Ethiopian clashes blamed for spate of killings in Garissa
GARISSA COUNTY: On the afternoon of June 9, an unlikely incident in Garrissa helped to reveal the faces and reasons behind a spate of mysterious killings that have rocked the county. That afternoon, a man approached Hassan Yusuf Intabur in his shop on Guled Street in Garissa Town, pulled out a gun concealed in his right hip, and shot him in the head.
The gunman then pumped seven more rounds into Intabur’s body until his gun jammed. When this happened, members of the public who had taken cover spotted an opportunity to apprehend the suspect.
But the attacker had another weapon. From a plastic paper bag he was carrying, he fished out a grenade, removed the pin and hurled it towards the crowd that was surging towards him. However, his backup failed him, too. The grenade landed softly in the soil, and failed to detonate. With nothing left to thwart the mob, the attacker took off on foot, with wananchi hot on his heels. There was pandemonium in the town as the crowd pursued the attacker who, though fleet-footed, seemed a stranger to the town since he did not know seem to know where to escape to.
They eventually caught up with him, tackled him to the ground, and gave him a thorough beating before the police arrived to save him from imminent death. With his capture, the police achieved a rare breakthrough in solving a string of killings that had rocked Garrisa since June.
Furthermore, the breakthrough uncovered a vicious war of attrition being fought by the Ethiopian government against one of its secessionist movements. Garissa, a small sand-swept town 350 kilometres east of Nairobi, had become the unlikely hunting ground for Addis Ababa’s special forces against the separatists. When questioned by the police, the attacker, who neither spoke English nor Kiswahili, identified himself through an interpreter as Abdirahman Mohammed Hajir, a chief inspector of police in the Somali regional government of Ethiopia. This is a southern part of Ethiopia dominated by ethnic Somalis. A rebel movement from the area has been fighting to secede from Ethiopia since 1984.
The region is also alternately known as Ogaden, or Western Somalia, and the main rebel group is the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).
For years, Addis Ababa has sought to destroy the group through brutal repression, resulting in the scattering of the movement’s members to neighbouring countries and beyond. Hajir told the Kenyan police that he was a member of the Special Police Force, or the Liyu in Amharic, a feared paramilitary unit mainly dedicated to fighting the separatists. This force was once headed by Abdi Mohamoud Omar, the current president of the Somali Regional Government, and who is staunchly against ONLF.
Also known as Abdi Ilay, he is a prominent member of Ethiopian Somali People Democratic Party (ESPD), and longtime close ally of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Although he never implicated any of his superiors, Hajir said he had been given orders to carry out a revenge mission for the killing of one of their supporters in Garissa. “It was an incredible tale, almost too difficult to believe,” said Musa Yego, the North Eastern regional director of the Criminal Investigations Department.
“For a long time, we were at a loss on what was happening. We thought it was Al Shabab, but the killings seemed targeted, and it was unlike the group to carry out attacks in broad daylight.”
The pressure from the Government to find an answer to the killings was mounting with each attack in the county. Garissa has been the worst hit by a spate of terrorist attacks and unexplained killings that have claimed tens of lives.
“We have already done much to battle insecurity here. But because these attacks happened almost at the same time as the ones in Lamu, we were under great pressure to bring the culprits to book,” Yego said.
The genesis of the situation they were trying to resolve goes back to the evening of June 1, when an unknown gunman shot Sheikh Abdi Rashid in Garissa.
The elderly furniture businessman was coming from evening prayers when his life was snuffed out by five bullets to the chest.
He was among the well-known scholars of Muslim sacred law and theology in the county, and he sometimes preached at Jamia Mosque in Garissa during Ramadan. But Rashid was something else besides being a preacher and a businessman; he was a staunch supporter of the pro-Addis Ababa regional government in Ogaden.
He was a founder member of the Union of Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF), which supports the Ogaden government, and is said to have moved to Garissa in 1996. Furthermore, he was a distant relative and a close friend of Ogaden’s President Abdi Mohamud Omar. Rashid apparently never cut ties with his original home.
The ONLF leadership accuses him of being behind the arrest and harassment of their members and sympathisers in Garissa and other parts of the former North Eastern Province.
“He was responsible for inciting the Kenyan police to arrest many of our members in Garissa in 2011,” said Ahmed Farah Mohamud, a member of ONLF and the president of the Ogaden Refugee Council based in Nairobi. “He was a hardliner who took much joy in harassing our members and betraying them to the Ethiopian forces just to please his paymasters,” said Mohamud.
