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 attack by suspected Islamist militants on two churches in eastern Kenya on Sunday, in which the assailants killed 17 people and wounded 60 more, is more bloody confirmation of the emergence of African terrorist groups. A group of seven masked men threw grenades into the Catholic Church and African Inland Church in Garissa, close to the Somali border, then opened fire with assault rifles. Though no group has claimed responsibility, it is the latest incident after a series of attacks carried out by Islamist militants across Kenya that have killed close to 60 people. The episodes began after Kenya invaded Somalia last September in pursuit of the Somali guerrilla group al-Shabab.

For years Western terrorist hunters have war-gamed a scenario whereby al-Qaeda, pressed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, tries to establish a new staging ground in the Sahara and the Sahel, the band of lawless desert and scrub running east to west across Africa. According to the theory, al-Qaeda would likely try to extend its franchise to three indigenous African groups: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria, Mali and Niger; Boko Haram in northern Nigeria; and al-Shabab in Somalia.

Theory is now becoming reality. After gestating for years, all three groups now present a real threat. Formerly a mostly criminal enterprise kidnapping foreigners for million-dollar ransoms, in the past year AQIM strengthened its arsenal with weapons smuggled out of the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, then piggybacked on a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali so effectively that it and its fellow Islamists now control a de facto new state. (In a move similar to the Afghan Taliban’s demolition of Buddhist statues, some of the militants have now set about destroying “idolatrous” Sufi shrines in the ancient city of Timbuktu.) In Nigeria, most of Boko Haram’s attacks have a local focus — the security forces, state institutions, churches — but a faction has emerged with bigger ambitions, as it demonstrated with a suicide car-bomb attack on Aug. 26 last year on the U.N.’s headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, which killed 24 people and injured 115.

(PHOTOS: Government Forces Lay Claim to Mogadishu)

AQIM and Boko Haram represent a regional threat: according to U.S. and Nigerian intelligence, AQIM has trained Boko Haram operatives since the middle of the past decade. In spite of that, it is al-Shabab that garners the most attention from Western counterterrorism efforts, not least because Islamic terrorism has a long history in East Africa. It was the Aug. 7, 1998, U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in which 224 people died and which was carried out by another al-Qaeda affiliate based in Somalia, that gave first notice to the world that a previously little-known Saudi fundamentalist called Osama bin Laden, who lived in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, for five years in the 1990s, was making good on his 1996 and ’98 declarations of a global jihad against the U.S. Al-Shabab was originally the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an alliance of clerics and judges that tolerated the presence of the embassy bombers in its ranks and briefly ruled Mogadishu for six months in 2006. When an ICU leader declared a jihad on neighboring Ethiopia in October 2006, Ethiopia invaded, toppled the ICU and the group faded. But al-Shabab, by presenting itself as a force for nationalist resistance, gained strength and by 2008 was operating across much of Mogadishu and all of southern Somalia. Encouraged by the al-Qaeda operatives in its midst, it declared an alliance with bin Laden’s group. It also drew 200 to 250 foreigners to Somalia to join it, mainly ethnic Somali from the U.S., Britain, Europe and Australia but also itinerant jihadists from across the Middle East and South Asia. Finally, according to Nigerian intelligence, it also made tentative contact with Boko Haram.

All of which would put al-Shabab at the top of any Western intelligence service’s Africa watch list. But al-Shabab also has a proven will and ability to operate internationally. In 2008, it killed 30 people in a series of bombings in Somaliland. When the Ethiopians were replaced by Ugandans and Burundians sent in as an African Union peacekeeping force from 2007 to ’09, al-Shabab switched targets. On July 11, 2010, as the world watched Spain beat the Netherlands in the soccer World Cup final, two al-Shabab suicide bombers wearing vests stuffed with plastic explosives and ball bearings blew themselves up while surrounded by crowds watching the game in front of two separate outdoor screens in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. A total of 76 people died, mostly Ugandans, but also Ethiopians, Eritreans and a 25-year-old American, Nate Henn, of Wilmington, Del., from the San Diego activist group Invisible Children. After the Kenyan invasion last September, Kenya too became a target. The Islamists have staged grenade and bomb attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa, Garissa and elsewhere.

Inside Somalia, where al-Shabab operates as a conventional guerrilla army, the Islamists are losing territory to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which takes Ugandan and Burundian forces, and also soldiers from Djibouti, Sierra Leone and, since it agreed to a common command last month, Kenya. But al-Shabab’s steady loss of territory inside Somalia contrasts with its operations outside it where, as a terrorist group, it grows ever more bold and bloody. A TIME investigation into the Western counterterrorism response in East Africa offers some explanation as to why.

