Dispatch

Rumblings Along the Coast

Are Kenyan counterterrorism death squads behind the latest spate of targeted killings in Mombasa?

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.

Three hours after Rogo was buried, police were already out on the streets and tensions were building. Soon, angry protests turned to violent riots.

During the chaos, rioters killed a man near a mosque in Mombasa; on Tuesday, Aug. 28, and the following day, hand grenades were thrown at police, killing at least five and injuring several others. Rioters set fire to at least three churches and there was heavy looting in Mombasa. Protestors threw stones at riot police and security forces fired back with tear gas. According to media reports and civil society groups, some of the protestors were Rogo supporters; some were poor, unemployed youths angry at their government; others simply took advantage of the chaos to loot stores for personal gain.

"Rogo's death was the immediate event that sparked the riots," said Kimathi, who strongly condemned the violence. "But there were also demonstrations -- though not bloody -- when Samir Khan's body was found." Kenya's Anti-Terrorism Police Unit had arrested Khan in 2010 on weapons charges and again in 2011 for allegedly being a member of al Shabaab. Then, in April 2012, Khan was hauled out of a public transportation vehicle in Mombasa by unidentified men and disappeared. Two days later, his mutilated body was found off the side of a highway 150 kilometers from Mombasa. "So there has been a build-up leading to the riots," Kimathi continued. "The disappearances and killings, taken together led to the riots."

The riots also occurred in the context of long-standing disillusionment of people in the coastal region who believe that the Kenyan government has not taken their interests and needs into account. At its most extreme, this marginalization has taken the form of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a group that wants to secede from Kenya and has threated unrest. There's also a religious component to the tension. With three churches attacked in the recent riots, and several similar cases in the past, the riots also have the potential to unleash darker forces. But Muslim and Christian religious and community leaders pleaded for restraint. Fortunately, the weekend immediately following Rogo's death passed without further escalation.

The other good news, if you can call it that, is that the public prosecutor's office announced that there would be an investigation into Rogo's death. The investigation team, according to my conversion with Hussein Khalid, the head of the Mombasa-based Muslims for Human Rights, includes members of the Kenyan Law Society and the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, both of which should, in theory, help ensure that the investigation is impartial and independent. But only time will tell whether the investigation will really get to the bottom of things, or if it will be a hollow promise used as a short-term diversion tactic to help calm boiling tensions. There is a lot at stake, and if the investigation comes up empty handed and the abductions and killings continue, last week's riots will likely not be the last.

The events in Mombasa are also a clear warning to the international community, in particular the United States, which correctly said that Rogo's murder needs to be investigated. Washington has funded in large part the development of Kenya's anti-terrorism capabilities through partnered operations, intelligence sharing, counterterrorism training, military equipment, and surveillance technology. This "light footprint" approach, which dodges the politically unsavory decision of bringing in Western ground forces to the region, nonetheless means that the United States must double its efforts to ensure its security assistance is not contributing to, or legitimizing, human rights abuses. Given what we have seen in Mombasa, and the good chance that terrorist attacks will continue, it would be a wasted effort if the growth of Kenya's security forces resulted in an increase in human rights abuses, fewer protections from the rule of law, and distrust of the Kenyan government.

STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Russia’s Bridge to Nowhere

A facelift ahead of this year's Asia-Pacific summit can't mask the fact that Vladivostok, Russia's easternmost city, is slowly dying.

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Tears ran down Nadezhda Voronstova's face as she recounted her story with a sense of bitterness and hopelessness. The trouble started last month when two men who introduced themselves as representatives of the Ministry of Regional Development broke the news that Moscow had decided to demolish her house along with her entire village on Russky Island, just off the coast of the Russian city of Vladivostok, the site of this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

The 52-year-old Vorontsova intended to spend the rest of her peaceful life with her daughter and grandson in their house on mostly uninhabited island in the Sea of Japan, 4,000 miles east of Moscow. She and her fellow homeowners wrote a letter to Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev asking for protection -- to no avail. Looking in the direction of a luxurious new convention center, just a couple kilometers away from her, where Vladimir Putin and the 21 other APEC leaders will meet, Vorontsova repeated between her sobs: "I will burn myself together with this house and maybe then Putin will realize what they do to our little human lives!"

She's particularly vexed by the fact that her village is slated to be razed to the ground after the summit takes place. Reportedly, the plan is to build a tourist resort and several private villas on the site.

Alexaner Ozhegov, a spokesman with the ministry of regional development in Vladivostok, dismissed their pleas. "Oh, what they say is nothing but a soap opera. We have a written decision regarding that village signed by a minister," he said in an interview.

