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The war on terror: extrajudicial killings in Kenya

The opening scene of the two-part television series Call the Executioner by KTN News Kenya starts like a thriller. Kenyan investigative journalist John-Allan Namu is standing next to a bloodstained mattress and holds up a bullet shell casing from a 9mm gun. The blood is from Said Mohamed, who was killed by police under suspicious circumstances. The police claim they shot him in self-defence but eyewitnesses had seen him handcuffed before the shots rang out. In an eight-month long investigation John-Allan Namu, working together with journalists Mohammed Ali, Kassim Mohamed and Sam Munia, showed that Said’s murder wasn’t a stand-alone case. They established a pattern of brutal tactics by an elite anti-terrorism police unit targeting men accused of being part of jihadist group al-Shabaab.

THE BEGINNING OF THE INVESTIGATION

“My colleague Mohammed Ali got in touch with some human rights activists who had started looking into extrajudicial executions”, recounts Namu. “At the same time, there was an unofficial kill list from the anti-terrorism police unit that was circulating and we thought it was important to look into this. The year before there was a very controversial Muslim cleric, Sheikh Aboud Rogo, who had been murdered in circumstances that seemed to suggest the police or some unit of the security apparatus was involved. He was alleged to have been an Islamic extremist and was accused of arranging funding for al-Shabaab. He was shot dead while he was driving with his wife in Mombasa.”

OUTLINE OF THE INVESTIGATION

Namu: “We wanted to expose the brutality with which the ATPU (anti-terror police unit) exercised its mandate by perpetrating multiple extra-judicial killings.We also looked at the policy of rendition, sending suspect covertly to be interrogated in a different. We looked at men that disappeared and were killed after being accused of having links with, or being, terrorists. For us it was pulling the threads together and painting a picture of an anti-terrorism police unit that used violence that went beyond the pale. We wanted to show that the regional war on terror was pursued on the back of illegalities and that there was a risk it would cause more radicalisation.”

KEY SOURCES

1) Documents from human rights activists. Human rights activists documented many cases and gave Namu’s team a sense of how well formed the pattern was. They also interviewed Hussein Khalid of Muhuri, Muslims for Human Rights, an organisation that has tracked the disappearances and murders of Muslims suspected to be involved in terrorism.

2) A senior official of the anti-terrorism police unit. This was a key interview for this investigation. Namu: “He gave us a 15-minute interview in which he stated that these were targeted murders. That if there wasn’t enough evidence against the people suspected of terrorism, they would be executed. He confirmed that there was an unofficial policy directed at people that the state felt were their enemies. We could only use this interview anonymously but it confirmed the pattern we were establishing”. A second member of the anti-terrorism police unit confirmed to the investigative team that they killed Sheikh Rogo. Both sources were men that the investigative journalists already had a longer relationship with and there was mutual trust.

3) Men accused of terrorism. “It was important for us to hear the stories of those arrested and accused”, says Namu. “We got an interview with Abubakar Makaburi Shariff Ahmen, a former Kenyan soldier accused of supporting and financing al-Shabaab”. In this interview Abubakar Makaburi Shariff Ahmen said he was innocent and afraid of ending up in a graveyard. He has since been shot dead by unknown gunmen. Namu: There was a sense of foreboding and that pointed to the trend we were trying to establish.

4) Eye witnesses and family members. “We relied heavily on eye witnesses and family members to try and reconstruct what had happened during some of the murders that we were profiling”, says Namu. Rogo’s sons told the investigative team that the anti-terrorism police unit had threatened them and said that the same would happen to them as had happened to their father. They felt that confirmed the unit had been responsible for his death.

5) Legal documents from the US Congress. “These documents spoke about the funding of the war on terror in our region by the USA”, says Namu. “We also used state documents from an inquest into the death of Sheikh Aboud Rogo.”

WORKING UNDERCOVER

Namu went undercover because, as he says, they wanted to get the other side of the story. They wanted to speak to Habib Suleiman Njoroge who was among a number of Kenyan Muslims detained in 2010 and taken to Uganda for questioning about two suicide bomb attacks on crowds of people watching World Cup football matches in July of that year. The Somali militant group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attacks that killed 79 people.

“We considered applying for an interview officially but we knew we would never get in as journalists,” says Namu. “We made a fake identity document and recorded the interview in sound and video with a phone. It was extremely tense. We wanted to get in and out as quick as possible. That is why we went in with specific questions.”

MAIN CHALLENGES

As with most investigations, the Kenyan team also struggled with getting comment from official sources. Namu: “We sent questions to different heads of security units, to police, intelligence services involved in the renditions and to the president, but didn’t get anything back. We had to try and find an occasion to ask the president about the murders. When he was somewhere at a press conference we asked him. The answer was unsatisfactory; he didn’t really say anything about the allegations. Not getting official comments affected the credibility of our story. It left a small window open for the public to doubt our agenda.”

RESPONSE AFTER BROADCAST

“After the first episode was aired, the government tried to stop the broadcast of the second part”, recounts Namu. “Our CEO received complaints direct from state house using national security as an excuse to have the program stopped. The broadcast was delayed but the editorial board decided in the end we could air the story. What helped us was that in the second part, we had more official comment and documentation which nobody could contend and used less eye witnesses”. Also members of the general public weren’t all enthusiastic about the investigation. “The response of the general public was very mixed. Some felt that we were defending criminals,” says Namu. “The story mainly caused pressure on my colleague, investigative journalist Mohammed Ali. Because of his religion, there were people that felt he was telling this story to try and protect extremist Muslims.”

ETHICAL DILEMMAS

“One of the main dilemmas was who we would profile”, says Namu. “Apart from that we had very violent images of men murdered. The code of ethics of the Media Council speaks in detail about using violent images. We discussed it with our managing director. We decided that showing the pictures would serve as a wake-up call.”

“The second dilemma was if we would expose an agent involved in the rendition”, Namu says. Habib Suleiman Njoroge, who Namu visited undercover in jail, told him that an agent called Noordin had tried to recruit him into the secret service and that when he refused Noordin said that he would be out of luck and that the anti-terrorism police unit would “finish” all of them. “This agent was the fulcrum of the operation so we decided we had to name him”, Namu says. “We asked him to comment but he declined to answer.”

NAMU’S SECURITY MEASURES

1) We try to talk in person about stories we work on. If we discuss stories and leads internally with our team, we try to do this face to face so there is no paper trail.

2) Encrypted messaging applications. If we do discuss sensitive information digitally we prefer using encrypted messaging applications over talking on the phone.

3) Awareness. We try to be as aware as possible of our environment and we try to check on each other.

John Allan-Namu used to be a Special Projects Editor at KTN News Kenya, heading a team of the country’s best television investigative journalists. He is currently part of Africa Uncensored, an independent media house set up by Kenya’s finest investigative journalists.  His area of focus is largely in long-form investigative and in-depth reporting on current affairs topics.