MORE: Threat Level Rising: How African Terrorist Groups Inspired by al-Qaeda Are Gaining Strength

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

The efforts of Margulies and others made Guantánamo a legal nightmare for the U.S. The Kampala investigation represents the counterterrorism community’s response: if Africa counterterrorism operations are run by Africans and kept inside Africa, with Americans officially present only as advisers and observers, Margulies and others will find it much harder to sue the U.S. “If these people are not in U.S. custody, then, simply, there is no jurisdiction,” says Margulies. Western intelligence work in East Africa is “an experiment, an evolution — Counterterrorism 2.0,” he says. “It’s very deliberate and reflects a learning curve from the perceived mistakes of Counterterrorism 1.0.”

But rendition is still illegal. Which begs a crucial question: To what extent is the U.S. running the East Africa operations? U.S. Ambassador Lanier says of the U.S. role in the Kampala investigations: “The FBI came in here for a few weeks. We were very involved in that investigation. We participated in the accumulation of evidence. What they chose to do with that information … We are not part of the arrest and prosecution of anybody.”

But while there is no suggestion that U.S. agents physically organized the rendition operations, statements from several of the Kampala accused unanimously indicate that the U.S. (and some British intelligence officers) did run the subsequent interrogations. According to those questioned, Western and Ugandan officers also frequently told their prisoners that the foreigners were in charge. Walubiri is adamant that the U.S. took the lead. “On the face of it, it looks like a very noble, lawful and helpful intervention — training our police, security-services and intelligence agencies,” he says. “What they are actually doing is assisting the Ugandan and Kenyan governments to break laws on extradition and pretrial detention, and against the torture and mistreatment of prisoners; to deny the accused access to next of kin, lawyers or doctors; to frustrate attempts to get bail; and in setting up a kangaroo court. They are trying to run a Guantánamo in Uganda, with the cover that the Ugandan government is doing it. To whom are they accountable?” Margulies shares Walubiri’s concerns. “The traction we got with Counterterrorism 1.0 was precisely because it was visible. If it’s completely hidden, then who knows what’s happening? Democracy dies in the dark,” he says.

(PHOTOS: Twin Bombings Rock Uganda’s Capital in 2010)

This picture of a secret and illegal Western-dominated intelligence operation also conforms to established patterns of Western counterterrorism in East Africa. Previous investigations by al-Kimathi, Gutteridge, the British rights group Reprieve, and TIME and other media, have revealed the existence since at least 2006 of a cooperative network of security and intelligence services linking Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia, overseen by U.S. and British personnel. Its modus operandi is rendition, secret prisons and torture. These were the same methods used in the aftermath of the 1998 bombings when two suspects, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh and Mohammed Rashed al-‘Owhali, were renditioned from Kenya to the U.S. After that, anecdotal evidence suggests rendition became routine for U.S. intelligence in East Africa. In 2003 a Tanzanian, Suleiman Abdallah Salim, was taken from Somalia to Bagram, Afghanistan, and held there for five years; a Kenyan, Abdulmalik Mohammed, was taken from Mombasa to Guantánamo in 2007; another Kenyan, Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, was taken from Nairobi to a secret prison in Mogadishu in 2009. After the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, TIME reported how U.S. Special Operations forces and the CIA sifted the ranks of captured Islamists corralled in southern Somalia for possible al-Qaeda members. Of these, Reprieve and others documented that 85 to 120 suspects (at least 11 of them children) were detained on the Kenya-Somalia border, moved to a secret prison in Mogadishu and finally to another prison in Ethiopia, all the while interrogated by British and American intelligence. In seven years in East Africa before she herself was deported from Kenya in 2011, Gutteridge says she documented well over 100 cases of rendition.

For the U.S. and its allies, AMISOM represents progress in the war on terrorism. Rather than mass deployment of troops, the U.S. and the E.U. are funding countries to tackle their own regional issues. For Africans, that is proof of an increasingly self-reliant continent. For the West, that means less loss of life, less expense and less risk of blowback from the Muslim world.

But the evidence gathered by TIME appears to show that, for the intelligence services, cooperating with African security services is intended not to empower African counterterrorism but merely to avoid scrutiny. The black-site prisons continue. So, as Abdow’s story illustrates, do the abuses. And, as recent history shows, a community that perceives itself under close watch, even oppressed, by African and Western security services is liable to grow more radical.

Ominously, that seems to be occurring. East Africa, previously a place of mostly harmonious religious diversity, is starting to see a new hard division between Christians and Muslims. Muslims, the minority, are denigrated and abused by the police, media and in general conversation. Some are reacting badly. A U.N. report last July found al-Shabab had already built an extensive funding, recruiting and training network in Kenya. On Jan. 15 this year, the Kenya-based Muslim Youth Center declared its head, Amiir Ahmad Iman Ali, al-Shabab’s leader in Kenya. “Jihad should now be waged inside Kenya,” Ali added. As Sunday’s attacks suggest, it now is.

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