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Revealed: MI6 ‘Misled’ Two Inquiries Into Arrest of Lee Rigby’s Killer

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Three intelligence officers tell Declassified UK that Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, tracked and arranged the arrest of Michael Adebolajo in Kenya, contradicting MI6’s testimony to two intelligence oversight reviews.

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Revealed: MI6 ‘Misled’ Two Inquiries Into Arrest of Lee Rigby’s Killer
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Republication courtesy of Declassified UK / the Daily Maverick. First published by Declassified UK on 12 November 2020.

The town of Kizingitini on Paté island, just off Kenya’s north-eastern coast, is an otherwise unremarkable fishing village surrounded by mangroves. As a gateway to the Horn of Africa, the island inhabits an historically strategic location, with Arab and Portuguese merchants taking turns to settle the island.

In recent history, the island has enjoyed relative peace and, in a nod to its lush surroundings and history, its locals sing: “None who go to Paté returns; what returns is wailing”.

In November 2010, the island unexpectedly received international attention when British terror suspect, Michael Adebolajo, and five others were arrested there by Kenyan police. They were allegedly planning to cross into Somalia to join the al-Shabaab militant group responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Somalia and Kenya.

It was one stage of a journey that would end with the murder of a British soldier on the streets of London and a parliamentary investigation into the handling of the case by the UK’s domestic security service MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), known as MI6.

The British government denied prior knowledge of – or involvement in – Adebolajo’s arrest and interrogation, which he claimed was abusive. However, defying expectations, and under controversial circumstances, the British High Commission in Nairobi intervened to bring Adebolajo back to the UK and save him from terror charges in Kenya.

Once back in Britain, Adebolajo claimed he was subject to ongoing harassment by MI5 and that the security agency tried to convince him to become a covert human intelligence source in order to spy on Islamic extremists.

Adebolajo was arrested in Kenya in 2010, but brought to UK and released where in 2013 he murdered British soldier, Lee Rigby

Less than three years after being returned to the UK, on 22 May 2013, Adebolajo and his accomplice Michael Adebowale hunted down Fusilier Lee Rigby, near his barracks in Woolwich, southeast London and brutally hacked him to death in broad daylight. Adebolajo and Adebowale were later convicted of murder and sentenced to life and 45 years in prison, respectively.

Claims that Adebolajo had previously been on the radar of the UK intelligence agencies prompted a parliamentary investigation into whether the killing of Rigby could have been prevented by the spy agencies.

The review by the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), published in 2014, found mistakes in British security operations but concluded they were not “significant enough to have made a difference” in stopping the attack.

The ISC report, and another review conducted in 2016 by the Intelligence Services Commissioner, Mark Waller, both concluded that Adebolajo’s arrest was not procured by British intelligence.

But an investigation by Declassified in Kenya now provides a different picture, contradicting both the reviews and MI6’s testimony to them.

ARCTIC in Kenya

Both reviews covered the involvement of a body called ARCTIC, which the Intelligence Commissioner’s report described as “a Kenyan counter-terrorism intelligence unit which has a close working relationship with… HMG [Her Majesty’s Government].”

It continued: “Although ARCTIC can and does act independently of HMG and without its knowledge, their relationship appears to be much closer in practice than some of the more formal, theoretical statements about it might suggest.”

Declassified previously found that ARCTIC is in fact an MI6 liaison cell within Kenya’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) counter-terrorism unit and plays a key role in identifying, tracking, locating and interrogating terror suspects in Kenya.

ARCTIC undertakes undercover operations to produce actionable intelligence on targets who are then killed or captured by the police, including the clandestine CIA-backed paramilitary Kenyan police unit named the Rapid Response Team (RRT). Declassified has also revealed that ARCTIC is involved in raids involving alleged summary executions, such as the case of terror suspect Kassim Omollo in 2013.

Declassified can now reveal that MI6, working with Kenyan’s NIS intelligence officers, tracked and arranged for Adebolajo’s arrest, according to two NIS officers familiar with the operation, who made the admission independently of each other. Their testimony was further corroborated by a former CIA counter-terrorism officer familiar with operations in east Africa.

“For that specific case they [MI6] were here. I can’t deny that”, one of the NIS officers told Declassified. “If it were not for them I think it would have been difficult for us to do that job… That specific assignment was important. Because the mark [suspect] was from their place, their country.”

Declassified has learned that upon Adebolajo’s arrival in Kenya in October 2010, MI6 alerted Kenya’s NIS and sought approval from its Director to meet with two intelligence officers and brief them on the case at NIS’ headquarters in Nairobi.

MI6 told two government reviews it was not involved in Adebolajo’s arrest in Kenya

A team of Kenyan intelligence trackers then moved to the coastal city of Mombasa, where it tracked Adebolajo and his associates to Paté island and arranged for their arrest before they could sail off to Somalia, it was alleged.

An investigating officer with Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) familiar with Adebolajo’s case confirmed to Declassified that his arrest came after the local police officer in charge received intelligence about his movements.

British covert surveillance capabilities played a key role, the two NIS officers told Declassified. One of the officers spoke of the difficulty in tracking Adebolajo due to his awareness of electronic surveillance measures. Believing he could outsmart British and Kenyan intelligence, Adebolajo often relied in Kenya on email communications at internet cafes.

