Pirates In Paradise
Oct 17, 2011 1:00 AM EDT
David and Judith Tebbutt planned to wrap up their Kenya vacation in style. After a week in the vast Maasai Mara wildlife reserve, the British couple headed to the powdery white beaches of Kiwayu Safari Village, an exclusive resort on Kenya’s northern coast. Previous guests at its 18 thatched huts have included Mick Jagger and princes William and Harry, but on this particular night the Tebbutts had the place all to themselves. After dinner the 58-year-old publishing executive and his 56-year-old wife, a social worker, walked in the moonlight along the edge of the sea to their secluded $1,720-a-night lodgings.
Shortly after midnight, one of the resort’s watchmen heard a single gunshot. David Tebbutt was found face down across the bed, its mosquito net cradling his head, dead from a bullet through his chest. His wife was gone. Footprints in the sand showed how she had been marched more than a kilometer up the shore to a cove where a skiff had apparently been moored. A search started immediately, but there was little hope of finding her. The resort is only a short distance south of a land that for the past generation has had no law but the gun: Somalia.
The Sept. 11 incident proved to be only the first in a series of unprecedented attacks. Twenty nights later and some 110 kilometers farther down the coast, a gang of Somali gunmen kidnapped Marie Dedieu, 66, a retired French journalist. And last week, even as Kenya’s armed forces strengthened their presence against attacks from the sea, suspected members of Somalia’s militant Islamist group Al-Shabab grabbed two Spanish women who were working for Doctors Without Borders in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, some 240 kilometers inland. The sprawling city of makeshift tents and huts has become home to roughly 450,000 Somalis who have been driven from their own country by war and famine. (A senior Shabab official denied that his group had anything to do with the abduction.)
Somalia’s problems have boiled over and are threatening Kenya, one of the few dependably stable countries in the region. In the past the failed state’s pirates confined their attacks to ships on the open sea, and the Islamists focused their ransom kidnappings on aid workers inside Somalia. Now both groups are making hostage-taking raids on dry land, and the Kenyan nation itself is a victim. Tourism, a mainstay of the economy, was already hit hard by the global recession. But since the attacks began, vacationers have canceled their reservations en masse. Foreign investors have halted funding for major projects until the government sorts out its security problems. And the people whose livelihoods depend on tourism—not only the hoteliers, restaurateurs, shopkeepers, and employees, but their entire communities—have no idea when or if the affluent visitors will ever come back.
The loss of jobs is being felt as far away as Nairobi, where tourists routinely stop over before heading out on safari and then going east to the beaches on the Indian Ocean. Many longtime residents of the northern coast have pulled out, looking for safer places to wait until they feel comfortable about going back. Although Somali bandits have been making forays into Kenya for more than 30 years, the attack on the Tebbutts was another matter entirely. Dedieu’s kidnapping showed that the first raid was not an isolated case. And the seizing of the Spanish women suggests that Westerners may be at risk anywhere in Kenya.
The Frenchwoman’s abductors clearly knew what they were about. They landed their eight-meter fiberglass skiff on the beach directly outside her winter residence, a spacious thatched hut on Manda island in the Lamu archipelago, in the early hours of Oct. 1. Dedieu had returned from her summer in France only a day before. Dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying assault rifles, the intruders first made their way to the rear of the property, where most members of Dedieu’s household staff lived, and awakened them at gunpoint, demanding in broken Swahili to be led to the ‘mzungu’—the foreigner. When one servant tried to argue, a gunman slammed her with his rifle butt.
