Analysis. Fighting against Islamic terrorism or extra-judicial killings? The US and UK intelligence services were involved in the creation of paramilitaries trained to hunt down Al Shabaab militants.

The CIA’s secret team to ‘neutralize’ suspects in Kenya

The problem of extrajudicial killings is an old one, a historical reality in Kenya since its independence. I can recall a house on Naivasha road in Nairobi where opponents of Arap Moi’s regime were brought, a building apparently without doors and without windows, an isolated place from where screams could be heard at night. This was seen as one of the many acts of violence of the regime, like the murder of suspected individuals in the slums.

Today, other deaths are emerging in relation to the fight against terrorism. The latest news is the investigation carried out by the specialized website declassified-UK about the presence in Kenya of a paramilitary team authorized to “neutralize” targets. This was what happened to Mohamed ‘Modi’ Mwatsumiro, a 45-year-old professional taxi driver, allegedly a member of Al-Shaabab, who was killed on August 30, 2019: he was suspected of being linked to one of the suicide bombers in the attack on the DusitD2 hotel complex in Nairobi in January 2019, in which 21 people lost their lives.

At 4 a.m., a commando of Kenyan paramilitary Rapid Response Team (RRT) entered his home in the town of Ngombeni on the coast, armed with M4 assault rifles and U.S.-made Glock pistols, and carried out their mission. Modi threw a grenade at the RRT personnel, which didn’t explode. This was one of the many operations carried out by the RRT in its 16 years of activity.

At the end of the 1990s, concern about the fight against terrorism had pushed the U.S. government to look into anti-terrorism operations, and the idea was to establish a multi-agency center for counter-terrorism, but the great rivalry (and suspicion) between the different Kenyan military and police forces had brought only frustration. Thus came the idea of a paramilitary detached force, the RRT, which according to documents unveiled by declassified-UK, was established, equipped and trained by the CIA.

The team was set up as part of a secret CIA program which began in 2004, and has been managed by a liaison officer at the Nairobi branch of the U.S. Embassy. Based on a series of interviews with CIA agents and Kenyan military and paramilitary personnel, it emerged that the team was responsible for the capture of high-risk terrorist suspects, as well as murders and alleged summary executions.

The creation of the RRT was an “indigenous solution to an indigenous problem,” explained a former senior CIA official. The actions of the RRT are guided by intelligence information provided by the CIA and the National Intelligence Service (NIS) of Kenya. However, several diplomatic, intelligence and police sources have stated that the British Intelligence Service (MI6) also plays a key role in identifying, monitoring and establishing the location of targets, as well as in the decisions that determine their fate: killing or capture.

Former deputy chief of operations of the CIA Counterterrorism Henry Crumpton explained the nature of the war on terrorism in Kenya: “It’s a different type of conflict, a different type of war. And it is intelligence-driven.”

Modi’s autopsy report refers to seven gunshot wounds. According to Khelef Khalifa, president of the Kenyan human rights organization Muhuri, “when these extrajudicial killings happen, Muslims feel they are under siege because they cannot comprehend why the government cannot arrest these people and take them to court, instead of killing them.” However, the RRT is not supposed to be a kill team. Killing is supposed to be an option only in case of an armed and dangerous person.

On October 28, 2012, Omar Faraj was killed in a raid. This was most likely an error, as the targeted person seems to have been the suspected terrorist Fuad Abubakar Manswab. This signaled a change in the priorities of the RRT. Initially, the team had been trained to capture suspected terrorists, arrest them, interrogate them and if necessary hand them over to other countries; however, in the middle of President Obama’s first term, the difficulty in capturing the suspects made the kill option become the prevalent one. According to a Kenyan officer, this is because after 2011, since Kenyan forces entered Somalia and Kenya became an Al-Shaabab target, it has been more and more the case that the wanted persons are armed and dangerous.

“When we were trained on threats, we were taught human rights come later,” said a former member of the RRT. A study by the Independent Medico-Legal Unit, a nonprofit organization that monitors the conduct of law enforcement agencies, recorded 1,873 gun-related deaths in six urban areas of Kenya between 2009 and 2014; almost two-thirds of these were attributable to the police. The most recent figures show a decline in extrajudicial executions over the past five years, but they remain at over 100 per year.

As former CIA officer Henry Crumpton explained, “when you look at the counterterrorism program in Kenya, it’s been successful… but I haven’t seen anything about winning the peace, and that is where the policy issue is essential. […] You can have great covert action, great law enforcement, great military cooperation, but if you don’t have a policy where you think about the long-term, then you’re just going to be engaged in the same operations, in the same districts, in the same border areas, in the same valleys, again and again.” Sometimes even the CIA can figure some things out.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!