TARGETING AL SHABAAB

Revealed: The CIA and MI6 secret war in Kenya

Police deny US and UK counterterrorism agencies help Kenya take down terror suspects

In Summary

 Police deny investigative report that a clandestine Kenyan is paid and assisted by the CIA to take down terror suspect, calls it malicious. 

• Britain’s MI6 also plays a key role in identifying suspects for a ‘kill or capture’ list and finding and fixing their location.

KDF soldiers in Somalia.
WAR ON TERROR: KDF soldiers in Somalia.
Image: FILE

A covert Kenyan paramilitary team armed and trained by the US CIA and supported by UK intelligence is behind renditions and controversial killings of terror suspects, the Star can reveal.

An investigation by Declassified UK, the Daily Maverick in South Africa and the Star have revealed how a clandestine Kenyan team has been paid and assisted by the Central Intelligence Agency to take down terror suspects since 2004.

Britain’s MI6 also plays a key role in identifying suspects for a ‘kill or capture’ list and finding and fixing their locations. 

 

The investigation further reveals paramilitaries use covert tactics such as fake number plates and disguise themselves as aid workers on operations in refugee camps, which 'shield perpetrators of abuses from any shred of accountability'.

The commandos who have been raiding the homes of suspected terrorists belong to the Rapid Response Team (RRT), a clandestine 'special team’ of the Kenyan paramilitary General Service Unit’s Recce Company.

The RRT was set up, equipped, trained and is guided on tactical counterterrorism operations by America’s CIA, a Declassified UK investigation can reveal. 

The secretive Kenyan team is informally known as the Rendition Operations Team and is comprised of about 60 police commandos.

The CIA’s covert programme, which began in 2004, is managed by a paramilitary liaison officer at the US embassy in Nairobi, but until now has successfully avoided public scrutiny. 

Police spokesman Charles Owino dismissed the report saying, “It is malicious and serving certain interests.”

Owino told the Star on Sunday that security units dealing with terrorism are well known and in public domain, saying that is no special squad.

 

“I am not aware of such a team, a Rendition Operations Team. We have an Anti-Terrorism Unit and the National Counter Terrorism Centre which is multi-agency. These are open agencies, he told the Star on the phone.

He added, “We do not kill suspects. Killing suspects is like killing information.

“It is retrogressive to kill suspects, more so those involved in terrorism. So those are just reports by people who want to tarnish our name and that of out dedicated security officers.”

COVERT WAR 

This investigation is based on interviews with more than two dozen CIA, US State Department and Kenyan intelligence, paramilitary and police officers.

In 16 years of operation, the CIA-backed team has been responsible for the capture of high-value terror suspects, as well as rendition operations, killings and alleged summary executions, the interviews reveal.

The creation of the RRT was “an indigenous solution to an indigenous problem”, a former senior CIA counter-terrorism official told this investigation.

“Our leadership at CTC (CIA Counterterrorism Center) and others felt that setting up these units was important: it was something that gives value to the partnership and it puts a unit under our control for when we have targets that we feel need to go down.," the official said.

Often, the paramilitary team’s raids are driven by intelligence provided by the CIA itself, as well as Kenya’s National Intelligence Service (NIS).

The American and British governments provide covert support to Kenya to help it defeat al Shabaab, the Somalia-based, al-Qaeda-linked group that has carried out dozens of deadly attacks in Kenya.

Shabaab's most high-profile atrocities have been committed at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013, where it killed 67 people, and at Garissa University College in 2015 when it killed 148 people. 

In 2019, al Shabaab killed 21 people in an attack on the luxury DusitD2 complex on Riverside Driver in Nairobi.

Al Shabaab and its sympathisers are also behind a number of high-profile abductions and attempts to kill foreign dignitaries, including a plot to bomb then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Kenya in 2009. 

Former deputy chief of operations at CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, Henry Crumpton, explained the nature of the war on terror in Kenya. “It’s a different type of conflict, a different type of war. And it is intelligence-driven.” 

Crumpton, who led the CIA’s war in Afghanistan in 2001, went on, “I think that’s why the CIA really has had the lead in many areas, long before any others, because the CIA was there and the CIA was providing value to those partners and the operations, whether they are diplomatic or law enforcement or military, even economic, all those instruments of statecraft, they’re all informed and driven by the intelligence. That’s the foundation for this conflict.” 