But Adebolajo was unaware of extensive British intelligence surveillance capabilities, including those of MI6’s sister agency, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) — Britain’s signals intelligence organisation — which can conduct surveillance on targets.

The “GHOSTHUNTER” programme, run by GCHQ, operates in collaboration with the US National Security Agency, and can target internet and phone access by identified individuals, by intercepting communications transmitted through satellite terminals, documents leaked by Edward Snowden show.

GCHQ has made regular use of GHOSTHUNTER to locate “high value targets” for kill or capture operations in countries such as Kenya, Iraq, and Pakistan, according to documents leaked by Snowden.

MI6 team worked with Kenyan intelligence cell to track Adebolajo and arrange his arrest, Kenyan officers say

It is possible that, in addition to its own field surveillance capabilities, MI6 relied on the programme’s capabilities to track Adebolajo.

However, the two NIS officers confirmed to Declassified that the arrest was designed to appear exactly as the UK Intelligence Commissioner asserted in his review: “happenstance”.

The officer also confirmed that the ARCTIC intelligence officers who interrogated Adebolajo while in Kenyan police custody were the same officers later involved in the capture and interrogation of another Briton, Jermaine Grant, a year later.

Britain’s Foreign Office, which oversees MI6, declined to answer questions for this article, citing a policy of not commenting on intelligence matters.

Misleading inquiries

The Kenyan officers’ testimony contradicts the evidence MI6 provided to the ISC and the Intelligence Commissioner, and the conclusions of both reports. Evidence was given to the ISC by Sir John Sawers, then the head of MI6, and other MI6 officers.

The report of the ISC, which was chaired by former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, stated that “both SIS and MI5 were notified of Adebolajo’s arrest and detention. Prior to this, SIS and MI5 had been unaware that Adebolajo had travelled to Kenya”.

The Intelligence Commissioner’s report similarly concluded: “Neither SIS nor MI5 knew that Mr Adebolajo was in Kenya prior to his arrest there; and SIS had the operational lead thereafter but no contact with him”. The Commissioner, Mark Waller, put down Adebolajo’s arrest by the Paté island police to a “chance sighting”. Waller concluded that the individual MI6 officers who gave evidence to his inquiry “did their best to answer all my questions honestly and truthfully”.

He also described, somewhat inconsistently, MI6’s engagement with the review as “wholly inadequate”, stating that it “provided inaccurate and incomplete information and generally sought to ‘fence’ with and ‘close down’ lines of inquiry, rather than engage constructively.”

Evidence provided to Declassified supports this view. “That’s on them to lie to their oversight committee”, a former CIA counter-terrorism official with knowledge of Adebolajo’s case said of MI6’s claim of non-involvement.

“That whole case was a guy who had been on the radar and they lost him [prior to Lee Rigby’s killing]. For whatever reason, they couldn’t take it to the next level and 6 [MI6] is trying to cover their ass, no different than the FBI does and we do. We fuck up too.”

“That’s on them [MI6] to lie to their oversight committee”, former CIA counter-terrorism officer with knowledge of the case tells Declassified

The Intelligence Commissioner’s report contained hints of MI6’s involvement in the arrest before going on to dismiss them. It noted: “Intelligence Officer 1 [an MI6 officer] took a comment by one of his Kenyan counterparts as an indication that Mr Adebolajo had been arrested as the result of intelligence provided by an agent”. But the report concluded: “As it happens, there almost certainly was no agent”.

The report also stated that on 18 November 2010—three days before Adebolajo was arrested—an MI6 officer presumed to be based in Nairobi sent an email to MI6’s head office in London summarising Kenyan laws and procedures on the arrest, detention and deportation of British nationals suspected of extremism.

The email also outlined the process whereby MI6 and MI5 would work together on the identification of targets—and noted that the British government would work closely with ARCTIC on the planning of detention operations.

Accountability

MI6’s reluctance to disclose its role in Adebolajo’s arrest is likely to be explained by the desire to keep secret its extensive relationship with Kenya’s intelligence service, as recently revealed in a months-long investigation by Declassified. It may face questions about its involvement in Kenya’s bloody war on terror, which has seen hundreds of suspects killed or disappeared.

The ISC stated in its report: “Where HM Government has a close working relationship with counterterrorist units, they will share responsibility for those units’ actions.”

The Intelligence Commissioner agreed, stating: “I consider that any allegations of mistreatment made against ARCTIC would be of concern to HMG irrespective of whether it co-operated in or was aware of the underlying operation because of their close working relationship and intelligence-sharing arrangements.”

The MI6 ARCTIC liaison cell was also behind the intelligence that led to the capture of two Britons in Mombasa three years after Adebolajo’s arrest in 2013, and of a doctor and three others in Kenya in 2016, over alleged attempts to stage an anthrax attack in support of the Islamic State terrorist group, Declassified can also reveal.

A Kenyan officer familiar with the operation to arrest the anthrax attack suspects recalled a pre-meeting between ARCTIC officers, RRT paramilitaries and ATPU officers. The ARCTIC intelligence officers “gave us the type of the suspect, whom we were going to arrest, and—during the search—the items which we were to go for”, the officer said.