As the Somalis forced their way into the main hut, Dedieu’s companion, a 39-year-old Kenyan named John Lepapa, leaped from his bed to protect her. One of the men fired at him, and Lepapa managed to escape through a window. At the beach hut next door, an elderly caretaker heard the commotion and ran to intervene. A gunman fired three shots at him, and the old man dived for cover in the remains of a fallen baobab tree at the property’s edge. Dedieu had no way to save herself; she’s been confined to a wheelchair ever since an accident years ago. The Somalis tried to force her to stand up and walk before dragging her out of the hut, nearly naked, while the housemaids begged them at least to carry her. Tossing their prisoner into the boat, the men put out to sea, leaving behind both Dedieu’s wheelchair and the cancer medication she’s supposed to take every four hours. The raid took less than 20 minutes.
Dedieu’s friends and neighbors are furious with the government—and particularly with their local law enforcers. People on Manda immediately began dialing the emergency number for the police station, on nearby Lamu island, but the calls went unanswered until 6 a.m., more than three hours after the attack. The cops sent a boat to Manda to investigate, but soon returned to Lamu to gather reinforcements—which was not a simple task. Although Lamu’s police have three boats, each equipped with twin 115-horsepower outboard engines, two of the boats were out of commission that morning. Instead officers had to hire one 140-horsepower craft from a local captain and requisition another from the Kenya Wildlife Serv-ice. By the time the necessary paperwork was filled out and the boats were gassed up, it was 8 o’clock. They headed north at full speed.
People on Manda knew better than to wait for the police to respond. Around 4 that morning, someone phoned three local pilots—charter air-service owner Roland Purcell and luxury-hotel proprietors Andy Roberts and Fuzz Dyer—who dressed as quickly as they could and headed for their planes. All three had done what they could in the search for Judith Tebbutt three weeks earlier, but her kidnappers had too much of a head start. This time the pilots had no intention of letting another gang of kidnappers slip away. By first light they were on the runway at the controls of two Cessna 206 planes, and at 6 a.m. they were in the air. Purcell flew solo.
They traced the coast north, with one plane staying five kilometers offshore and the other flying 10 kilometers out. Forty-five minutes later they spotted a skiff heading north, just south of Kiwayu Safari Village. The pilots had no doubt that they had found the kidnappers. “We knew we had the right boat when we realized we were being shot at,” says Dyer. They couldn’t see Dedieu, but they figured she had to be under a tarpaulin that had been thrown across the bottom of the skiff. The pilots reported the kidnappers’ location to the Kenyan Navy and circled overhead. The boat sped up, and the pilots continued to send regular updates on its position.
The Kenyan Navy had sent out a small skiff to intercept the kidnappers, but it struck a coral reef and capsized. The pilots saw the sailors in the water as the Cessnas flew on after the kidnappers. At least two of the 10 sailors aboard were killed, according to the Lamu police. One of the dead later washed ashore, and another died after being transported to a hospital in Mombasa. A third reportedly remains missing.
A little farther north, the pilots spotted a pair of Kenyan Navy attack boats that apparently had been on patrol along the border. Roberts and Dyer managed to get the mobile-phone number for the captain of one of the boats, and the pilots guided the vessels toward the kidnappers’ skiff. When the Kenyans closed in on their quarry, Dyer says, there was “a serious exchange of gunfire,” although he can’t say whether anyone was hit. The kidnappers managed to slip past their pursuers, but the attack boats gave chase and again caught up to the kidnappers, who answered with a storm of gunfire. The spatter of bullets on the water was visible near the two attack boats—and then a cloud of smoke appeared above the skiff, followed by a big splash not far from one attack boat’s bow. It was a rocket-propelled grenade, says Dyer.
The pilots watched helplessly as the skiff reached Somalia’s territorial waters around 9:15. The Kenyans broke off their pursuit, apparently unwilling to violate Somalia’s sovereignty. “They were probably scared,” says a Lamu police officer. “None of them even know how to swim.” But Purcell followed the skiff north, while Roberts and Dyer flew back to the Kenyan naval air base at Kiunga to refuel. About six and a half kilometers north of the Islamist stronghold of Ras Kamboni, the kidnappers beached their skiff at a deserted spit of land. Carrying Dedieu, they walked a short distance inland and settled down in the shade of an acacia tree. Purcell and his partners stayed there until dark, circling the area in relays, one plane keeping watch while the other flew south to refuel. The gunmen never moved.
