April, 8, 2014 — Kenya’s armed forces, bolstered by millions of dollars in U.S. aid and training, are now turning to death squad tactics against civilians who are sympathetic to an Islamist group based in Somalia.
The group is Al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group that claimed responsibility for a deadly attack last year on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Al-Shabaab is a jihadist group dedicated to Islamic fundamentalism and a strict form of Islamic law, and is reportedly funded by a complex web of supporters abroad, the export of charcoal to Gulf Arab states, the slaughter of elephants for the illegal ivory trade, and according to the United Nations, Eritrea. (Eritrea backs the group to bolster its hand against rival Ethiopia, a state that invaded Somalia in 2006.)
Al-Shabaab’s Westgate mall attack came after Kenya’s 2011 invasion of Somalia to fight al-Shabaab, ostensibly to combat the country’s chronic instability that was spilling into Kenya but also to shore up key economic interests, like the profitable port in Lamu, near the Somali border. Kenyan soldiers remain in Somalia, along with thousands of other troops affiliated with the African Union, which in turn fuels al-Shabaab’s anger at Kenya.
Yesterday, the Daily Beast’s Margot Kiser, reporting from Kenya, shined a light on the likely existence of Kenyan death squads aimed at people the security forces see as Islamic preachers sympathetic to al-Shabaab. Kiser wrote that there had been a spate of murders in recent months. The goal of the extrajudicial executions, according to Kiser, is to “exterminate and intimidate people believed to be associated with the Al Shabaab movement in neighboring Somalia.” Religious leaders told Kiser that Kenyan security forces “are targeting them unfairly for persecution if not indeed for summary execution,” though local authorities say they have intelligence linking imams to al-Shabaab.
Kiser profiled one death squad target in particular: Abubakar Shariff Ahmed, an Islamic preacher who admitted to recruiting young people to wage war on the Kenyan government. He preached at the Musa mosque, allegedly associated with Islamist extremism. On February 2nd, Kenyan authorities raided the mosque, leading to clashes that resulted in the deaths of eight people, including a policeman.
The preacher, Ahmed, was gunned down on Tuesday when a car pulled up and people inside sprayed him with bullets. It’s unclear who exactly was responsible, but suspicion rests on Kenyan security forces. A dirty war is being waged on Kenya’s streets, and is likely to intensify.
The U.S. has denied that it has anything to do with the death squads, claiming it has trained Kenyan security to operate in line with human rights. But those claims are dubious. America’s involvement with Kenya’s anti-terror forces is deep. Since 2003, the U.S. has given Kenya $50 million to fight terrorism; the country is one of the five recipients of U.S. anti-terror financing. And the U.S. and the U.K. provide training for Kenya’s fight against al-Shabaab.
The claims of no U.S. involvement are all the more dubious since the U.S. has partnered with Somali militias to hunt down al-Shabaab members, and because of the extensive record of U.S. support for death squads in other countries. Whether in the context of the Cold War or the war on terror, America’s support for death squads has allowed the U.S. to stand back while proxy forces achieve its goals by engaging in the most unsavory of activities: extrajudicial assassinations.
Here are five other countries where the U.S. has supported death squads.
America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq unleashed immense suffering, repression and a brutal civil war drawn on sectarian lines. One of the ways the U.S. fueled the sectarian civil war was by organizing and training death squads, largely to target Sunni Arab resistance to the new political order in the country. (Saddam Hussein systematically repressed Shiite Iraqis, and the tables were turned after America invaded and deposed Hussein.)
The first reports of U.S.-trained and -armed Shiite death squads emerged in 2005. An editorial by the Washington Post then noted that there was a “campaign of torture and murder being conducted by U.S.-trained government police forces.” The full extent of U.S. involvement became known when, in 2013, the Guardian and BBC Arabic conducted an investigation that shed more light on the squads.
Run by Colonel James Steele, a close adviser to General David Petraeus, the paramilitary squads tortured Iraqi prisoners and eventually evolved into death squads. Their goal was to torture Sunni prisoners for information about the resistance to U.S. forces.
As theGuardian reported, “the long-term impact of funding and arming this paramilitary force was to unleash a deadly sectarian militia that terrorised the Sunni community and helped germinate a civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives.”
2. El Salvador
Colonel James Steele’s involvement with Iraq’s death squads came over two decades after he was involved in a similar effort in El Salvador. In 1979, a military coup sparked a brutal civil war pitting the U.S.-backed government against left-wing rebels, inaugurating one of the most bloody chapters of the Cold War in Latin America.
Steele arrived in El Salvador in 1984, where he assumed control of U.S. special forces that trained Salvadoran military units that acted as death squads. The U.S. support for these death squads became known as the “Salvadoran Option.”
These Salvadoran units murdered an untold number of people, probably thousands of Salvadorans thought to be sympathetic or part of the rebel effort. They came to notoriety in 1980 whenfour American nuns were beaten, raped and killed by a death squad. In fact, as journalist Allan Nairn wrote in the Progressive in 1984,Salvadoran military death squads were set up earlier. “During the Kennedy Administration, agents of the US government in El Salvador set up two official security organizations that killed thousands of peasants and suspected leftists over the next fifteen years,” Nairn reported. “These organizations, guided by American operatives, developed into the paramilitary apparatus that came to be known as the Salvadoran Death Squads.”
Since the overthrow of a leftist president in 2009, the U.S. has bolstered support for the right-leaning Honduran government. Part of that effort has been funding Honduran police, even when they engage in death squad activities. The execution targeting suspected gang members are part of the U.S.-backed drug war in the region.
In March 2013, the Associated Press published an expose of these death squads and the U.S. support for them. The State Department has spent millions of dollars a year on the Honduran police. While the U.S. claims the money only goes to vetted and specially trained units, the AP reported that all the police squads are controlled by one man: Juan Carlos Bonilla, who has been linked to death squad activity in the past as well.
“In the last three years, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in the capital of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula,” the AP reported. “The country’s National Autonomous University, citing police reports, has counted 149 civilians killed by police in the last two years, including 25 members of the ’18th Street’ gang, one of the largest and most dangerous in the country.”
This long-standing U.S. ally was one of the first countries where the U.S. set up death squads. The Colombian government has long been engaged in a battle against the FARC, a leftist rebel group.
In 2007, historian Greg Grandin documented the history of America’s Colombian death squads in Salon. In 1962, the Kennedy administration sent General William Yarborough to the country to set up a unit to “execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents.”
“The point of death squads was not just to eliminate those thought to be working with the enemy, but to keep potential rebel sympathizers in a state of fear and anxiety,” wrote Grandin.
The U.S. war in Vietnam in the 1960s also employed death squads run by U.S. forces and South Vietnamese allies. The operations, referred to as the “Phoenix Program,” were aimed at killing suspected communist sympathizers in South Vietnam.
Members of the CIA-organized unit included Navy SEALS, Green Berets and South Vietnamese mercenary units. The “Phoenix Program” lead to the killing of an estimated 20,000 people between 1967-1972.
Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.