Vladivostok is located near Russia's borders with China and North Korea and with easy sea access to Japan. After the city's founding in 1860, it took Russians about a decade to expel Chinese and Manchus from the territory they populated for decades. Vladivosotok, known for its beautiful sea views, is home to the Russian Pacific Fleet and is the country's main Pacific port. In Soviet times, the city was closed to foreign visitors due to its strategic importance. Today, hundreds of foreign tourists arrive every week on giant cruise ships from Australia and North America. Given the difficulties of governing a city so far from Moscow, there's been serious consideration in recent years about whether it would be better for Vladivostok, and the entire Primorye region, to be handed to China on some sort of a long-term lease.

All of which is to say that to understand what happened to Vorontsova's village, it's necessary to understand the larger state of affairs in eastern Russia. Since 1992, the population of Russia's easternmost region, Primorye, has shrunk by 352,000 people to less than two million. Many of the departed are disillusioned youth who flee to Moscow, St. Petersburg or abroad after graduating high school. A recent poll showed 40 percent of the region's people are looking to pack their luggage and leave. In order to stop the brain drain, Russian authorities decided to build a better-looking façade on the Asian end of the country. In the past five years, Moscow has spent over $20 billion worth of new roads, bridges and buildings in the province in the lead-up to the summit.

The campus for the APEC summit is the crown jewel of this effort to beautify the struggling region. Despite complications during construction including a bridge fire and a road collapse during a severe rainstorm, the new, spectacular campus was completed on time to host the summit for a week on the island. Putin intends to use the summit to position Russia as a Pacific power and is looking to deals to provide natural gas to China and Russia. The government is promising upgrades to airports, seaports, and transportation links throughout Russia's vast east. But the changes so far have been mostly cosmetic, and as usual, for projects of this size, some powerful interests have managed to enrich themselves in the process.

"The scenario had been already well rehearsed at the Olympic construction in Sochi: Moscow decided who would get kick-backs from federal finance; to get rid of villages on the island, Moscow offered money; several sub-contract companies in Vladivostok went bankrupt during APEC construction, as Moscow did not pay the promised fees," said Mikhail Tersky, an academic and director of a local policy think tank. The APEC 2012 construction budget turned out to be five times larger than originally announced by the Kremlin five years ago. "At least half of Moscow's money was stolen," Tersky concluded.

It's not as if there's a shortage of problems to throw money at in Vladivostok. The city's population of 592,000 suffers crippling traffic jams, there's no public transportation after 9 p.m, there's a shortage of affordable housing -- even the local kindergartens require bribes before your child can enroll.

In light of these problems, many find it baffling that Moscow elected to pour money into building the world's longest cable suspension bridge to connect the city to an island with fewer than 5,000 people. The grandiose bridge will be mainly used by a few thousand students at Far Eastern Federal University, who will move to the campus when APEC is over. "It would be difficult to think of a more absurd and expensive project; of taking such giant investments away from already isolated Primorye region on to even more isolated island," said former Kremlin's administration advisor for Far East project, Yuri Krupnov, who was a critic of the project.

The Kremlin may have dreams of turning Vladivostok into Russia's San Francisco -- complete with an iconic bridge -- but it's still not clear what economic role the region can play. Before 2008, Far East businessmen benefitted from importing nearly 500,000 second-hand Japanese cars a year and sold them in throughout Russia. In fact, the flow of cheap and good quality cars threatened to devaluate the entire domestic automobile industry. To put an end to the practice, Moscow authorities increased the import tax for the Far East from 5 percent to nearly 30 percent, leaving thousands out of work. Thousands of angry car dealers flooded the streets and protesters blocked Primorye's highways and railways. It did not take Russian parliament long to accuse Vladivostok of plotting an "Orange Revolution."

Moscow responded to the disturbance by sending in police special forces, who "violently beat and detained dozens, to make a clear point that nobody in Moscow cares about what people in Far East think of Moscow's state policy," opposition leader Alexander Samsonov recalled. Both he and his cousin were beaten and detained several times for organizing street protests in Vladivostok. The regional economy has never recovered from the shock of 2008.

This weekend, sitting down with his guests and enjoying spectacular view over picturesque Ajaks Bay, Putin may not be aware that just a mile away, inside the walls of buildings freshly painted in happy colors for the summit, the ceilings of private apartments are caving in. Even the program director of the APEC summit admitted in an interview with me that the Russky Island facility is "a pure Potemkin Village," referring to the fake facades built to impress Empress Catherine II on her way to Crimea in 1787.

The glitz of the summit cannot mask the slow death of this city, but for now, Vladivostok residents are doing their best to enjoy their moment in the spotlight. With world leaders visiting this week, the main streets were cleaned up and groomed, music, circus and laser shows were held on the city's embankment.

"With all massive corruption scams around it, without APEC, Vladivostok might have lost five times more people this year," Tersky said, looking at the bright side.

MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/GettyImages