The pilots say they spent the whole day in communication with foreign forces who kept promising help. The three men wanted to be there to point out the spot where the gunmen were hiding. “There was talk of French, U.S., and U.K. military being activated,” says Dyer. “That’s why we hung in until last light.” At about 4 o’clock a Kenyan Navy helicopter flew in briefly to disable the skiff, in case the kidnappers decided to sail on, but no one else showed up. The last image the pilots had before they gave up and flew home was of Dedieu and her kidnappers sheltering under that acacia as darkness descended. At dawn the next morning, Purcell returned to look for her, having memorized the acacia’s precise location, but she and the gunmen were gone.
As we went to press, there had been no public ransom demands for any of the kidnapped Europeans. The Spanish aid workers were last seen in a vehicle that was speeding toward Somalia, with Kenyan security forces in hot pursuit. The vehicle was found abandoned a day later, some 20 kilometers from the border. The aid workers remained missing. Dedieu’s situation may be even more precarious, although the French government is said to have reason to believe she’s alive. Two days after her kidnapping, members of the French Consulate were at the Peponi Hotel bar, just across the channel from Manda, when an urgent call from their embassy in Nairobi sent them frantically in search of John Lepapa to pick up her cancer medication—and late last week her captors reportedly promised that she would receive it. The Frenchwoman is thought to be in Somalia’s Shabab–controlled southern tip, possibly in Kismaayo—assuming she is in fact alive. There have been no formal arrests in connection with her case, although the elderly caretaker next door was jailed overnight after losing his temper when police questioned him.
And the kidnapped Englishwoman, Judith Tebbutt? She’s thought to be in the village of Amara, inland from the coastal town of Xarardheere, a notorious nest of pirates roughly 400 kilometers up the coast from Mogadishu. Amara is where a pirate known as Buggas held Paul and Rachel Chandler prisoner for more than a year after capturing the British couple’s yacht off the Seychelles in October 2009. Early last year the hardline Islamists of Al-Shabab boasted that they had driven the pirates out of Xarardheere, but since then the two groups appear to have reached a financial understanding despite their radically differ-ent lifestyles. Al-Shabab has gone so far as to issue a public denial that it is holding Tebbutt.
The day after the Englishwoman’s disappearance, a former Kiwayu Safari Village night watchman was arrested in connection with the case. A farmer from a nearby village tipped off the cops that Ali Babitu Kololo, a member of the hunter-gatherer Boni tribe, had been seen in Kiunga village, just south of the Somali border. The Boni have traditionally traded with their Somali neighbors and were formerly known to serve as scouts for Somali ivory poachers, back when the region still had elephants. Hearing that police were looking for him, Kololo turned himself in. A lanky, youthful-looking father of three, he was arraigned in Lamu on Sept. 19 and entered a plea of not guilty to a charge of Òrobbery with violence.Ó He admitted to investigators that he led a gang of Somalis to Kiwayu Safari Village but insisted that the men had forced him at gunpoint to be their guide.
At this point, no one can be sure just what’s behind the pirates’ apparent change of prey. Some observers think intensified military vigilance and tougher shipboard security may be causing the pirates to make a long-term shift to softer targets. “The kidnappings suggest a new modus operandi for piracy in general—that the value in piracy no longer lies in ships or vessels but in the individual hostages themselves,” says Alan Cole, the program coordinator for counterpiracy at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. He traces the trend back to the capture of the Chandlers aboard their yacht in 2009. Their captors initially demanded $7 million but finally settled for approximately $930,000 in ransom money contributed by London’s community of Somali taxi drivers hoping to rescue their country’s blighted reputation.