One of the Kenyan officers described the ARCTIC cell as “highly mobile, highly covert”, even by NIS standards, and composed of human intelligence field operatives and tech specialists. Alongside MI6, the CIA and Israel’s Mossad each have separate liaison cells within Kenya’s NIS. Each cell is composed of a team of Kenyan officers dedicated to working with the foreign intelligence agencies to counter terrorism in the country.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind told Declassified that its allegations were “very disturbing” but said he was “sceptical” of them, adding that it was “highly improbable” that MI6 officers deliberately lied about their involvement.

He stated: “It is not impossible that certain SIS officers were carrying out activities in Kenya that had not been authorised by London… [but]… my main reason for scepticism is that I cannot see what motive SIS would have had to lie to the ISC.”

Sir Malcolm added: “There would have been nothing embarrassing or controversial for SIS in volunteering this information. It had no relevance to the subsequent brutal murder of Lee Rigby. I do not see any credible motive for the Chief of SIS, and his colleagues, to have lied to a statutory Committee of Parliament.”

But Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who chaired one of the reviews, claims there was no “credible motive for the chief of SIS, and his colleagues, to have lied to a statutory Committee of Parliament”

The revelations cast significant doubt on the willingness of Britain’s intelligence oversight body, the ISC, as well as the Intelligence Commissioner, to fully examine Adebolajo’s claims, pursue leads and interview available witnesses as part of their reviews.

The Guardian previously reported that “the committee [ISC] is alleged to have reached its conclusions without speaking to a number of witnesses, including a family member and lawyers, who claim Adebolajo complained a year before the attack of repeated approaches by the security services”.

Tasnime Akunjee, a criminal defence solicitor who is familiar with Adebolajo’s case and represented a close friend of his who appeared on BBC Newsnight to tell Adebolajo’s story, told Declassified, “SIS [MI6] and the UK authorities have worked hand in glove with the Kenyan authorities, with the full knowledge that the Kenyan authorities have been accused many times of extrajudicial killings… That would be their motivation to lie; given that the UK authorities even in Guantanamo Bay have been found liable simply for being present when individuals were being tortured.”

Akunjee added: “Where there is intelligence sharing between countries, the rule is that nobody leaks. If it does leak from one particular side then that relationship is strained or then ceases. So there would not just be a motivation for the security services to keep a lid on this, but generally for the entire UK government to want to maintain that close working relationship with Kenya.”

Former Intelligence Commissioner Mark Waller told Declassified via an intermediary that “he has always felt it inappropriate to give interviews in relation to his role as Intelligence Services Commissioner”.

Sir John Sawers declined to comment. Adebolajo’s lawyers also declined to comment, citing the need to review the findings with their client.

Read Part 1 of this investigation here.
Read Part 2 of this investigation here.

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Namir Shabibi is a British investigative journalist who has written and produced documentaries for the BBC, VICE News and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, among others. Declassified UK is an investigative journalism organisation that covers Britain’s role in the world.

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USA: For Right-Wing Extremists the Attack on Capitol Hill Was a Victory

The successful attack on Capitol Hill will fuel years of recruitment and mythologising for post-Trump extremists.

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As attacks grow more shocking and dramatic, the size of their audience increases accordingly. While most observers are terrified and outraged by such violence, a small minority become inspired enough to plan attacks of their own. This is how extremist movements grow. This is how they seek to bend the world to their will.

Social media has dramatically increased the effectiveness of spectacular acts of terror. In 2014, ISIS militants used the viral executions of two American hostages to declare war on the United States. They were rewarded with an exponential increase in Western media coverage and tens of thousands of recruits from more than 100 countries. In 2019, a New Zealand-based white supremacist livestreamed his murder of 51 Muslim congregants in the city of Christchurch. His actions prompted numerous copycat attacks and a global resurgence of white ethno-nationalism.

Yet the media impact and symbolic power of these attacks are dwarfed by the events of January 6, 2021, during which far-right extremists stormed and occupied the U.S. Capitol at the encouragement of President Trump. Several carried firearms. Others reportedly planted improvised explosive devices. In less than two hours, they overwhelmed federal police and forced the Congress to flee. They breached the seat of American government that had stood inviolate for 211 years. It was a violent, extraordinary, unthinkable victory; one whose images and videos captivated the world.

This was the most spectacular domestic extremist attack in American history. The individuals who perpetrated this attack will be mythologized as heroes among future extremists. A generation of far-right recruits too young to have participated will spend their lives dreaming of again seizing the U.S. Capitol. In the words of writer Osita Nwanevu, this will become the “Woodstock” of the far-right — the victory and spectacle by which all future actions are measured.

Many of the individuals who directly participated in this action have undergone years of radicalization in extremist online communities and developed a unique culture steeped in ironic violence. They have come to venerate street fighting as the ultimate form of political expression and can name various skirmishes — the 2017 U.S. presidential inauguration, protests in Berkeley and Portland, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the deadly counter-protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin — as a veteran might count battles. Their ranks have swelled in recent months thanks to the popularity of the QAnon delusion and baseless claims of voter fraud that have been aggressively amplified by Trump and his allies.

In some ways, the attack on the U.S. Capitol was the culmination of this violent and conspiratorial movement of pro-Trump communities. Yet because the attack was so catastrophically effective, it also represents the birth of the post-Trump extremist movement. As casual Trump supporters peel away from the network in the weeks to come, they will be replaced by a new cadre who are less politically engaged but far more likely to undertake acts of violence. So it has been with the evolution of extremist movements around the world; so it will now be in the United States.

