By Flora Bagenal and Miles Amoore –
KENYAN officials have been accused of using hit squads to eliminate suspected terrorists, following a drive-by shooting of a prominent Muslim cleric in Mombasa last week.
Sheikh Ibrahim Omar, a 25-year-old preacher with links to the al-Shabaab terrorist group, which is suspected of being behind the attack on a Nairobi shopping centre two weeks ago, died in a hail of bullets on Thursday, shortly after preaching a sermon in which he predicted the police would be coming for him.
Omar had told a packed mosque: “If I want to support al-Qaeda or al-Shabaab, then that is my choice. I don’t fear the security services. Let them come for us, we are not afraid.”
Two hours later, his bullet-riddled body and those of three companions were found slumped on the seats of a black Toyota people carrier that had careered off a road heading north out of the city. Riots followed, in which four died.
The sole survivor, Salim, said he played dead to avoid the assassins’ guns. Empty bullet casings lay near the car, indicating that the gunmen had approached the vehicle to ensure the men inside were dead. “I think it is obvious who did this,” Salim said.
Western security officials and counterterrorist experts believe the men who carried out Thursday’s assassination are members of Kenya’s notorious police squad, the much feared anti-terrorism police unit (ATPU).
The killings have stoked fears that the government plans to avenge the recent terrorist attack on its soil by allowing its security services to embark on a frenzy of blood- letting directed at the country’s Muslim minority.
Kenya indicated yesterday that a small band of up to six attackers carried out the attack on the Westgate shopping centre — compared with an original estimate of around 15. Authorities released the names of four of the alleged terrorists.
One, Abu Baara al-Sudani, was described as an experienced fighter from Sudan. Another, Omar Nabhan, is a Kenyan of Arab origin, and a third, Khattab al-Kene, a Somali linked to al-Shabaab. Little was known of the fourth, named only as Omayr.
They confirmed that the so-called “White Widow”, Samantha Lewthwaite, who was married to one of the 7/7 London suicide bombers, was not among them.
According to security sources, counterterrorist officials in Mombasa received a hitlist last week containing 50 names of men apparently singled out for assassination. It is unclear how many of them are wanted in connection with the Westgate attack, in which at least 61 civilians, six soldiers and five terrorists died.
Al-Shabaab, which is fighting the Kenyan army in neighbouring Somalia, has claimed responsibility for the attack. Western security officials said such a well-planned operation would have needed the support of al-Hijra, a Kenyan extremist group.
Members of al-Hijra are thought to work closely with al-Shabaab’s intelligence wing, Amniyat, to smuggle weapons, money and fighters across Kenya’s border with Somalia.
According to a United Nations report, one of al-Hijra’s most senior figures, the Mombasa-based cleric Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, also known as Makaburi, maintains close ties with al-Qaeda.
In the report, released earlier this year, officials noted that Makaburi wanted to focus al-Hijra’s resources on “conducting complex, large-scale attacks in Kenya”.
In an interview last week, Makaburi denied involvement in the Westgate attack, but added: “I’m not saying I agree with children having their throat slit, but I do not condemn it.
“An eye for an eye is what it says in the Koran. Children are being killed every day in Somalia. The attack was simply blood for blood. The authorities should have seen it coming.”
Kenya’s counterterrorist branch has a long track record of operating outside the law, according to counterterrorist experts and human rights investigators. It has been accused of torturing, assassinating and arranging the disappearance of suspects during its efforts to disrupt terrorist cells that operate on Kenyan soil.
Many believe that it is behind a string of murders that began with the disappearance of Samir Hashim Khan, an Islamic preacher, and a blind colleague in April 2012.
The preacher’s body was found two days after he had disappeared, dumped beside a road in Mombasa. His nose and genitals were missing and his eyes had been gouged out.
Perhaps the most highprofile assassination to have been blamed on police occurred in August last year, when unknown gunmen shot the radical Muslim cleric Aboud Rogo 17 times as he drove his wife to hospital.
Rogo, who preached at the same mosque as Omar, was on the UN’s sanctions list for his role in fundraising for al-Shabaab. Little has been done to investigate the alleged police killings, further alienating Kenya’s Muslim population.
“Without a robust investigation, the government will continue to lose the confidence of many in the coastal region who are fearful and untrusting of Kenya’s anti-terrorism agencies,” said Jonathan Horowitz, a counterterrorism expert at the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Many experts blame the ATPU’s brutal tactics on its inability to conduct proper police work. Suspected terrorists brought before judges are often released owing to lack of evidence, said Horowitz.
The security forces have come under mounting criticism for their failure to find the masterminds behind the Westgate attack.
There appears little appetite among Kenya’s rulers to investigate the killings, especially as its president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is due to appear before the International Criminal Court in the Hague next month, charged with crimes against humanity.