In 2012, Rashid survived an attack outside Guled Hotel in Garissa, which claimed the lives of two men. He escaped with a gunshot wound. Despite their obvious hatred of him, Mohammud said ONLF did not kill Rashid. Instead he accused the Ethiopian government of taking him out to justify a renewed reprisal against rebels in the diaspora.
“The government drew up a list of 27 ONLF members it wanted eliminated. I am among those listed for elimination. The government needed an excuse to roll off its plan and it got one through the death of Sheikh Abdi Rashid,” claimed Mohamoud.
Whatever the truth might be, the fact is that Rashid’s death unleashed a wave of counter-attacks that briefly confounded security officials and scared the people of Garissa.
On the hot afternoon of June 17, another bizarre incident took place at Tawfiq Hotel, opposite Midnimo Supermarket on Guled Street. Midnimo means ‘unity’ in Somali.
An ONLF sympathiser, Abdirashid Ali Bashir alias Gelkat, a taxi driver in Garissa, was having his meal at the hotel when three people walked in. One of them was Mohammed Dek, a first cousin of the slain Sheikh Abdi Rashid.
Gelkat did not know the other two people and quickly became suspicious On an impulse, he grabbed Dek as gunshots broke the noontime calm. One of the two unidentified men was shooting at them while Gelkat used Dek as a human shield.
At the end of the incident, Gelkat had been shot eight times in the abdomen while Dek, had been shot in the buttocks several times.
Their attacker took off into the town’s alleyways but not before accidentally dropping personal documents that identified him as Idriss Ali Qoys, a Liyu officer from Ogaden.
The two injured men were taken to Garrisa General Hospital then airlifted by police helicopter to Nairobi for specialised treatment at Kenyatta National Hospital.
Fearing further attacks on their man despite the heavy police presence, ONLF leaders in Nairobi moved Gelkat to the Aga Khan Hospital.
Both men survived to tell their tales. Dek told the police he was alone, contrary to claims made by Gelkat, while the latter said when he saw his ‘enemy’ with strangers, he concluded that they were up to no good.
On the evening of the day of the attack, Khader Ismail Mohammed Guhad, also a taxi driver and ONLF sympathiser, was arrested after members of the public spotted blood in his car. He told detectives that he was the one who took the two injured men to hospital.
The police remanded him for further investigations until July 1, when he was released on bond. Guhad was shot dead by an unknown assailant that same evening outside Gateway Hotel, along Kismayo Road in Garissa. Investigators believe that two separate parties from the Liyu police carried out the attacks. The first one was a three-man team led by Idriss Ali Qoys. However, no one in this group was ever captured.
Dek was in Ethiopia when his cousin Sheikh Abdi Rashid was killed, and he is believed to have come to Garissa with the hitmen. The Qoys group is said to have been behind the botched attempt to kill Gelkat. It is believed that they went underground after the botched operation and waited to ‘redeem’ themselves. They did so on July 1, by killing Guhad, and then left the town.
Hajir told investigators that he travelled from Ethiopia through the Kenyan border at Moyale on June 28, with two other colleagues from the Liyu unit. He told CID officers in Garissa that he arrived in Eastleigh, Nairobi, on July 1, before proceeding to Garissa for the mission.
He said he was hired in Ethiopia to execute the revenge mission for $800 (about Sh70,000) by people he said he did not know. He had been paid $200 (Sh18,000) for food and travel expenses. He was to be paid in full in Garissa after the hit, at one of the informal Somali money transfer shops known as hawala. Police officers later raided the shop and closed it down.
For the better part of the last two weeks, detectives have been tracking down a man who is said to have travelled from Ethiopia for another revenge attack. He is said to have entered the country through Moyale, like Hajir, and was in constant communication with four other men in Eastleigh.
But investigators said that they lost trail of the suspect after laying an ambush for a week. “Somebody seems to have tipped him off on the fact that we were monitoring his calls,” said Yego.
On August 3, at around 1:30am, the Kenya police arrested a chief of inspector of police with the Liyu unit called Abdi Abdullahi at a hotel in Eastleigh. ONLF members accuse him of killing one of their top officials, Abdirazak Mohammed Abdi, at the Dadaab refugee camp in August 2011. He was released the next day.
Although the police have a total of five people in custody over the attacks, they say they can only charge Hajir with murder and the rest as accessories. The Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi has not responded to requests for a comment.