How corrupt police officers undermine war on terrorism

Saturday November 24 2012

By KIPCHUMBA SOME [email protected]

On September 28, two Al-Shabaab terror suspects aboard a bus from Garissa to Nairobi were intercepted by police officers at the Tana bridge in Garissa with about 10 kilogrammes of explosives.

But what followed was a manifestation of how corruption within the police is undermining security in the country.

Instead of arresting the suspects, whose deadly cargo was predictably destined for Nairobi, the officers gave them safe passage.

Although the physical evidence may never be found, it is not hard to figure out why the officers let the suspects go: money changed hands.

Internal Security minister Katoo ole Metito was to admit later that the police were bribed when he announced the dismissal of the 11 officers who had assisted the suspects.

Luckily in this case, the two terror suspects and their deadly cargo never reached their intended destination; they were arrested at Matuu, about 100 kilometres from Nairobi, by other police officers.

The number of officers involved in the Tana bridge operation, the intentions of the suspected terrorists and the nature of the deadly chemicals they were carrying makes the incident one of the most serious security breaches in recent times.

“No country can claim to be immune from terror attacks, but the risks are far much greater when security forces work in collusion with or turn a blind eye to terrorists’ activities for personal benefit,” said security analyst Captain (retired) Simiyu Werunga.

Mr Metito’s admission that the police had taken a bribe to facilitate the nefarious activities of a suspected terror group was as refreshing as it was surprising from a force that has long claimed that such allegations are nothing but witch-hunt.

But that single incident is in many ways a manifestation of widespread corruption within the security forces, especially those charged with combating terrorism.

Kenya is considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world and the police service has consistently been ranked in surveys as the most corrupt institution in the country.

But while Kenyans are used to low-level bribery demands by police officers – often small monies for small favours – the high level of the vice in units in charge of fighting terrorism continues to undermine their best efforts.

Capt Werunga reckons that while officers in the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit ATPU) are highly trained in intelligence gathering, a good number of them often fall victim to huge monetary inducements by terrorists.

“The fact that we have not had a major incident for a decade now, despite the influx of international terrorists into the region, speaks highly of their abilities.

“But the prevalence of minor incidents points to possible collusion with terrorists,” Capt Werunga said.

Indeed, some of the most wanted terrorists in the world have operated in Kenya quite freely by paying the police to provide them with sanctuary and information on planned police raids.

Al-Qaeda’s activities

For example, in February, Samantha Lewthwaite, who is believed to be financing and coordinating Al-Qaeda’s activities in East Africa, evaded a police operation in Mombasa in a manner a senior intelligence officer concluded was only possible through assistance by an insider.

Much earlier, Fazul Mohammed, the brains behind the attack on an Israeli hotel in Kikambala, Kilifi, in 2002, evaded arrest during several operations mounted by the police – even managing to escape from police custody – with police connivance.

The reality of high levels of corruption among the security forces was brought to the fore by a comedic complaint by Al-Qaeda in the mid-90s that the bribes demanded by Kenyan security officials had made it costly for them to operate here.

This admission is contained in a 2006 report titled Al-Qai’da’s (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa by Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, which analysed the terror group’s attempt to set up base in the region in the ‘90s.

Al-Qaeda is reported to have said in 1993, when the group was looking for a new home after the end of the Afghanistan war, that Kenya was not a good place.

A mid-ranking official with the ATPU offered another interesting perspective of how corruption within the unit is working against the country’s best efforts to combat terrorism.

The official, who requested anonymity, said corruption and pilfering of the unit’s coffers has hampered the work of field agents.

Due to the shroud of secrecy that the police service usually wraps itself in, ATPU’s budget is unknown but is thought to be in millions of shillings, with a sizeable chunk of the funding coming from the US’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance programme.

But what trickles down through the corruption network in the unit to field agents who gather intelligence is just a tiny fraction, the source said.

“On several occasions I have had to buy information with my own money yet there is money set aside to do this stuff. I have paid for my own accommodation and food and even fuel. Sometimes I am refunded, sometimes I am not,” he said.

So where does the money go? “Since the money is hardly accountable, a good number of us -- both the bosses and the junior staff -- often divert the money to private use,” he said.”