(Source: @etbrooking/via thedonald.win)

(Source: @etbrooking/via thedonald.win)

Two factors will make this post-Trump extremist movement uniquely dangerous. The first is the transition to anti-state violence. Participants in the January 6 attack routinely assaulted U.S. Capitol Police (often, ironically, while carrying pro-police paraphernalia). Following the killing of one female participant by law enforcement, online supporters of the attack darkly speculated that the police had been infiltrated by antifa “terrorists.” The woman was quickly recast as a martyr, one whose death might be the spark of a bloody revolution.

Previous far-right, anti-state movements have struggled to gain traction under the Trump presidency. The most successful of these — the so-called “Boogaloo” movement — hid its overt anti-state violence under layers of subtext and irony. When Boogaloo supporters did engage in acts of anti-state terrorism, as with the murder of two California security officers in June 2020, they sapped the movement of popular support. Under a Biden administration, however, this cognitive dissonance will no longer be an issue. If state authorities are seen to be corrupt and working at the behest of a Democratic administration, they will be targets.

The second factor is the mainstream popularity of the far-right extremist movement in the United States. For years, Trump has conditioned Republican voters to support violence as a means of settling political disputes. From the podium, Trump has regularly encouraged assaults on journalists and dehumanized racial and ethnic minorities. This rhetoric has carried terrible consequences. According to a January 6 YouGov poll, 45 percent of Republican voters supported the storming of the U.S. Capitol, seeing it as just another kind of political expression.

This means that a post-Trump extremist movement — even one that routinely engages in violence — may benefit from a level of political support not seen since that of the Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction-era American South. And so long as the movement remains politically popular, there will be politicians who seek to court it. As much could already be seen when the U.S. Congress reconvened early in the morning of January 7. In their remarks, several Republican legislators sought to trivialize or excuse the attack that had forced them from their chamber. Congressman Matt Gaetz (FL-1) went so far as to blame antifa activists, whom he alleged — without evidence — had initiated the attack to give Trump supporters a bad name.

The violent extremist movement inspired by the events of January 6 will rank as one of the great challenges of the Biden presidency. Diminishing the strength of this movement will require disentangling isolated, angry Trump supporters from the much smaller core of extremists who seek to do Americans harm. It will require sapping the January 6 attack of its myth-making potential and to ensure that it is viewed, rightly, as a national embarrassment. Most of all, it will require confronting the pundits and conspiracy theorists who will seek to boost the far-right extremist movement in a grasping bid to retain their relevancy.

This work must begin immediately. The stakes were high before. They are higher now.

This article was first published by Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. The DFRLab team in Cape Town works in partnership with Code for Africa.

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Dismantling and Transcending Colonialism’s Legacy

Nkrumah, Nyerere and Senghor were acutely aware of the need to displace the epistemic conditions of colonization in order to transcend it.

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Dismantling and Transcending Colonialism’s Legacy
Photo: Unsplash/berenice melis
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In “decolonial” discourse, the African leadership landscape is flattened to the point of becoming a caricature. In an earlier variation of this caricature, Kwame Nkrumah’s injunction of “seek ye first the political kingdom” was presented by political scientist Ali Mazrui as a deficient obsession with political power to the neglect of the economic. In the current variation, the neglect of epistemic “decoloniality” is characterised as the deficient underbelly of the “nationalist” movement.

Kwame Nkrumah, Sédar Senghor, and Julius Nyerere are not only three of the most cerebral figures of Africa’s “nationalist” movement, but unlike Amilcar Cabral they lived to lead their countries in the aftermath of formal colonial rule.

Contrary declarations notwithstanding, Senghor, Nkrumah, and Nyerere were acutely aware of the colonial epistemological project and the need to transcend it. Indeed, philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s re-reading of Negritude as epistemology argued that its salience lies in the dissolution of the binary opposition of subject and object in the logic of René Descartes. Whatever one’s take on the specificity of Senghor’s claims of Africa’s modes of knowing—by insisting on the interconnectedness of subject and object—he deliberately sought to mark out what is deficient in modern European epistemology and valorise African systems of knowledge. This epistemological project is built on a distinct African ontological premise.

Nkrumah and Nyerere were most acutely aware of the urgent need to displace the epistemic conditions of colonisation. In the case of Nkrumah, the imperative of epistemic decolonisation was most forcefully expressed in the 1962 launch of the Encyclopedia Africana project, initially with W.E.B. Du Bois as editor, and the 1963 launch of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon.

Nkrumah’s 1963 speech at the launch of the Institute stressed the epistemic erasure at the heart of colonialism, linking political and epistemic freedom. “It is only in conditions of total freedom and independence from foreign rule and interferences that the aspirations of our people will see real fulfillment and the African genius finds its best expression,” Nkrumah argued. If colonialism involves the study of Africa from the standpoint of the colonialist, the new Institute of African Studies was charged with studying Africa from the standpoint of Africans. Its responsibility, Nkrumah argued, is the excavation, validation, restoration, and valorisation of African knowledge systems.

Nkrumah exhorted the staff and students at the new Institute to “embrace and develop those aspirations and responsibilities which are clearly essential for maintaining a progressive and dynamic African society.” The study of Africa’s “history, culture, and institutions, languages and arts” must be done, Nkrumah insisted, in “new African centered ways—in entire freedom from the propositions and presuppositions of the colonial epoch.” It is also worth remembering that the subtitle of the most philosophical of Nkrumah’s writings, Consciencism, is “philosophy and ideology for de-colonization.

