Memorial ceremonies were held in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed over 200 people. As Derek Kilner reports from Nairobi, debate continues in Kenya over the merits of the expanded counter-terror efforts implemented in the wake of the attacks.
Several hundred people gathered at the site of the former U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi. Ten years ago, on the morning of August 7, a pickup truck exploded outside the building, killing over 200 people and wounding thousands. Minutes later another blast killed 11 people at the American mission in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga addressed the gathering.
"I recall vividly the first moments of the tragedy that befell us on that day," he said. "I was in my car, about 22 kilometers from this epicenter when the force of the explosion literally shook my car. As I rushed here, I could see numerous cars whose windshields and windows had been shattered. Buildings far from this sight had also been damaged. This site itself was too awful to behold. There were dead and wounded and blood everywhere. Nairobi had been rocked in its very sinew and had come to a standstill. The scale of this atrocity shocked our nation to the core."
The anniversary came as Kenyan police continued to pursue the man suspected of organizing the attacks. Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, a native of the Comoros, is believed to be a member of al-Qaida and is on the American FBI's most-wanted list. He is also suspected of involvement in 2002 attacks on an Israeli hotel and aircraft near the coastal city of Mombasa. Police say he recently passed into Kenya from Somalia and escaped ahead of a raid on a home in the coastal resort town of Malindi.
At the ceremony, Mr. Odinga pledged continued support for pursuing terrorism suspects. Kenyan counter-terrorism efforts have greatly expanded in recent years, with the establishment of a National Counterterrorism Center, a special anti-terrorism police unit, and widespread public education campaigns.
Much of the expansion has come with U.S. support. Richard Barno, a researcher on terrorism issues in East Africa with the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, says U.S. programs provide support for monitoring Kenya's border with Somalia; training for naval forces to watch the coast; and assistance to Kenyan intelligence and police.
"Having a partner to actually give you additional support, additional resources, is a good thing. The kind of support America provides, frankly, is very, very important to Kenya," said Barno.
But these measures have also encountered resistance, particularly from Kenya's Muslim community, concentrated on the coast and in the Northeast, near the border with Somalia, which claims it has been targeted by the government. Hassan Omar is a commissioner with the government-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
"The counterterrorism initiative by and large is viewed by the majority of the Muslims in Kenya as a war targeted against Islam," said Omar. "And I think what has happened, the anti-terrorism policy, the state machinery, some of the legislation that has been proposed has gone to confirm some of that perception or belief."
Barno says some of these concerns have been exaggerated.
"It is there, especially among the Muslims along the coast. They will tell you that the fact that America is putting resources means that this is really not a Kenyan agenda but that this is an American agenda," he added. "But like I say it's really forgetting that in 1998, only 12 Americans died. 220-something Kenyans died. "
Mr. Odinga assumed the newly-created position of prime minister earlier this year following a disputed presidential election against the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki. Mr. Odinga's support base includes much of the Muslim community along Kenya's coast. And at Thursday's ceremony, he made sure to distance himself from charges of bias against that community.
"Let me also assure Kenyans we will never scapegoat any particular community. We take solace from the fact that none of the three attacks was committed by a Kenyan," he said. "To scapegoat any section of our people or to disregard our laws in pursuit of suspects would in fact generate the very disaffection and extremism on which terror and terrorists thrive."
In 2003, the Kenyan government introduced legislation known as the Anti-Terrorism Bill, that would have greatly strengthened the hand of Kenya's Internal Security Ministry and its police to pursue and detain terrorism suspects. But politicians were reluctant to support the bill and so far there has not been enough enthusiasm to reintroduce it.
Omar says the bill's contents appeared to allow for discrimination in targeting Muslims and allowed the government too much discretion to brand organizations or individuals as terrorists.
"There has been a broad understanding globally that the fight against terrorism can only be won if we have a respect for human rights and the rule of law," said Omar. "And as long as in the past the government of Kenya has appeared to go against the grain of the rule of law, against the grain of our constitutional safeguards, against the very grains of international commitments and acceptable standards of human rights, they've had a stalemate in terms of pushing forward a counter-terrorism agenda in Kenya."
Despite the failure to pass the bill, Barno says the Kenyan government has improved its capacity to handle terrorist threats since the 1998 attacks.
"I would say that Kenya is more prepared now than it was 10 years ago because one, like I said, institutions have been created and two, the government security organs are actually serious about tackling terrorism," continued Barno.
The government's capacity has been called into some question however, with the latest failure to catch Mohammed, the suspected terrorist. The government has been highlighting its pursuit of Mohammed in recent days, perhaps signaling a new effort to undertake additional counter-terrorism measures