The international community's attention to Kenya has been sharply focused on the upcoming March 2013 elections and preventing the type of horrific ethnic violence that surrounded the 2007 election. But other things, big things, are afoot.
Ever since it sent its military into Somalia to fight al Shabaab in 2011, Kenya has been battling a serious rash of grenade attacks, kidnappings, and improvised explosive devices in Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kenya's northeastern region. The U.S. embassy in Nairobi has recorded 17 attacks that killed 48 people and injured roughly 200 from January to July 2012. The targets included police stations and police vehicles, nightclubs and bars, churches, a religious gathering, a downtown building of small shops, and a bus station.
Terrorist attacks are not new to Kenya. In 1998, Kenyans suffered the brunt of an attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, which killed 212 people. In 2002, another bomb killed 14 people at the Paradise Hotel near Mombasa. That same day, missiles, which missed their target, were fired at an Israeli plane departing Mombasa's Moi International Airport.
In response, the United States has poured in security assistance to expand the capabilities and reach of Kenyan counterterrorism forces at home and in the region. Kenya has been one of the largest recipients of U.S. State Department Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) in the world (including $10 million going to the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit in 2003), and has received Special Operations trainings worth several million dollars and FBI assistance to terrorism investigations.
The support the United States provides is in keeping with its insistence that it wants to maintain a "light footprint" in the region instead of sending in ground forces. But in doing so, the United States must ensure its security assistance is being used effectively, which means Washington must take considerable efforts to ensure that the assistance is not contributing to, or legitimizing, human rights abuses by Kenya. Too often, security forces forget that quick heavy handed responses, such as detainee abuse, denial of fair trial guarantees, extrajudicial killings, or unlawful extraditions, create instability by undermining the rule of law and can enflame the situation rather than reduce terrorist violence. And when these abuses are supported by foreign security assistance, donors may rightly be criticized for aiding and abetting human rights violations.
This brings us to the events of August 27, when a Muslim cleric, Aboud Rogo Mohammad, was gunned down by unknown men in Kenya's port city and tourism hub of Mombasa.
Rogo was a controversial figure, to say the least. The United States and United Nations had placed him on terrorist sanction list (he's accused of assisting in recruiting for al Shabaab), and at the time of his death he was facing other criminal charges for terrorism-related activities; he had previously been charged for involvement in a 2002 hotel bombing in Kenya, but was acquitted.
While the assailants remain unknown, many in the Muslim community suspect that the Kenyan government murdered him. The murder occurred in broad daylight when two gunmen in a vehicle overtook Rogo -- who was also in a vehicle with six passengers, including his wife, their 5-year-old daughter, and his father -- and riddled it with bullets. Al-Amin Kimathi, a human rights activist and chair of the Muslim Human Rights Forum in Kenya, reflected on several cases of disappearances of men since April 2012 -- men, like Rogo, who were alleged to have been involved in terrorist-related activities. Witnesses to some of the disappearances have told local human rights groups that the abductors identified themselves as police. Kimathi told me: "When you look at circumstantial evidence, the pattern of events, the modus operandi, and the audacity with which the killing took place, it all points to the hand of the state."
Kenya's willingness to take out unsavory characters is nothing new, making the government's security apparatus an easy target of suspicion. In 2008, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission documented hundreds of cases of extrajudicial killings and disappearances by security forces of alleged members of the criminal gangs that terrorized Kenyans, known as Mungiki. There are also reports from 2007 of at least 90 Somalis in Kenya being illegally rendered to Somalia and then to Ethiopia. And Kenya's Anti-Terrorism Police Unit illegally detained and transferred several of its nationals to Uganda in the wake of the 2010 bombings in Kampala that left 76 dead and over 70 injured.
Kenyan officials have vehemently denied involvement in the most recent killings and disappearances. But whether Kenyan counterterrorism death squads are killing and disappearing people or not, there is an undeniable and palpable fear, anger, and angst in Mombasa due to the Kenyan government's failure to put an end to these crimes, and to punish those responsible. And after Rogo's murder, it finally boiled over.