Porous Borders, Poverty Make Kenya a Target (WASHINGTON POST) By Emily Wax MOMBASA, Kenya 12/01/02 Page A01)
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MOMBASA, Kenya, Nov. 30 -- Workers at this Indian Ocean city´s
bustling port say drug lords can sneak 600 pounds of cocaine into the
country by slipping a crisp $100 bill into a policeman´s pocket. Land
mines, guns and fake passports can sail through the port for what
dockworkers and police call in Swahili kitu kidogo -- literally
a "little something," but more commonly understood to mean a fat wad
"In Kenya, you can bomb the whole country for a $50 bribe, and
everyone knows it," said Joseph Mutisya, 34, a laborer who works at
the port. "There´s a lot of poverty here. People come from all over --
Yemen, Somalia, the Middle East. They bring weapons. They bring
whatever they want if they pay a bribe."
That kind of "Wild West" atmosphere, combined with desperate poverty,
porous borders and increasingly pro-Palestinian feelings among the
large Muslim population along Kenya´s coast, has made this country an
easy target for the kind of terrorist attacks that claimed 16 lives
here on Thursday, Kenyan officials and Western diplomats said.
Sixteen people -- 10 Kenyans, three Israelis and three suicide
bombers -- were killed at the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel when a
four-wheel-drive vehicle laden with explosives crashed into the hotel
lobby at 8:30 a.m. Moments earlier, two missiles were fired at -- but
missed -- a Boeing 757 as it took off from Mombasa´s airport bound
for Tel Aviv.
Kenya was also the scene of a suicide attack four years ago, when a
truck bomber hit the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, the capital, killing
more than 200 people. The same day, another truck bomb killed a dozen
people at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, capital of neighboring
Investigation of the coordinated embassy bombings led to indictments
against Osama bin Laden and members of his al Qaeda network, four of
whom were convicted in U.S. courts. One, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh,
allegedly set up a fishing business in Mombasa with al Qaeda money
and handed a portion of his revenue over to the organization;
another, Wadih el-Hage, reputed to have been bin Laden´s secretary,
was accused of setting up al Qaeda´s East Africa cell in Nairobi in
1994.In the wake of Thursday´s attacks, suspicions again have turned
toward al Qaeda. Though a Palestinian group claimed responsibility on
Thursday, U.S. officials in Washington have said a likely suspect
might be al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, a Somali Muslim group with links to
al Qaeda and a record of activity throughout the Horn of Africa,
including in Mombasa.
Kenyan authorities continued to hold four Somalis and six Pakistanis
in connection with Thursday´s attacks. But Internal Security and
Defense Minister Julius ole Sunkuli said today that no evidence had
been found that would link the 10 to al Qaeda. He emphasized,
however, that al Qaeda involvement had not been ruled out.
"Kenya is a country frequented by people of so many backgrounds and
nationalities coming in and out," Sunkili said. "Kenya has been
attacked before. Any place can be attacked, but we are looking at how
these missiles were brought into the country and how the bombers got
Kenyan police have said that the 10 men aroused suspicion when they
arrived at Mombasa´s port on Monday with false passports aboard a
dhow, one of the traditional sailboats that have plied the Indian
Ocean for centuries, and that they were arrested on Friday. Today,
however, an Israeli intelligence source said the men had been
arrested when they arrived Monday and confined to their boat since
then, making it unlikely that they could have participated in
Two others detained Friday were released today, police said. After
hours of interrogation, Alicia Kalhammer, 31, an American, and her
Spanish husband, Jose Tena, were determined to be tourists who had no
connection with the attacks. The two were arrested as they attempted
to leave their Mombasa hotel about two hours after Thursday´s
After being released, Kalhammer, who lived in Nairobi as the daughter
of a foreign service worker in 1976, said she and her husband had
gone on a 10-day safari in northwestern Kenya before coming to the
beaches of Mombasa. Freed from two days´ detention in a tiny cell in
Mombasa´s port, Kalhammer said she wanted to get a beer, return her
rental car and continue her vacation in another part of Kenya.
"There are no hard feelings. We love Kenya. We love the Kenyan
people, and we know they were doing their job," Kalhammer said. "We
want to come back, if they let us."
Not everyone who wants to enter Kenya worries about such formalities.
Nairobi, one of Africa´s largest and busiest cities, is a well-known
haven for shady characters from other countries. Human rights groups
report that leaders of Rwanda´s 1994 genocide and fugitives from
other African wars frequently have fled to Kenya, which ranks as one
of the most corrupt nations in the world, according to the watchdog
group Transparency International.
"Everyone knows that in Kenya you report something to the police and
nothing happens, you end up having to pay a bribe," said Ben
Mwashoti, a Mombasa dock worker. "Illegal documents, sugar,
electronics and people sneaking in, all come through here because
people have no money. They take bribes, and now we´re all suffering
because of it."
After the embassy bombings, there was a crackdown on the ports,
workers say. But before long, they say, the bribes began to flow
again, everything was allowed in, and no questions were asked.
"There is no question that the failed system here has made it a real
easy place to do something like this," said a Western diplomat based
in Kenya, who asked not to be identified. "Maybe now the Kenyan
government will work to change that."
Like the coastline, the border between Kenya and Somalia is extremely
porous, allowing goods and people to move easily back and forth.
Intelligence agencies have blamed the Somali-based al-Ittihad for
attacks in Somalia and Ethiopia and say it has been active in Kenya
Today, Somalia´s transitional government, a fledgling institution
that controls only a small portion of a country fragmented for more
than a decade, condemned the Mombasa attacks. "The government feels
it is time to work together as a region and international community
to dismantle terror groups wherever they are," said a Somali
official, who said he was quoting Prime Minister Hassan Abshir Farah.
But many Kenyans say their country is simply too poor to root out
terrorist groups. There are few jobs in the weak economy. Some of
those who do find work as police or border guards are frequently
unpaid because government workers, according to corruption watchdog
groups, pocket salaries. Sometimes, Kenyans say, they have no way to
feed their families other than by taking bribes.
That kind of poverty makes intelligence officials wonder whether
terrorist groups will find a willing labor pool in East Africa.
Kenya´s population of 31 million is about 10 percent Muslim.
Militancy was seldom a concern until the 1998 embassy bombings, and
today, many Kenyan Muslims say they share the anger felt by Muslims
elsewhere, especially regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some said
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the embassy
bombings made them feel that Israel´s actions in the West Bank and
Gaza Strip were the cause of the international violence.
At the Bawaryz Mosque in Mombasa, some of those attending afternoon
prayers said that the Palestinian cause has become as important to
them as the struggle against white-minority rule in South Africa once
The mosque´s leader preached peace, but many outside said anger at
the United States and Israel was justified. They praised bin Laden,
calling him a defender of Islam.
"Kenyan Muslims have started to care about this, and we think it´s a
good cause," said Garib Kassim, a businessman, who smoked a cigarette
as he stood outside the mosque. "No one should be surprised that this
bombing happened here. We don´t want people to die. But it will keep
happening more and more here and around the world unless Israel
leaves Palestine alone."
(© 2002 The Washington Post Company 12/01/02)
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