actually increasing the pool of recruits for terrorism and resentment in communities that feel marginalized,” Obama said.
The US president praised cooperation on anti-terror efforts between American and Kenyan authorities but human rights activists say extrajudicial police killings and arbitrary arrests of Muslims are a centerpiece of Kenya’s counterterrorism strategy. To these observers, Kenya police have overreacted to the 2013 siege of Westgate shopping mall by Al Shabaab gunmen, who killed 67 people and wounded more than 175. Meanwhile, the observers say, police have trampled over many Kenyans’ civil rights in the process.
A Human Rights Watch report confirmed last month that a police crackdown intended for Islamic militants has instead unfairly targeted innocent civilians, sometimes for death, resulting in a counterproductive rise in extremism.
“Kenyan police are a law unto themselves. They kill often, with impunity,” said Philip Alston, a leading human rights lawyer who first began tracking extrajudicial killing by the Kenyan police six years ago when he served as the UN Special Rapporteur.
Independent Medico Legal Unit, a Kenyan NGO, found that Kenyans are five times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by criminals or terrorists. These killings are not always terror-related. For crimes as benign as property theft, Kenyan police seem to operate on an unwritten rule of "shoot to kill" rather than arrest and prosecute. An Open Society Foundations report quoted a police officer telling a detainee, “We are tired of taking you to the court. Next time we’ll finish you off in the field.”
Last year Human Rights Watch documented what it said were at least 10 cases of extrajudicial police killings and another 10 forced disappearances of suspected terrorists. And members of Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit admitted to Al Jazeera that they were ordered to kill suspects rather than apprehend them. One officer said he’d personally executed 50 people. Al Jazeera’s investigation concluded that anti-terrorism police had killed some 500 people.
The United Kingdom, United States and other Western countries are seen by some to be complicit in these killings because they have provided funding and training to the police units that are allegedly involved in the extrajudicial killing.
Last year US Ambassador Robert Godec said Kenya must "follow the rule of law" while carrying out anti-terrorism operations, a message reaffirmed by President Obama during his visit. But critics point out that the FBI works closely to train these anti-terrorism police, who received $10 million in US funding through the PREACT program in 2012 — and $80 million to date — raising questions as to whether the US is complicit in such practices or simply ineffective in its bid to change them.
Mark Ellis, an international lawyer who directs the International Bar Association, said that Western governments should “stop providing any type of assistance or training to police units in Kenya until there is a clear change… in how the Kenyan authorities deal with suspects.”
A long history
In March 2009, the former UN Rapporteur Alston published a report on extrajudicial killing for the UN. Two activists who had spoken with Alston about police killings were themselves gunned down by unknown assailants.
“Killings by the police are widespread. Some killings are opportunistic, reckless or personal. Many others are carefully planned,” said Alston, who is now a professor at New York University School of Law.
“A lot of the killings were simply casual, accidental,” he said. “Someone that you arrest, someone who won’t pay a bribe, someone who gets in the way of a cop who’s running a bar. Just dispose of the people.”
During Kenya’s 2007 election violence, Kenyan security forces killed or “disappeared” an estimated 200 people in a single incident, and senior police officials were involved in some of these killings, Alston found. At the time of those incidents, Kenyan security forces were killing people at a rate of 100 per month, according to a separate Human Rights report.
Alston concluded that there were two ways forward for Kenya’s government to address this state-sanctioned killing spree. He said that, one, Kenya “can choose to acknowledge the scale of the problem and implement a reform program to end extrajudicial executions, and send the message that impunity will not be tolerated.”
Or, he concluded, “[t]he government of Kenya can choose to deny the existence of problems or insist that they are under control, while the killings and impunity continue; such a path will lead inexorably to chaos and large-scale violence within a relatively short time.”
And many observers believe the path toward chaos and violence is exactly where the country is headed.
Kenyan Muslims face routine harassment by police and other law enforcement officers, according to a wide array of human rights activists and advocates for more oversight of the police.
“We are against the profiling that occurs,” Somalia’s outgoing Ambassador to Kenya, Mohamed Ali Nur, said in an interview in April at the conclusion of his decade-long tenure. “Ninety-nine percent of Somalis are peace-loving people.”
When asked how Somali refugees and Kenyans of Somali heritage react to this profiling, Nur added, “They do get frustrated.”
“I can understand the frustration … every night and every day being stopped,” said Nur.
In April 2014, police escalated their profiling by rounding up hundreds or possibly thousands of Somali-looking people in Nairobi and locking them in a stadium for days, allegedly without food and water and without allowing any press, attorneys or human rights groups in.
Some security experts and human rights advocates say Kenya’s rogue policing, which seems at times to prioritize extrajudicial killings over the time-consuming discipline of surveillance and investigative work, is making Kenya less safe. Some say that it may even be breeding terrorists — a small minority of Muslims who, recruited by radicals among them, may decide that the only way to respond to a violent state is with violence of their own.
"The Kenyan police are playing straight into the hands of Al Shabaab. By inflicting collective punishment, they are again reviving the Muslim sentiment against them," security researcher Stig Hansen told Foreign Policy last year. “I really don’t hope that they think what they do is right. History has shown that collective punishment is a very bad idea because you drive the population into the arms of the enemy,” Hansen said.
