I had been away from Kenya for too long. So when I returned
last August, I sought out two long-lost friends.
The first was Abdirizak Noor Iftin, an energetic and
friendly teacher. He is 26, and he does not belong in Kenya. Iftin is Somali;
we had met three years before in his ruined hometown of Mogadishu, where Iftin
tutored his young students in English. The job sometimes required darting from
house to house under mortar fire. In Somalia one is always in the middle of a
Iftin was brave and committed to his work,
but even so the violence became intolerable. Last year he escaped to Nairobi,
occupying a closet-sized room in a slum. When I arrived, the door guard at his
tenement -- a bearded giant with a zabiba,
or Muslim prayer callus, on his forehead -- attempted to block my entry. He
relented only after I submitted to a pat-down. Iftin
was apologetic and offered a tense smile. He had no power here, he said in a
whisper. He told me anxiously that he must keep off the streets to avoid
extortion by the Kenyan police, and he steered clear of the sympathizers of
al-Shabab, the ruthless Somali militia linked with al Qaeda: They spied on the
slum's large population of exiles. Iftin's dim cubicle had a curtain, but no
door. I was drawing too much attention with my presence. After a few minutes, I
pressed a bank note into my friend's hand, wished him luck, and fled his
The following day I went looking for Al-Amin
Kimathi. Kimathi is a middle-aged Kenyan human rights worker with the droopy
eyelids of Yoda. When we had met four years earlier, he was an invaluable
source for journalists working in the region. This time I dialed his phone
number, but got no answer. I tried for days, but he never picked up. Then one
morning more than a week later, I opened a newspaper and there he was -- locked
up in a jail cell in neighboring Uganda, a short article dryly announced, where
he had been arrested on charges of terrorism. He had been incarcerated 11
months, awaiting trial.
I was stunned. In 2007, Kimathi had almost
single-handedly exposed the largest extraordinary-rendition episode in Africa,
in which Kenyan authorities had secretly flown more than 100 terrorism
suspects, including their own citizens, to "black site" interrogation centers
in Ethiopia. Kimathi's investigation embarrassed the governments involved. It
shamed the United States, which collaborated closely in the covert program. He
potentially faced a death sentence. It felt like a setup.
When I finally reached Kimathi by phone weeks
later, he told me Uganda had released him from Luzira Prison without charges
and without apology. "I could use help," he told me. "I am starting over, from
zero." He did not sound well. His voice was feeble, shaky. For almost a year he
had lived in solitary confinement. It was hard to readjust to freedom, he
Then it hit me: This was a conversation I
would probably be having for the rest of my life.
Kimathi and Iftin do not know each other, but
they have one thing in common: Their lives have been upended, directly or
indirectly, by the fateful U.S.-backed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, an
operation that was intended to crush Islamic extremists, stabilize Somalia, and
install more tractable leadership -- but accomplished the exact opposite.
Although the assault did topple a burgeoning Islamist movement in Mogadishu and
some brutal al Qaeda operatives have since been killed in clandestine U.S.
helicopter and drone strikes, the intervention led to the death of at least
16,000 civilians and the internationalization of a self-contained civil war
that had begun 15 years earlier. The Ethiopians declared victory and began
withdrawing in 2007. Intense fighting, piracy, and war-enabled famines grind
on, meanwhile, in a more radicalized Somalia.
What makes this tragedy unique among the many
that have ravaged the Horn of Africa is what it says about the United States'
10-year-old global war on terror, or however else we choose to rebrand it. A
decade on, that shadowy conflict has crossed an underappreciated Rubicon of
sorts. In fragile places like Africa, it has taken root and assumed a robust,
independent life of its own. It continues to claim innocent victims. As we go
forward, most of those victims will no longer be the "collateral damage" of
combat, the bystanders killed by fanatical suicide bombers or U.S. troops in
places like Afghanistan. No: They will be the Abdirizak Noor Iftins and Al-Amin
Kimathis of the world, faceless refugees and political prisoners, anonymous
casualties of a murky sea change in the rule of law, in tolerance, and in
Even as the 9/11 attacks recede from the
day-to-day consciousness of Americans, the enormous bow wave of U.S.
anti-terrorism policy still rolls heavily across the globe, diffracting off
friend and foe alike, giving rise to secondary conflicts and unforeseen
struggles, and empowering hotheads and autocrats. Millions living far from
American-contested battlefields are swept up by it, tossed around by it,
capsized by it. All the while, this new order becomes more "normal" -- more
invisible -- to both locals and the distant policymakers in Washington who set
it in motion long ago.
I asked Kimathi over the phone: What kind of
help did he want?
"Anything," he replied. "Anything."
ALLOW ME TO TELL YOU about
my two friends. It is unlikely you will read about them anywhere else.
