Eastleigh slum in Nairobi, where I found Iftin again, is nicknamed "Little Mogadishu." Hotels sheathed in smoked glass -- built, the residents whisper, with loot from the epidemic of Somali piracy -- squat amid mounds of filth. There are wire-transfer offices and the "Heltz" driving academy. Sewage pools like tar. Women wear hijabs. Open-mouthed young men throng trucks bringing in khat, the chewable narcotic. Iftin marveled at all the unarmed people. But Eastleigh has its own dangers. "There is no freedom of speech here," he told me in his tenement cubbyhole. "The Shabab I saw in Mogadishu are here too."
Iftin wore a clean shirt for our reunion. A poster was tacked to his wall, a still life of fruit on a table. Out in the roofed courtyard of the honeycombed building, laundry hung in tiers, five stories high, as in an African prison. Refugees, crouching over charcoal braziers in the halls, stared warily up at me.
"They must go," huffed my taxi driver, an old Nairobi hand named Joseph, referring to the Somalis. "They are taking over. They push up the prices of property and control too much!" Joseph refused to park while I visited Iftin. Instead, he circled the block, fuming, with his windows rolled up.
AL-AMIN KIMATHI DIDN'T SHARE Joseph's contempt for the new arrivals. He liked Somalis. Many had been his clients. Kimathi is a tall, bookish man of 50 who dresses in a white djellaba. I had met him in early 2007, when he challenged Kenya's illegal deportations of more than 100 people, mainly Somalis, who had stampeded across the border after the Ethiopian army rolled into Mogadishu. Teams of agents from the FBI flew to Kenya to sort the tide of refugees for wanted terrorists, such as the men who planned the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. U.S. special operations soldiers rode with the Ethiopians as "observers."
Certainly there were bad guys among the deportees -- apprentice and veteran jihadists, including at least two Americans, fighting for al-Shabab. But the dragnet scooped up mostly noncombatants, including 11 women and 11 children. Most were freed after enduring detentions that lasted as long as a year, without legal representation or trials, in secret compounds in Ethiopia. It was the second-largest case of extraordinary rendition in the George W. Bush era, after the inaugural post-9/11 shipment of prisoners to the Guantánamo Bay detention center.
To me, Kimathi is one of the net positives in the aging war on terror, like the schools that Green Berets built in the Philippines or the old Cormac McCarthy novels appearing in Baghdad book stalls. Kimathi proves that even in a tough neighborhood like the Horn of Africa, civil society can stand up to the culture of fear and surveillance that permeates an open-ended war that Barack Obama's administration has so blandly renamed the National Strategy for Counterterrorism.
Kimathi was working for the Muslim Human Rights Forum in September 2010 when he was arrested in Uganda. He had traveled there to advise a group of renditioned Kenyans accused of planting bombs for al-Shabab in that country. The bombs had slaughtered 76 people gathered in pubs to watch soccer. The attack was seen as evidence of the spreading "Somalization" of the Horn of Africa.