“When you oppress someone too much, especially someone who has lost hope in life, he will retaliate in any manner,” said Sheikh Hassan Kinyua Omari, professor at Nairobi University, who regularly meets with Muslim leaders including radicalized youth. He said economically vulnerable people are prone to be persuaded by terrorist recruiters who offer good pay.
“They say, ‘I’ll give you $300 dollars monthly. And even if you die you’ll go to paradise,” Omari said.
Stir in preexisting anger against Kenya’s government and police, Omari said, and “you have nothing to lose.”
Meanwhile, “the government has not shown any willingness to deal with the issues of insecurity in this country,” said Mgandi Kalinga, who lives in the neighborhood and investigated the incident on behalf of Haki Africa, a group that investigates police abuses against Muslims.
“Instead of arresting high-profile targets they do extrajudicial killings,” said Farah Maalim, former deputy speaker of the National Assembly for the opposition party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).
“Terrorism is proliferating because if its own actions and begin allowed to mature because of their inaction," Maalim said. "The Kenyan government seems to be advancing the cause of Al Shabaab.”
In one incident that drew much criticism, last November police raided mosques in Mombasa they accused of harboring terrorist sympathizers and hiding weapons. Hundreds of worshipers were arrested, several were injured and at least one was killed, according to media reports.
Suleiman Hamisi Ali said his son, a Muslim cleric named Mtihani, was among those hurt in one of the raids.
“He came home with injuries," Ali said. "The head was bleeding. It’s like he had been kicked in the head.”
In response to the raids Muslim leaders held a meeting at a local hotel last Nov. 24. Among them were Mtihani and Kalinga.
“Those people called a meeting and told the world: ‘We have always been victimized, we, the Muslim community of this country. We have been accused of being terrorists,’” Kalinga said.
“Because of the profiling that is happening against Muslims in this country, we are going to shed blood,’” he recalled the leaders saying.
“In that speech, (Mtihani) said that if the government of Kenya has the audacity to invade a holy house which is a mosque and rough up innocent people, then it is false to say to us that we are safe,” Kalinga said.
The meeting was reported in local media and, several days later, some of Mtihani’s religious-minded friends “were called to the district commissioner’s office and were told that ‘you people are walking with a radicalized cleric and you’re under the watch of government,” said Mtihani’s father, Ali.
“The police were very categorical that they would kill him the way they killed Makaburi,” said Ali, referring to the radical cleric Sheikh Abubakar Shariff, also known as Makaburi, who was assassinated last April.
Months before his death, Makaburi had told a journalist that he feared police were plotting to assassinate him. In response to protests by Muslim youth that followed the cleric’s killing, Kenyan police stormed a mosque during prayer, dragged out worshipers and beat them with batons. Some victims where as young as 12.
In December 2014, Mtihani’s parents say he received a letter from the district commissioner’s office demanding he “surrender” himself to the authorities.
“He told me, ‘Mom, these people are still chasing me,” recalled his mother, Maku Mohammed Moyo. “On December 17 he left in the morning. He has not returned to date.”
On Jan. 4, a friend who had been served with a similar letter was shot dead just a short walk from here. Moyo said she fears the same may have happened to her son.
“As a mother I am even afraid to go ask for him from the authorities,” she said.
No solution in sight
Notably missing from Kenya’s response to terrorist attacks is actual policing. Kenyan security forces have so far failed to investigate recent assassinations of prominent Muslim leaders. Many in the Somali-heavy coastal town suspect the police themselves are responsible.
The rights group Haki Africa has documented at least 21 killings of Muslim leaders and radical Muslims, and in many instances the group’s prime suspects are police themselves.
In December, Kenya’s president signed into a law a controversial security bill that expanded police power here.
“Kenyan lawmakers shouldn’t be expanding police powers when there are such serious concerns about police abuses,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Not only abuses of police powers, but police competency are at issue.
Security forces botched their responses to the two largest Al Shabaab terrorist attacks here in recent years: CCTV footage shows soldiers looting the Westgate shopping mall while Kenyan officials claimed terrorists were still at large. Legislators responded to that attack with a whitewashed report that was called “useless and hollow” and a gag law designed to stifle future press coverage of security issues.
In April, military forces reportedly delayed for 7 to 12 hours before responding to a shooting in the town of Garissa that killed 148 people. In the aftermath of that attack Kenyan authorities announced plans to close the Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya — one of the largest refugee camps in the world and home to over 350,000 people. If that comes to pass, the majority would be forced back into war-torn Somalia.
Kenya also shut down 13 Nairobi-based remittance agents that it claimed — without offering any evidence — were suspected of bankrolling terrorists back in Somalia. Relief workers say the move will do little more than hurt innocent Somalis back home who depend on the $1.3 billion sent by family members and friends abroad each year to survive. By cutting off their lifelines, their ensuing desperation may even cause some of them to attempt to cross the border into Kenya.
In April, Kenya’s government published a “list of terrorist organizations” that included 86 groups.
Among those groups were Mombasa-based legal justice groups MUHURI, as well as Haki Africa. Human rights groups decried the list, raising questions about whether the government's inclusion of well-regarded rights organizations was, as Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Director for Africa Leslie Lefkow said, "backlash for their critical work."
This is the first in a series of articles on police corruption and brutality in Kenya by The GroundTruth Project with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Next week, GroundTruth reporting fellows Jacob Kushner and Anthony Langat investigate an unsolved case of murder that points toward police involvement, and a family’s quest for justice.
This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.