Much is made about Nyerere surrounding “himself with foreign ‘Fabian socialists.’” Yet the most profound influence on Nyerere’s thoughts and practice was not the varieties of European “socialisms” but the “socialism” of the African village in which he was born and raised—with its norms of mutuality, convivial hospitality, and shared labour. Nyerere’s modes of sense-making (which after all is what epistemology means) was rooted in this ontology and norms of sociality.

For Nyerere, the ethics that are inherent in these norms of sociality stand in sharp contrast to the colonial project. It was, perhaps, in Education for Self-Reliance (1967) that Nyerere set out, most clearly, the task of the educational system in postcolonial Tanganyika, one that is not simply about the production of technical skill but the contents of its pedagogy. It is a pedagogy that requires the transformation of the inherited colonial system of education (Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism, 1968). The pedagogy is anchored on the three principles of Nyerere’s idea of a society framed by African socialism: “quality and respect for human dignity; sharing of the resources which are produced by our efforts; work by everyone and exploitation by none.” It frames the ethics of a new, postcolonial society.

Whatever their limitations, it was not for lack of aspiration and imagination. Nyerere is the one who most aptly communicated to us the responsibility of the current generation to pick up the baton where the older generation laid it down. The struggle for political independence was never understood as an end in itself. The ‘flag independence’ we so decry makes possible the task that subsequent generations must undertake and fulfill. The task of realising the postcolonial vision is as much a responsibility of the current generation as it was of the older generation.

Finally, as Mwalimu reminds us, on matters concerning Africa, “the sin of despair would be the most unforgivable.” Avoiding that sin starts with acknowledging and embracing the positive efforts of the older generation while advancing the pan-African project today.

This piece is part of the “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” series from Post-Colonialisms Today (PCT), a research and advocacy project of activist-intellectuals on the continent recapturing progressive thought and policies from early post-independence Africa to address contemporary development challenges. Sign up for updates here.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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The Militarisation of US/Africa Policy: How the CIA Came To Lead Deadly Counter-Terrorism Operations in Kenya

US and Kenyan diplomatic and intelligence officials tell Declassified UK why the CIA set up a covert paramilitary counter-terror team, how it flies recruits to the US for special training, and why Britain helps gather intelligence on targets.

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Republication courtesy of Declassified UK / the Daily Maverick. First published by Declassified UK on 28 August 2020.

A CIA-backed paramilitary police unit uncovered by Declassified UK – known as the Rapid Response Team (RRT) – is at the heart of US efforts to combat terrorism in Kenya. The revelations come as deaths of US military personnel in an attack by the al-Shabaab terrorist group earlier this year on a base in northeast Kenya, are refocusing attention on America’s expanded military and intelligence footprint in Africa.

The story behind the RRT’s development, from a nascent force initially designed to undertake renditions of high-value or high-risk terror suspects, to the go-to tactical counter-terror team in Kenya behind a number of controversial killings, has been recounted to Declassified by US and Kenyan diplomatic, intelligence and paramilitary personnel.

The RRT team’s establishment dates back to 2004, long before Kenya had become embroiled in Somalia’s civil war and al-Shabaab had begun attacks inside Kenya.

Henry Crumpton, who served as deputy chief of operations at the CIA counterterrorism center and retired as State Department counterterrorism coordinator in 2007, said the “imperative” to take a more aggressive stance against Islamist extremists in East Africa emerged in the late 1990s.

“We [the CIA] didn’t really get a wake-up call until August 1998,” Crumpton told Declassified, referring to the twin bombings that month at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed over 200 people, including 12 US citizens.

“I think it’s important to note what happened in August of ‘98 because Kenya has been on the frontline. If you go back further; if you look at the attacks against US forces in Somalia [in 1993] and before that even, I think that US policymakers and leaders and certainly citizens don’t remember or know or appreciate the role Kenya has played going back to the nineties,” Crumpton said.

Michael Ranneberger, the US ambassador to Kenya during 2006-2011, agreed the country was and remains a pivotal player in the fight against al Qaeda-aligned militants.

“Kenya is a strategically very important country for the United States. Not just in terms of the fight against terrorism, but its location on the East African coast – with the largest [US] embassy in Africa and one of the largest in the world – and that’s because we do a lot of our regional activity from that embassy,” he said.

After the 1998 bombings, the director of the CIA’s new counterterrorism centre, Cofer Black, began taking “a much more aggressive view” of the agency’s approach to its relationships with African law enforcement agencies, Crumpton said.

“If you look at how the CIA approaches liaison relationships, in the late ‘90s it really accelerated beyond just gathering information, and rapidly evolved into integrated operations,” said Crumpton, who led CIA operations in Afghanistan in 2001-2002.

By 1998, Crumpton had been seconded by the CIA to deputy chief of the FBI’s international terrorism operations section. Facing a terror case in the US involving a Somali suspect, he recalled reaching out to his Kenyan partners for help.

“They sent us a Kenyan policeman – ethnic Somali – who was integrated into the FBI investigation, which was of enormous help. And that was just a small step in what would become a rapidly intimate relationship among intelligence and law enforcement officials, where it’s not just sharing information, it’s really integrated operations,” Crumpton explained.