Others say the change is only temporary. The region’s monsoon season has deterred pirates from prowling the commercial shipping lanes the way they do in fair weather, and dry-land kidnapping may only be a new way for them to make money until the storms are past. For the time being, however, no one wants to take chances. “We are trying to head off a catastrophe,” Dyer said at a security meeting in Lamu two days after the Dedieu kidnapping. George Moorhead, the owner of Kiwayu Safari Village, was also at the meeting. He stood staring at the floor like a mourner at a funeral.
These days their tropical paradise looks more like a war zone (minus the bullet-riddled buildings). “Before, there was no security at all,” says Stefano Moccia, owner of The Majlis, a $1,700-a-night hotel on Manda island. “Now it must be forever.” Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie spent this past New Year’s Eve at his hotel, and Kenya’s prime minster, Raila Odinga, was a guest there in the spring. In the wake of Dedieu’s kidnapping, eight armed police officers patrol the length of Manda beach from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.—not to mention the four police officers who are stationed in front of the Peponi Hotel on Shela beach; the military helicopter now based at Manda island’s airport; and the Kenyan Navy patrol boat that sits in the channel between Shela and Manda islands—the same channel the kidnappers used when they grabbed Dedieu.
Perched on a small sand bluff just down the beach from Dedieu’s grass hut, the hotel also employs a team of Maasai night watchmen armed with clubs and belted knives, just to stay on the safe side. For what it’s worth, Moccia agrees with local authorities and other hoteliers that Dedieu’s kidnappers must have had inside information. “Someone on the island knew she was coming back to Lamu and tipped them off,” Moccia says. (Never mind that the kidnappers appeared to have no idea that Dedieu needed a wheelchair.) “No guards, right on the beach—it was easy.”
Still, police and private guards are no guarantee of safety. Kiwayu Safari Village’s Moorhead requested extra police protection in the days before the Tebbutt murder-kidnapping. Gangs of armed Somalis had been seen lurking in the neighborhood. According to Steven Ikua, the district commissioner for West Lamu, there were 20 uniformed police officers patrolling the area around the resort that night, in addition to the dozen or so watchmen Moorhead routinely employed. High seas and a strong wind kept anyone from hearing the gunshot except one of those watchmen, who told one of the cops. When asked what the remaining watchmen were doing at the time, a Kenyan government official just shook his head and smiled: “Probably sleeping.”
Will the kidnappers come back? “Not possible now,” Ikua declares. “We have put men on the border and warships at sea. We are now well equipped so that it never happens again.” Dyer isn’t so hopeful. “All of Kenya is dangerous for kidnappings,” he says. “Eastleigh [a Somali neighborhood in Nairobi] may as well be Mogadishu—you can kidnap someone in the middle of Nairobi, take them to Eastleigh, and keep them there for as long as you like. Nobody’s going to find them.” To Robert Young Pelton, author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places and editor of the blog Somalia Report, there’s only one way to be sure. “Let’s hope people drop from the sky and put some bullets in surprised foreheads,” he says. “That should dampen their ardor. Pirates are in it for the money, and because there are no penalties for audacity.”
Still, that’s no way to bring back the tourists. While Kenyan security forces patrol the country’s seacoast towns and territorial waters, resorts and hotels stand empty. Their staffs have been sent home with no way to feed their families. How desperate would they have to become before northern Kenya turns into another Somalia? No one wants to find out. But the fact is that until Kenya finds the political will to sort out its glaring lack of security, the country will continue to be more like Somalia than anyone cares or dares to admit. And for now, the waters around Lamu’s islands, ordinarily a cacophony of boat engines and tourists’ laughter, are eerily quiet.
Editor’s note: The print version of this story in Newsweek described Moorhead as sitting and wearing a jacket.
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Margot Kiser is a Kenya-based American correspondent covering piracy, geopolitics, and wildlife conservation in East Africa. She is currently at work on a memoir of her life as a safari wife in post-socialist Tanzania, where she established a wildlife-conservation area at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.
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