New reporting on paramilitary police unit in secret US Kenya counterterrorism operations

Revised September 6

Americans in Washington on the record, and a key American who is not identified by name or specific agency, tell much of the story of the development of the Kenya counterterrorism relationship with the US since the 1998 al-Queda embassy bombing in a two part series from “UK Declassified”.

Particular focus is on the establishment and operation by the Kenyan police paramilitary General Services Unit (GSU) of a special previously secret CIA-supported unit dedicated to capture and render, if not kill in some situations, high value terrorist targets.

This unit was set up under the Kibaki Administration in 2004 and been kept out of the open source media since.

Here is the story (Part One) published in The Daily Maverick through their partnership with “UK Declassified”. And Part Two.

I cannot imagine that the substance of the story is especially surprising to anyone. In a way it’s a story of the interlocking of two bureaucracies and the making of “alphabet soup”. Whereas most Americans paying attention from outside of specific national security roles and most Kenyans would have assumed that the Kenya counterterrorism operations discussed involved the ATPU (Anti-Terrorism Police Unit) branch of the Kenya Police Service, as revealed in the articles, it turns out they involved the GSU branch. On the American side the bureaucratic distinction is that we have been using the CIA in this GSU-support role.  The CIA is a stand alone branch of the Intelligence Community, rather than one of the units under the military command structure.

The fact that some mistakes would be made and “collateral damage” (such as raiding the wrong house and killing the wrong person) incurred in any Kenya Police Service paramilitary operation is hardly surprising. To the contrary it would be foolish not to expect mistakes and my guess would be that the seeming lower volume or rate of errors in these operations compared to what we see from the GSU and the Kenyan Police Service overall has something to do with the involvement of the CIA (as well as the support of the British overseas intelligence organization MI6).

More generally, however, what I was aware of and concerned about as an American democracy assistance NGO worker during the 2007 Kenyan election cycle was that these type of counterterrorism tactics–regardless of the letters in the “alphabet soup” or which utensil is used to eat it–caused genuine fear among Kenyan citizens and potential voters who were members of the Muslim minority.  People we specifically sought to encourage to participate in the democratization process through the election.

The highest profile public use of the GSU by President Kibaki during my time with the International Republican Institute was the deployment of the paramilitary troops to form a perimeter sealing off Uhuru Park in Nairobi in the early weeks of 2008 to prevent protests against his (Kibaki’s) disputed swearing in for a second term from accessing the symbolically important venue for public assembly. (Contra events ten years later for Raila Odinga’s “people’s president” mock swearing in.). See “Were Americans right to be so fearful of Odinga’s ‘People’s President’ swearing in?“, January 31, 2018.

It is important to recognize that in Kenya the Police Service, including the GSU and the ATPU, is under the command of the President as are the Kenya Defense Forces.  Even under the new Constitution approved in 2010 as a part of the February 28, 2008 post-election “peace deal” and National Accord which devolved some core government functions, and even a portion of revenue, to 47 newly created Counties, the entire range of “policing” stays with the national executive.

It seems normal that an article about counterterrorism cooperation would have general comment from former Ambassadors Bellamy and Ranneberger but unusual to have the amount of discussion from the CIA side. I have thoughts about why people spoke up now but they are speculative so I will keep them to myself for the time being. Regardless, it is vitally important that Americans and Kenyans learn from experience, including trial-and-error in facing the challenges of terrorism in the context of laws and policies that place hope in democracy, democratization and the rule of law. So I appreciate the move towards increasing public information both from the press and those interviewed.

Conspicuously absent from the articles is any reference to the December 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia with US support to displace the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu and restore the Transitional Federal Government with related operations by the Kenyan military. This kicked-off the current round of the ongoing war in Somalia.  It also separated out al-Shabaab as an al-Queda affiliate operating a territory-controlling jihadist insurgency in Somalia and operator of persistent regional terrorist attacks over the years.

See my post from June, 2018 below and articles and posts discussed therein for U.S. support for the 2006 Ethiopian invasion, Kenyan engagement, and the consequences:

More context: what happened between Fall 2006 and Spring 2007 that might have changed State Department priorities on democratic reform in Kenya and Kibaki’s re-election?

Kenyans going for water in Eastern Province with jerry cans on red dirtKenyans going for water

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.