“There are hundreds if not thousands of examples of this type of deep cooperation.”

One key US figure tasked with developing the diplomatic groundwork for the integrated operations in Kenya was William Bellamy, US ambassador to the country from 2003-2006.

The covert Kenyan Rapid Response Team (RRT) was established as part of the CIA’s “intimate integration” programme to train and manage local paramilitaries in terrorism hotspots around the globe

Bellamy recalled arriving in the Kenyan capital Nairobi feeling that the country was “a high-value target for al-Qaeda in East Africa”. Increasingly concerned about the possible spread of terrorism across the region, the US government set aside a “large pot of money” for counter-terrorism assistance, Bellamy told Declassified.

However, he added that efforts to persuade the Kenyan government’s law enforcement and military agencies to buy into America’s war on terror proved “a real hard sell”. The police and military agencies were beset by “too much interagency rivalry and suspicion” and, to the former ambassador’s “biggest frustration”, a proposed multi-agency centre for counter-terrorism never got off the ground.

Another former senior CIA official with knowledge of Kenyan counter-terror operations at the time recalled: “Western governments were throwing a lot of resources at the Kenyans. That [extremism] was something we were all trying to get ahead of and not allow al-Qaeda or any other successor groups to get a foothold there.”

The former official added: “We were definitely trying but I think the Kenyans were a little reluctant, and I think that was just because they knew it would be a rough fight… Now it seems it’s like a whole government strategy.”

Former Kenyan Foreign Minister and Vice President, Kalonzo Musyoka, explained: “Kenya’s positioning, when I was foreign minister [2003-2004], was that of absolute neutrality in the regional conflicts… that’s why we were trusted with the role of mediation. We had taken a view that as a frontline state with a 1,800km border with Somalia, which is unpatrolled, we would be making a mistake to engage directly by sending our troops into Somalia.”

Despite the difficulty faced by former ambassador Bellamy in dealing with his Kenyan counterparts, their National Intelligence Service (NIS, then known as NSIS) was nonetheless eager to develop counter-terrorism collaboration, and was the CIA’s liaison for the development of integrated operations.

Establishing the covert team

The unit that would later become the Rapid Response Team (RRT) was a product of this outreach. Part of a secret CIA programme to train and manage local paramilitaries in numerous hotspots around the globe, from Afghanistan to Georgia, the team began with just 18 officers – dubbed ‘Team 18’ – who were selected by Kenyan police and intelligence to receive elite training in the United States.

A former senior US government official with knowledge of the RRT’s establishment said, “On something of this sensitivity and this importance… we would need to run it through the Agency [CIA] and through [Kenya’s] NIS.”

NIS, with extensive links to Britain’s MI6, were “professional, capable, serious people. And they were our best partners, the most reliable partners”, the former senior official said.

The new recruits to the RRT, who would become Kenya’s first paramilitary police squad dedicated primarily to counter-terrorism operations, were then flown to training facilities in the US. Landing at Dulles International Airport in Washington DC, the CIA handlers advised the RRT trainees to tell immigration officials they were visiting the country on a sports scholarship.

From there, the men were flown to a further destination and driven in buses with blacked-out windows so the trainees could not determine the location.

Though the recruits never found out where they were being trained, multiple RRT officers said they believed their initial training, and successive courses, took place at Annapolis Naval Academy in Maryland. One former senior US official with direct knowledge of the programme told Declassified it was also likely that, at one point, trainees were taken to the CIA’s training facility at Camp Peary, near Williamsburg in Virginia, also known as ‘The Farm’.

One former RRT officer recalled asking his CIA handler why they did not want the trainees to know their location in the US. “We have good intentions and do not act in bad faith. But the United States is not prepared to repeat its errors with Osama bin Laden,” the CIA handler is said to have responded, referring to mistakes made in providing covert assistance to Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s.

On arrival at the facility, the men received training from CIA contractors, former special operations forces and SWAT team members of the US police, in tactical operations, close-quarter combat, weapons handling, reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering.

RRT commandos have been flown to Maryland, US, for SWAT-style training, under cover of sports scholarships

Following their first and second courses in 2004, titled “Renditions Operations Training” and “Disruption Operations”, the commandos were formalised as the Rapid Response Team. But by then the new unit’s nickname – the “Renditions Team” – had already stuck among the few who knew it existed.

RRT members are part of the special operations-oriented Recce Company of the Kenyan paramilitary police’s General Service Unit (GSU). At their headquarters in Ruiru near Nairobi, they enjoy privileged status. Exclusive training facilities, such as ‘Michelin House’ – a mock terrorist hideout used for conducting entry drills – were financed by their US embassy liaison, multiple RRT officers said.

However, owing to the sensitivity of their operations, RRT officers were not permitted to reside in the same quarters as other teams in the GSU’s Recce Company. This included other ‘special teams’, such as the US State Department and FBI-supported Crisis Response Team (CRT), which specialises in surveillance and hostage rescue, and which sometimes supports the RRT on tactical operations.

“Specialised units are needed to deal with extraordinary situations, such as hostage-taking and terrorist activity,” former US ambassador Michael Ranneberger said.

He added, “We do that in a lot of countries, where we will identify a GSU [RRT]-like unit, a special unit [to work with]. Or if they don’t exist, we sometimes help establish such units and then provide the training.”