Housed at a secretive base in the town of Ruiru, Kiambu, 30 kilometers east of Nairobi, the ranks of the Rapid Response Team have thinned in recent years as some members have decamped to Kenya’s burgeoning private security sector, which offers better pay and working conditions.

To counter these temptations, the CIA’s paramilitary liaison to the RRT provides regular financial support, including allowances for operations and bonuses for successful missions.

This is designed to supplement the low wages of Kenyan police officers. Injured operatives are given cash payouts and treatment at Nairobi’s private Aga Khan hospital. RRT officers call these "motivation packages".

The RRT also receives weapons and equipment from the CIA. Initially supplied with M16 assault rifles, then M4 carbines, they have also received Glock pistols, M79 grenade launchers, body armour, helmets and M67 and Stinger CS grenades.

The RRT’s operations appear to need sign-off from the US. Multiple RRT sources independently confirmed that the team is not to be deployed by its Kenyan command for tactical anti-terror operations without the knowledge and consent of its US embassy handlers.

Since 2004, the CIA has paid for RRT commandos to fly to the US for SWAT-style training in rendition and disruption operations, including reconnaissance and surveillance, storming a building, close-quarters battle and weapons handling at locations that include the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

The US role goes further. The CIA paramilitary liaison, based at the US Embassy in Nairobi, is directly involved in planning some of the RRT’s operations. 

Occasionally, CIA operatives themselves have participated in operations, US officials and Kenyan RRT officers confirmed. “If they really, really want the results, they will even assist directly,” one mid-ranking Kenyan paramilitary officer said.

CIA paramilitary officers and contractors have also assisted the RRT by conducting surveillance and tracking of a target, either remotely or from a nearby safehouse or vehicle. However, even as they observe operations unfolding, they maintain a careful distance, RRT officers said.

BRITAIN'S ROLE

Working closely with its counterparts at the Counterterrorism Unit of Kenya’s NIS, the CIA identifies suspects and prepares target packages –  intelligence and analysis on a given suspect – that include actionable intelligence.

Together they decide a given target’s fate in a so-called 'disposition matrix' that includes options ranging from arrest to using lethal force,the former senior US official based in Africa said.

In 2015, then CIA director John Brennan told an audience, “We exchange information with our counterparts around the world to identify and track down men and women believed to be violent extremists… Our cooperation with foreign liaison quietly achieves significant results. Working together, we have disrupted terrorist attacks and rolled back groups that plot them.” 

In formulating the target packages, CIA officers in Nairobi also work closely with their counterparts at MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service. MI6 relies on its long-standing human intelligence network to provide actionable intelligence by finding and tracking targets and infiltrating militants' circles.

MI6 boasts a specialisation in human intelligence, tracking and infiltration operations. Such capabilities are often relied on by the CIA in Kenya and other covert counter-terrorism operations, such as those in Yemen, two former senior US officials confirmed.

Leaked US diplomatic cables show that for more than a decade, Kenya’s NIS has had “primary responsibility for CT [counterterrorism]” in the country. As lead agency, the NIS is the principal beneficiary and conduit of the bulk of CIA and MI6’s efforts in Kenya, former senior CIA and State Department officials confirmed. 

“They [NIS] were the meat and potatoes of everything we did,”the former senior State Department official said. “The police didn’t have much of an intel capability. Actionable information always flowed through the intelligence service.”

Unlike the CIA, actionable intelligence from MI6 does not reach the RRT paramilitaries directly, but through its CIA and NIS counterparts.

‘ARCTIC’

As well as working with the CIA on target development, MI6 also collaborates with a dedicated team of Kenyan intelligence officers, as part of a liaison cell within NIS’ Counterterrorism Unit, codenamed ARCTIC, multiple Kenyan and US intelligence officials confirmed.

At times, the NIS ARCTIC cell works directly with RRT operatives in finding targets and fixing their location before sending in the RRT.

One of MI6’s targets included British national Jermaine Grant. He had sneaked back into Kenya after allegedly receiving paramilitary training in Somalia and was an associate of British terror suspect Samantha Lewthwaite, dubbed the ‘White Widow’.

Killing Grant, a British national, would have focused scrutiny of the relationship between Britain and Kenya’s security forces. So in 2011, RRT officers, guided by NIS ARCTIC agents working in collaboration with MI6, led an operation to capturehim, two Kenyan officers familiar with the operation confirmed. (read the detailed version on the Star Website) 

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 the UK’s role in the world. 

 

Read Part 2 of this investigation tomorrow

(Edited by V. Graham)