A day before being killed in August 2019, 45-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, Mohamed ‘Modi’ Mwatsumiro was heard arguing with his wife at their tin roof dwelling in the small town of Ngombeni, on the south coast of Kenya.
Modi had ordered her to leave with their young child and stay with her family.
“Even though she really tried to resist, he was insistent that she must leave with the child. He became aggressive and she had to give in. It was as if he was expecting something to happen that night,” a neighbour told Kenya’s leading newspaper hours after Modi was killed.
It is not known whether Modi had asked his wife to leave because he feared he was a marked man, but Kenyan police suspected he was linked to a suicide bomber involved in the DusitD2 hotel complex terrorist attack in Nairobi in January 2019, which killed 21 people including a US citizen.
Somalia-based group al-Shabaab, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and British governments, among others, claimed it had ordered the operation in retaliation for the US decision to relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Eight months later, on 30 August, the same Kenyan paramilitary team that swept in to repel the DusitD2 attackers reappeared, this time at Modi’s mud-stone home which sits among thickets of coconut palms, cashew and neem trees.
What followed took a familiar pattern for night time counter-terror raids in Kenya, many of which remain shrouded in mystery and rumour.
At just after 4am, Kenyan paramilitary commandos arrived in unmarked vehicles, armed with US-made M4 assault rifles and Glock pistols.
Ordering concerned neighbours to stay indoors, the plainclothes officers stormed Modi’s home.
After the commandos breached his property, Modi hurled a grenade that failed to detonate, police later claimed.
Seldom does a suspect emerge alive in such raids. Modi was no exception.
A covert war
The commandos who raided Modi’s home 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 counter-terror operations by America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a Declassified investigation can reveal.
The secretive Kenyan team is informally known as the Rendition Operations Team and is composed of around 60 police commandos.
The CIA’s covert programme, which began in 2004, is managed by a paramilitary liaison officer at the US embassy in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, but has until now successfully avoided public scrutiny.
Based on interviews with over two dozen CIA, US State Department and Kenyan intelligence, paramilitary and police officers, this investigation has found that in its 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 creation of the RRT was “an indigenous solution to an indigenous problem”, a former senior CIA counter-terrorism official told this investigation.
Former deputy chief (operations) of the 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, continued, “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.”
A former senior US official based in Africa with knowledge of US-Kenyan counter-terrorism operations said that the same agencies, CIA and MI6, also determined the fate of the target.
“It’s the intelligence services identifying the threat, figuring a way out to mitigate the threat, figuring out that this is going to be a law enforcement end state [capture] or not [kill] and then dealing with it”.
The decision around the fate of a given target would be decided “between us [the CIA] and your guys on the intel side [MI6]”, the former US official continued.
“We had these conversations about ‘what are we going to do with this [or that] guy?’. You know given these set of facts, what can we do with these guys?”
Modi’s post-mortem report references seven gunshot entry wounds from RRT fire: two to his left elbow, another in the right forearm, two in his chest and a further two gunshots wounds in his left upper jaw, with exit wounds in his lower jaw.
“We knew him,” Modi’s neighbour Ali Matete told reporters the day after the killing.
“He conducted his prayers here, in this area, and in our mosque. But we do not know what he did. When we saw the incident today, we asked ourselves [what is going on] because we’re in darkness.”
Just over a month after Modi was killed, RRT paramilitaries were in action again, in a dawn raid on a house in neighbouring Mombasa county.
Police alleged the men inside were linked to Modi and had planned to launch terror attacks.
After another alleged “shootout” the three suspects emerged in body bags.
While the precise number of RRT kill or capture raids against terror suspects is unknown due to the clandestine nature of the force’s operations, Declassified has investigated over a dozen cases.
In many instances, suspects raided by the RRT have ended up dead, with a police spokesperson subsequently claiming the target was armed and dangerous.
But this investigation has also found cases of mistaken killings and alleged summary executions.
Khelef Khalifa, chair of Kenyan human rights organisation Muhuri, said: “When these extrajudicial killings happen, Muslims feel they are under siege because they cannot comprehend why the government cannot arrest these people and take them to court, instead of killing them.”
Intent on remaining in the shadows, once suspects are “neutralised” – killed or captured – the plainclothes commandos of the RRT hand control of the operation to local police; typically Kenya’s Anti-terrorism Police Unit (ATPU).
In doing so, the RRT successfully avoids scrutiny – let alone accountability – for operations now spanning over a decade.
So, too, does its American backers.
“The present government targets [people] in extrajudicial killings. And takes out people in Mombasa, like Rogo,” former Kenyan vice president, Kalonzo Musyoka said, referring to the late cleric Aboud Rogo who was killed by an unidentified hit squad in 2012. Police reports after Modi was killed claimed he had been radicalised by Rogo.
Describing the killings as “unconstitutional”, the former Vice President added: “This has spread bitterness…but because we are doing the bidding of the West in the war on terror, they are allowed to.”
RRT commandos and their American backers stressed that the Kenyan force is not strictly a ‘kill team’ in the way ‘Tier 1’ special force units, such as Delta Force and Seal Team 6, can and do receive express orders to take out targets.