Target development

In the first few years after its founding, the RRT carried out relatively few offensive counter-terror operations. Although Kenya’s intelligence service, the NIS, and Kenya’s  Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) “knew they had some bad people” in Kenya, as one former CIA official put it, political leaders were initially reluctant to be drawn into the US war on terror.

Former US ambassador William Bellamy agreed, noting, “When I was in Kenya we probably spent 70% of counter-terrorism [work] on good intelligence work with the Kenyans.”

Explaining why the RRT was relatively dormant in its first few years, the former CIA counter-terrorism official said that targets were often operating below the radar.

“We try to stick, on certain levels, on many levels, within the law. I think that’s why you didn’t see much [action from RRT], because certain targets were either very deep cover and you weren’t able to make a case on them, and once you started getting a little more clarity on the cases and being able to take these suspects down for violations, that’s when you started seeing the Rapid Response Team get more active.”

The few counter-terror operations undertaken by the RRT in its first years were focused on the capture and subsequent rendition of terror suspects.

RRT officers would be summoned to Wilson Airport in Nairobi, briefed by CIA paramilitary liaison officers on their objectives, and then flown to their destination, which was often in Kenya but, on some occasions, included Somalia, former RRT officers and US officials confirmed.

The former senior CIA official recalled watching Kenyan clerics becoming radicalised by videos emerging from Iraq, particularly those of the then leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. “When the Zarqawi videos started popping up in Kenya, I was like ‘oh shit… here come the takfiris,” he said, referring to militant jihadists.

By 2006 Kenya’s NIS had developed intelligence liaison cells dedicated to working with the CIA, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) and Israel’s external spy agency, Mossad, multiple US and Kenyan intelligence sources told Declassified.

In later years, Mossad would assist in forming, training and providing weapons to a separate Recce squad ‘special team’, composed partly of former RRT and CRT officers, known as the Special Anti-Terror Team (SATT), a team dedicated to VIP protection and covert patrols of Kenya’s five-star hotels.

Alongside the CIA, MI6 helped Kenya’s NIS with target development, bringing together and analysing the various sources of intelligence to prioritise the greater threats.

The former CIA counter-terrorism official said the four pillars of the CIA and MI6 relationship with Kenyan intelligence were “training, mentorship, lead by example… and pressing”.

“When we talk about pressing a liaison partner, that is together [as the CIA and MI6]. We are working together with our liaison partner [NIS] to get things done. We’re meeting with SIS [MI6] and saying, ‘Hey here’s what we’re doing on this case’, you know, this is how we’re trying to push them, ‘we’re giving them this’ and they [MI6] would respond in kind.”

The former official added: “There were British-centred cases, there are US-centred cases, and I think on both sides, and in parallel, we’re all giving them training, equipment and money etc – I won’t talk about the amounts – to try and get it done, and then have oversight.”

One of the RRT’s major coups occurred in August 2009 when Kenyan and Western intelligence agencies detected a plot to stage simultaneous attacks on three hotels in Nairobi, one of which was to be visited by then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. A subsequent operation, driven by the CIA and NIS, pinpointed the location of suspects who were then captured by the RRT.

Out of gratitude to Kenyan intelligence, and “to bolster what we thought was already a pretty good relationship”, five months later then CIA chief Leon Panetta paid a secret visit to Kenya to meet with Michael Gichangi, then NIS director, a former US official familiar with the meeting recalled.

“Gichangi was absolutely a world-class spymaster. He did a great song and dance. A very polished guy, very glib. He gave a great presentation,” the former official said. With a successful meeting for the visiting CIA director, the former official continued, “The outcome was, let’s push ahead, let’s try to deepen this, let’s try to do more.”

 ‘Let’s go get ‘em’

Less than six months after this meeting, the US would come to heavily rely on its Kenyan intelligence partner, and the RRT commandos, amidst fall out from one of the worst terrorist attacks to hit the region in recent history.

On 11 July 2010, football fans had gathered to watch a World Cup match in Uganda when militants bombed a restaurant and rugby club, killing 74 people. Somali militant group Al-Shabaab publicly claimed responsibility, calling the attacks retaliation for Uganda’s involvement in a UN-backed military mission to protect the Somali Transitional Federal Government.

In response to the attack, Kenyan intelligence and police snatched multiple suspects across the Horn of Africa. Press coverage of these operations tended to pinpoint Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) as being responsible. But while the ATPU was involved in some operations, those deemed high-risk or high-value were led by the RRT, at times with CRT support, officers from both teams confirmed.

A plot to kill Hillary Clinton was foiled by the CIA-backed Kenyan paramilitary team

Around 2010, al-Qaeda-inspired militants began targeting tourist sites in Kenya, killing civilians and abducting tourists, and the political barriers to taking action evaporated.

“I think that’s when the Kenyans said ‘this isn’t just about America. We have to do something because they’re hitting us too’,” the former CIA counter-terrorism official said.

Former Kenyan vice president, Kalonzo Musyoka, said that at the time, “The position was taken by the NSC [Kenya’s National Security Council] to exercise the right of ‘active pursuit’, because that [terrorism] was seen to harm our tourism industry,” he added, having served on the Council as deputy president during 2008-2013.