One night in 2008 I lay on the roof of my safe house in Mogadishu
watching the fireworks of red tracer bullets arcing across the sky. In the
morning, my security detail brought in a skinny young man in a powder-blue
tracksuit, and draped in fake bling. He was Abdirizak Noor Iftin. He wanted to
practice his English. He had learned it from BBC radio and bootleg Arnold Schwarzenegger DVDs.
He couldn't contain his glee at meeting someone from outside the warfare that
had been his weather for 17 years. "Hey, man," he said, grinning.
In Mogadishu, Iftin often sported American
hip-hop fashions: a hoodie, a backward-turned ball cap, baggy jeans. It was a
political statement, an act of rebellion -- and of terrible yearning.
Al-Shabab's illiterate gunmen yank men without Islamic beards off buses and
beat them. In the south, they flog women who wear bras. They stone people. They
cut off heads.
Iftin defied them, and he did it by learning. He took business
administration courses. (Somehow, two universities still function in
Mogadishu.) He drilled his private students in English grammar. He was also a
prodigious e-mailer, possessing the soul of a great diarist. After I wrote an
article about Iftin for a U.S. magazine in 2009, he began recording dispatches
for a public radio station in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, about his surreal
days in what is one of the world's most dangerous cities. In his slangy
reports, he documented how a self-contained civil war had metastasized into an
international jihadi bull run after the 2006 Ethiopian invasion. He described
losing his girlfriend to emigration. He reported that his mud-walled house got
stomped by a grenade; the shrapnel holes in his tin roof, he said, shone like
By the summer of 2010, Iftin's mother had had enough. She plodded
to a vast refugee camp outside Mogadishu. Iftin gave up, too -- only he went
farther. Like at least 1 million others, he joined Somalia's swelling
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
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
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.
Security agents posing as human rights
activists lured Kimathi from Uganda's Entebbe International Airport to a hotel,
shoved him into a car, and then hooded him. He says Ugandans, Kenyans, and
Americans participated in his interrogations. "It was payback time," he told
the BBC, "for my previous human
rights defense of victims of extraordinary rendition." Kimathi's wife, Farida
Saad, lost her postal service job while toiling for Kimathi's release. The
couple is now broke.
Uganda is a major U.S. military partner in the Horn of Africa. It
provides troops to an increasingly robust African Union peacekeeping force in
Mogadishu. It has also passed some of the world's most draconian anti-terrorism
laws. If you are a suspected terrorist in Uganda, prepare to grow old on a
prison floor mat: Kimathi was held for 362 days without trial -- a fraction of
the wait of some Guantánamo detainees but an eternity by any normal democratic
Nearby Ethiopia, meanwhile, has enacted anti-terrorism laws that
have resulted in the arrests of more than 100 citizens, among them opposition
journalists. Kenya's record is better, but watchdog groups say its
Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, which has received U.S. funding, ethnically
profiles Somalis and deports its own citizens without due process. "What we
have seen is a huge erosion of civil rights in the region under the guise of
fighting terrorism," Ben Rawlence, an East Africa expert with Human Rights
Watch, told me. "It has been a long-term trend."
ACCORDING TO A LARGELY OVERLOOKED investigation
published in September by the Associated Press, almost 120,000 people have been
arrested on terrorism charges worldwide since 9/11, a steep increase from the
years before, representing a "surge in prosecutions under new or toughened
anti-terror laws, often passed at the urging and with the
funding of the West." Some of the suspects did, in fact, slaughter innocents,
assault hotels, and blow up buses. But there must be numberless thousands of
Kimathis caught up unjustly in the nets of the terror war by now -- a
population collaterally damaged by obscure, knock-on crackdowns, unfamous
people uprooted to dingy apartments in Jordan or the deserts of Somalia,
travelers pulled from U.S.-bound planes because of misspellings in their names,
civil rights activists confined on dubious terrorism charges to cells in
Xinjiang or Anatolia. That a relatively small cabal of madmen hallucinating a
new Islamic caliphate caused all this seems unreal. That Americans are weary of
it all seems moot. The distraction of 13 million jobless at home helps.
So the U.S. national security bow wave ripples
on. Abdirizak Noor Iftin applied recently for a student visa to the United
States. He was rebuffed. The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi cited his lack of a home
-- or even a country -- to return to. In November, the Kenyan government tore
down his slum tenement, citing security concerns due to its proximity to an air
base, temporarily rendering Iftin homeless yet again.
Al-Amin Kimathi, meanwhile, is planning to start a new human
rights organization, this time for all Kenyans, Muslim and Christian alike. But
the last time I spoke with him, in January, he sounded dispirited. Piled with
debts, he was struggling to find funding, and his wife was still scrambling for
One afternoon four years ago, I had tea with Kimathi at the New
Stanley, a hotel in downtown Nairobi frequented by political types. One of
these pinstriped bureaucrats walked up. "Eh, eh, you must tell this boy to behave," he told me,
wagging a finger in mock sternness at Kimathi. "He is too hot. He must calm
Had I been listening more closely that day, I would have
understood even then that it wasn't really about U.S. interests anymore. The
war had slipped away from us.