“It’s not the same as having Seal Team 6 go after a target…[but] it’s not like it’s going to be investigated if it ends up in a military end-state [killed]”, the former senior US official explained.
However, in a case investigated by Declassified, an officer confided that the unit was explicitly tasked to “eliminate” a high-value terror suspect, only to wrongly kill a family man.
In two other cases, witnesses say the suspects were killed by RRT commandos without any armed resistance.
The former senior US official added, “There’s never a real investigation by the Kenyan government. They don’t want to get to the bottom of it. It’s just not going to happen.”
Defenders of the RRT say it has been instrumental in neutralising the threat from al-Shabaab. While the Kenyan and international press have made no mention of the RRT’s central role in counter-terrorism operations, multiple US and RRT sources confirmed that the CIA-supported team played a lead role in successfully neutralising the Garissa and DusitD2 attackers.
“He was a religious person and the Kenyan government goes after religious people,” Faraj’s wife Rahma Ali said. “Several people had died in such scenarios. I thought he’d be killed.”
Mombasa had already witnessed a string of unexplained killings of radical Muslim figures. Two months prior to Faraj’s killing, unknown assailants gunned down the radical cleric, Aboud Rogo, sparking three days of riots.
The raid that unfolded at Faraj’s home was reported as being by Kenya’s ATPU, but this investigation has learned that it was in fact led by the CIA-supported RRT.
According to a Kenyan officer briefed on the operation, on the night of the raid the team was, in fact, hunting for Fuad Abubakar Manswab, the alleged mastermind of a foiled 2011 terror attack in Mombasa, whom authorities believed to be hiding in the neighbourhood. Manswab was thought to be “armed and dangerous and someone who can engage and kill,” the officer said, noting that “he escaped a prior operation with a wound”. So the RRT were instructed to “eliminate” him.
But the Kenyan officer, corroborating further accounts obtained by Declassified, recounted how an intelligence informant mistakenly led the paramilitary team to Faraj’s home, believing that Manswab was there.
“The operation’s target was somewhere else, but there was some mix-up and they headed to the wrong house,” the officer said.
Unaware they were targeting the wrong home, the commandos broke down the door and fired tear gas inside.
Faraj took his wife’s hand as they climbed out of their bedroom window, hoping to scale their neighbour’s wall and reach the safety of his brother’s nearby home. They never made it.
Faraj’s wife, Rahma Ali, remembers watching the commandos open fire on her husband, who was balanced on a flowerpot trying to climb the wall.
They hit him in the temple, and he fell back on top of her, blood streaming from his head.
Fearing that the commandos would kill her too, Ali, who was covered in Faraj’s blood, says she played dead next to him.
In plainclothes but, according to Ali, sporting body armour and M4 carbines supplied by the CIA, the operatives approached and stood over the couple, surveying their kill.
As she lay terrified on the floor, Ali heard one of the commandos say they should make sure she was dead. But the man’s superior overruled him, declaring, “We’ve finished the job.”
Kill or capture
Faraj’s killing epitomised a shift in RRT priorities. Initially designed and trained to capture terror suspects for detention, interrogation and possible rendition to other countries, its objectives appear to have shifted mid-way through President Obama’s first term in office, at a time when suspects in Kenya became harder to capture.
“In the days before, these guys [terror suspects] were never violent and never armed”, explained a former ATPU officer who shadowed RRT commandos on multiple tactical operations. “So it was not hard to arrest them. It’s only after 2011, when Kenyan forces went into Somalia and Kenya became a legitimate target, so they are always armed. They brought a lot of arms into Kenya…[and] they can really give a good fight. So that is where the use of the Recce [RRT] came in.”
By 2011, America’s preferences for dealing with terror suspects had already been embraced in the war in Afghanistan in the form of the Joint Prioritised Effects List (JPEL), a US-UK secret list of priority targets designated for kill or capture, the former senior US official based in Africa said.
Describing JPEL targets as a list of problems to be “eliminated”, the former official continued, “That’s the mentality that carried over. I’m sorry to say, and it sounds obnoxious to say it, but it’s something we did there [in Kenya].”
Current and former members of the RRT stressed their objectives prioritise capture over killing. However, they all confirmed that any perceived threat or resistance from targets is to be met with lethal force.
“I don’t have to shoot if I don’t see your hand”, a RRT officer said, describing the team’s rules of engagement.
“Because the hand is the most dangerous part…But if you have something in your hands, I don’t have to spare you because you mean danger to me.”
However, while al-Shabaab’s attack on DusitD2 claimed fewer casualties than the earlier Westgate and Garissa attacks, experts described the raid as “representing a new and dangerous phase in the group’s evolution”, since it was the first major operation relying on Kenyan nationals of non-Somali descent.
Capitalising on the DusitD2 attack, in September 2019 al-Shabaab car bombers hit US and European military bases in Somalia. While the operations missed their targets, within two months a group of UN experts declared that al-Shabaab’s use of improvised explosive devices reached its “greatest extent in Somali history”.
For critics of the West and Kenya’s war on terror, recent events are ominous. “We are being hit all the time. Because we are being seen as pro-American, pro-West”, former Kenyan vice president Kalonzo Musyoka said. “It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when we get attacked again. For as long as we have our troops inside Somalia.”