As Kenya waged war against al-Shabaab outside its borders, domestically its covert war on terror suspects was also ramping up, the former CIA counter-terrorism official said. “Once they [Kenya] got on board [with the war on terror], the Recce [RRT] team gets busy… People that were long time targets; they get taken down.”

He added: “Remember, you’ve been building this capacity since ‘02 and in some cases the first work started after ’98. They [RRT] have got some of the best training in the world, some of the best tools, so they start getting active. In some cases they did, some of those targets were cross-border and some of them were inside Kenya.”

The former official continued: “They [RRT] have got the discipline, they’ve got the techniques… and then you’ve got your US advisors [to the RRT], your British advisors [to NIS] and now it’s like ‘hey guys, let’s go get ‘em’. That’s what you started seeing in terms of ‘let’s go get ‘em’.”

But when a target travels into Somalia, “that’s his ass”, the former official added, referring to the deadly US programme of drone strikes, backed by special force raids.

‘Less constraint’

Kenya’s burgeoning role in regional counter-terrorism in this period was shown most clearly by one target who was eventually captured by RRT operatives and is currently serving a jail sentence.

Brought up Catholic in western Kenya, Elgiva Bwire Oliacha converted to Islam in 2005, changing his name to Mohamed Seif. Though Bwire’s journey into radicalisation is not extensively known, in 2009 he made his first attempt to join militants in Somalia, only to be thwarted by Kenyan police.

Reports claim that he eventually reached Somalia two years later, and received training from militants on how to use small arms and stage terrorist attacks. Two months after his return to Kenya, Bwire is said to have recruited others to conduct those attacks.

On 24 October 2011, after receiving intelligence that Bwire had led a grenade attack on a bus stop in Nairobi, killing six and injuring dozens more, RRT commandos descended on Kayole, one of Nairobi’s densely populated neighbourhoods. They captured Bwire, along with a cache of grenades, assault rifles and over 700 rounds of ammunition.

But ATPU officers failed to claim the arrest, as was normal practice, an RRT officer familiar with the operation recounted, forcing personnel from the paramilitary unit to make a rare appearance in court and testify that they had captured Bwire.

Unused to appearing publicly, and fearing cross-examination, an RRT officer recalls anxiety at seeing someone from the unit having to make the court appearance. “Nobody knew [about] our existence, which was good [for] us”, the officer said. However, even though RRT officers appeared in court, few questions were asked about the RRT itself.

There are US laws governing which foreign security services US government bodies can partner with. These include the Leahy Law, which requires human rights vetting of units slated for assistance, training or equipment. But the law only applies to the US military, the State Department and law enforcement agencies, former Washington director at Human Rights Watch, Sarah Margon, said.

Robert Etinger, former deputy general counsel at the CIA, told Declassified in an email that the law does not apply to the intelligence community.

A former senior US official based in Africa, who had knowledge of Kenyan counter-terrorism operations, explained that programmes such as those supporting the RRT are run through the CIA, in part to avoid domestic legal restrictions.

“The Leahy amendment prevents the US from training anybody [we want] that’s going to be useful to us in [offensive] anti-terrorism endeavours,” said the former official. But “friends from across the aisle, the intelligence community, don’t have similar restrictions”.

Had the CIA been required to vet the Kenyan RRT under the terms of the Leahy Law, it may have faced difficult questions about the General Service Unit, the RRT’s parent police unit from which its commandos are selected. One leaked US diplomatic cable from 2009 noted allegations that the GSU “is involved in committing serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings”.

The classified RRT programme is run through the CIA in part to avoid legal restrictions, it is claimed

Former CIA deputy Crumpton disagreed that Leahy Law-related “bureaucratic reasoning” was why the CIA leads counter-terrorism operations in Kenya. Instead, he said, “this conflict, against al-Qaeda and ISIS [Islamic State] and affiliates, is fundamentally driven by intelligence”.

The CIA’s relationship with the RRT endures under Donald Trump’s presidency, US officials and RRT commandos confirmed.

A senior State Department official with knowledge of the CIA-RRT liaison explained: “The relationship goes back some way and we keep reinvesting in them because of that perception that we have, that they are somewhat more professional than the rest of the police.”

But under Trump, its operations are even less constrained than before, according to US officials. The CIA, and the paramilitary teams it supports, would encounter little criticism from the White House, a former senior CIA counter-terrorism official said.

“At the end of the day, Trump is not going to castigate them for violating human rights.”

He added: “You can brief Trump and tell him ‘the Kenyans just went and killed five targets unilaterally’ and Trump’s going to be like ‘and your point is? These are bad guys right?’

“So I think that if you’re the Agency [CIA], you’re going to keep working and hope the Kenyans keep trying to take down your targets in a way that is palatable.”

A former senior State Department official based in Africa agreed. “I would certainly think the Kenyans would feel under much less constraint, in terms of how they operate, than they ever did before under previous administrations.”

Grant Harris, a former special assistant to former president Barack Obama and senior director for African affairs between 2011-2015, told Declassified: “What we’re seeing now in the Trump administration is… less emphasis on governance, on human rights, on economic growth and development and a greater emphasis not just on security issues, but specifically counterterrorism and security tools.”

He added: “I’m very concerned this is militarising US-Africa policy, across the continent, in East Africa and elsewhere.”

Read Part 1 of this investigation here.
Read Part 3 of this investigation here.

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