Kenya’s outlaw police

Developments in Kenya show what happens when “counter-terrorist” police and other security forces are not subject to public accountability.

Jehanne Henry
16 September 2014

Seated on a folding chair in a health centre near the mosque where she prays, Salima, a soft-spoken hijab-clad mother of four, told me how unidentified gunmen shot her husband one morning in November 2013 as he returned from prayers with a friend. She is convinced that Kenya’s anti-terrorism police killed her husband and she is not alone. During research in Mombasa and Nairobi earlier this year, we found evidence that the anti-terrorism unit, or ATPU, had been involved not just in the death of Salima’s husband but at least nine other extra-judicial killings and ten enforced disappearances since 2011.

Shaban Makotse was eating fruit salad on a bench in Mombasa when three men gunned him down in April 2013. Weeks later, in a raid on a Nairobi apartment block, security forces including ATPU members shot dead Hassan Omondi. One evening in June 2013, a lone gunman killed Ibrahim Mwasi (Ruta) in a public toilet. The men were all Muslims in their mid-20s and known terrorism suspects, accused of involvement in deadly grenade and bomb blasts. But instead of being investigated and tried under the law they were harassed or tailed by police for months—then turned up dead. In all these cases there is compelling evidence that the ATPU was responsible, in one way or another.

They add to the already-ample evidence that Kenya’s anti-terrorism police trade on fear and brutality, rather than legal criminal-justice procedures. They also reflect wider, systemic abuses in the country’s security operations. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and others have for years documented patterns of serious violations by security forces, often in “counter-terrorism” or other large-scale operations—including killings, torture, disappearances and unlawful renditions to Somalia and Uganda.

The toll from Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007-08 included hundreds of deaths at the hands of the police who used excessive force against protesters. In Mount Elgon, hundreds of men were tortured and killed by soldiers and police during a counter-insurgency operation in 2008; over 300 were “disappeared”. None of these crimes by Kenyan police, the ATPU or other security forces has resulted in the accountability that is desperately needed. This enduring problem, coupled with widespread corruption, undermines Kenya’s ability to tackle its security threats.

Targeted for round-ups

Earlier this year the “Usalama Watch” operation targeted communities of Somali nationals, Somali Kenyans, and other non-Kenyans, including refugees, for round-ups, harassment, extortion, unlawful detention and summary deportation. Triggered by grenade and gun attacks in Mombasa and Nairobi in late March, the operation began when thousands of armed security forces descended on Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood. They raided buildings and homes; extorted money, cell phones and other goods; confiscated or ignored valid refugee documents; and arrested and detained thousands, holding them in appalling conditions for much longer than the 24 hours allowed by Kenyan law. Individuals with refugee documents were ordered to move into camps in northern Kenya (Kakuma or Dadaab, the world’s largest) or be taken there by force.

In June, I visited one block of flats in Nairobi where residents, visibly rattled after a raid, said police had entered the building at night, banging on windows and doors. One young mother, standing in a room full of partially packed suitcases, said she was too scared to remain after multiple visits from police, who forced her to pay 5,000 KES (US$56) and ordered her to move to a refugee camp.

Such abusive treatment targeting ethnic Somalis is not new in Kenya. HRW and others have documented widespread human-rights violations against members of that community since the 1990s. But Usalama Watch cast a wider net across the country, eliding “counter-terrorism” with immigration enforcement: authorities were especially intent on driving refugees out of the urban areas, in violation of domestic and international law.

Spate of violence

Meanwhile, the ATPU and other security forces carry out further abusive operations, largely out of sight, in response to a spate of violence which has yet to be clearly understood. On 14 June, gunmen opened fire on the sleepy coastal town of Mpeketoni, in Lamu county, killing at least 50 people. Similar bloody attacks on nearby villages over the following ten days killed 15 and attacks in early July in both Lamu and Tana River counties killed dozens more.

Although the Somalia-based al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for two of the attacks, Kenyan authorities rushed to diagnose the violence not as terrorism but as homegrown politically-motivated violence. President Uhuru Kenyatta initially told the media: “The attack in Lamu was well planned, orchestrated and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community with the intention of profiling and evicting them for political reasons. This therefore was not an al-Shabaab terror attack.” But as details emerged, many, including government and security officials, concluded that al-Shabaab was responsible after all and that it appeared to have capitalised on pre-existing local grievances, working with Kenyan affiliates.

The ease with which this could be done makes the threat of terrorist violence all the more pernicious and points to the urgent need for Kenyan authorities to deal with the underlying tensions. In addition to land grievances against ethnic Kikuyu “settlers,” there are intercommunal fault-lines in Tana River ripe for manipulation.


The government’s response to the violence has been heavy-handed and at times brutal. Large contingents of security forces, including military and anti-terrorism police, were deployed to Lamu and Tana River counties in the weeks following the attacks. Targeting the communities in both counties in continuing operations, these forces have rounded up, beaten and arrested dozens, including the Lamu governor (later released), and charged at least three people with offences relating to the violence.

Some have blamed Kenya’s weak criminal-justice institutions for the routine use of excessive force, particularly in “counter-terrorism” operations. As one anonymous member of the anti-terrorism police unit put it to the BBC last December, “The justice system in Kenya is not favorable to the work of the police. So we opt to eliminate them [suspects]. We identify you, we gun you down in front of your family and we begin with the leaders.” HRW heard the same observation from others in enforcement, including lawyers.

To be sure, Kenya is facing serious threats and it has proved difficult for the Kenyan authorities to prosecute terrorism cases. But the challenges of investigation and compiling evidence for prosecution cannot justify abuses and ethnic profiling, on the premise that this will improve security.

In September 2013, gunmen believed to be affiliated with al-Shabaab attacked the affluent Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and injuring hundreds in a bloody stand-off. A year after the horrific incident, which also drew international attention to the botched security response and extensive looting by Kenya’s military, there has been no official investigation or report. And Westgate was not unique: there have been at least 70 grenade and gun attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa and Garissa since 2011, according to the US embassy, with at least 30 in 2012 alone. The situation does not seem to be improving.


By engaging in thuggish tactics and targeting entire communities, the authorities risk alienating more people. No one knows how many young people in Kenya may have turned to al-Shabaab for opportunistic or idealistic reasons but the abuses certainly don’t help. It was no surprise that the Institute for Security Studies, which promotes stability across Africa, found that members of al-Shabaab and the separatist Mombasa Republican Council said they had joined because of Kenya’s abusive “counter-terrorism” practices.

Instead of investigating the abuses by ATPU and other security forces, Kenyan authorities have looked the other way. Western donors, in particular the US and the UK, have also ignored the abuses, while continuing to channel resources to the anti-terrorism unit. That is not just short-sighted but appears to condone the crimes. US law prohibits support to abusive foreign forces.

The obvious way for donors to help is by pressing the Kenyan government to respect the rule of law, ensure that abuses are investigated and prosecuted, and push through much-needed police reforms, which have stalled. Support could also include beefing up investigative capacities, prosecutors and the judicial system, as well as funding programmes that provide at-risk populations with new opportunities for education and development.

Above all, there needs to be real accountability—not just rhetoric and promises—from the government in Nairobi.

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