Countering al-Shabab: How the War on Terrorism Is Being Fought in East Africa

Two bombings of churches in Kenya pointed to the resurgence al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups in East Africa. But a TIME investigation into how the region's countries (and the U.S.) are handling groups like Somalia's al-Shabab leads to accusations of illegal, murky tactics

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Thomas Mukoya / Reuters

A woman wounded during church attacks in the Kenyan city of Garissa is helped by Red Cross paramedics at Nairobi's Wilson Airport on July 1, 2012

The Kampala bombings were a watershed, says East Africa human-rights and security investigator Clara Gutteridge. Suddenly, “East Africa was a new front in the global war on terror,” she says. FBI agents arrived in Kampala hours after the attacks, according U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Jerry P. Lanier, and immediately they caught a break. Somehow — maybe the bomber lost his nerve, maybe his device malfunctioned — a third bomb planted in a nightclub did not detonate. A cleaner found the device in a laptop bag the following morning leaning against a wall near the bar. Also in the bag was a cell phone.

The FBI agents hacked the phone’s SIM card, used its call history to plot a network of numbers, repeated the process with those numbers and within hours had constructed a phone tree connecting more than 100 people in Uganda and Kenya to the bomb. Then they handed their work to their counterparts from Uganda and Kenya.

Eleven days after the attacks, at 3:30 a.m. on July 22, Mohamed Abdow, a 24-year-old street hawker and an ethnic Somali Kenyan, and his brother were sleeping in their shack in the market town of Tawa, east of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, when there was a knock at the door. In an interview with TIME, Abdow says he opened the door to find 20 men, some in police uniform, some in civilian clothes. They pushed past him. “They ask for our phones,” says Abdow. “My phone is under my mattress, so I ask my brother to call it. I say, ‘0 … 7 … 2 … 4 …,’ and as soon as I mention those digits, one man says, ‘That’s the number we’re looking for,’ and they tell us to lie down on the floor, tie our hands behind us and say: ‘If you get up, we will shoot.’ Then they ransack the house as two officers hold guns to our heads.”

(MORE: Nigeria’s Boko Haram: Al-Qaeda’s New Friend in Africa?)

After several hours, the pair were taken to Nairobi and separated. Three days of interrogation followed. On the fourth, Abdow was bundled into a car with two other men and driven west. Several hours passed, then the trio reached an immigration post and Abdow guessed that they were entering Uganda. That was confirmed when they were transferred to a Ugandan security-service convoy and taken to Kampala, then nearby Entebbe. More interrogation followed. On the third day in Uganda, three white men (“mzungus,” says Abdow in Swahili) — who said they were from the FBI — joined his interrogation. On July 30, his ninth day of detention, Abdow was taken to court in Kampala and charged with 76 counts of murder, 20 counts of attempted murder and terrorism. “It is the first time I’ve heard that I am being accused of the Kampala bombings,” he says.

Taken from court to Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Kampala, Abdow was interrogated intermittently over the next few months by the Ugandans and the mzungus. What linked him to the bombings, it became clear, was his phone. Abdow explained that he bought it secondhand from a market in Nairobi on July 8, 2010, three days before the bombings. He’d barely used it, and the part that it played in the phone tree had to be due to the previous owner. His interrogators didn’t listen. One day Abdow found himself being questioned jointly with Khalif Abdi Mohammed, the shopkeeper who sold him the phone and who had also been renditioned to Uganda after a brief spell at a secret prison in Mogadishu. “If you do not tell the truth, you will never see your family again,” said one of the mzungus. After six months, the charges against Abdow were reduced. On Sept. 12, 2011, 14 months after his arrest, he was freed without charge. Mohammed, the shopkeeper, was released the same day, as was Amin al-Kimathi, a Kenyan human-rights campaigner arrested a year earlier as he traveled to Kampala to arrange legal representation for the men.

Abdow’s Kampala lawyer, Peter Walubiri, said Ugandan police arrested a total of 50 people. Of those, 40 were charged, 18 were indicted by the high court and now just eight remain in custody. Walubiri is arguing that the investigation was grossly incompetent. He also claims that the Kenyans, of which there were more than 20, were illegally renditioned to Uganda without extradition orders; that any interrogations involving foreign intelligence agents, whether American (or British as some of Walubiri’s clients allege) are illegal under Uganda’s constitution; and that some of his clients were beaten.

If, a decade after 9/11, the problem of an anti-Western Islamist terrorist group is sadly familiar, the counterproductive pitfalls of the U.S. counterterrorism response are well known too. For the intelligence services in particular, there was a storm of controversy over the rendition of terrorist suspects to secret “black site” prisons in developing countries, where detainees were held incommunicado, generally without charge, sometimes for years, and often tortured. Joseph Margulies, lead counsel for Guantánamo’s prisoners, says the panic that followed 9/11 invested the U.S. government with one overwhelming aim: restoring security. Understandable, he says, but something that led to expedient, even illegal action — which, in turn, prompted angry reaction around the world, particularly from Muslims. “Guantánamo had its purpose,” says Margulies. “‘We are keeping you safe because these guys are not on the street.’ But it ended up biting them in the butt. There were abuses, guys that didn’t belong there. It became a symbol of America all over the world.”

MORE: As the U.S. and al-Qaeda Watch Mali’s Phony Peace, Tension Mounts in Timbuktu

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