MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Kenya was the site of some of al-Qaeda's earliest and deadliest attacks, including the devastating bombing of the US Embassy in 1998. Four years later, suicide bombers drove an SUV packed with explosives into the lobby of a coastal hotel in Mombasa. At the same time, terrorists nearby tried to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet with a shoulder-fired missile.
BLOCK: Today Kenya says it has boosted security and all but done away with the terrorist threat. But others say the country is still struggling to implement effective counterterrorism measures and deal with homegrown threats. NPR's Eric Westervelt continues our series on terrorism in the Horn of Africa.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
Downtown Nairobi: Here's where the US Embassy used to stand. Seven years after the bombing, the site is now a well-landscaped memorial park. A somber stone path winds through a sloping lawn of fresh grass, quiet benches and angry hunger strikers. They're African victims of the al-Qaeda terrorist attack in August of 1998. The bombing destroyed buildings, stole hundreds of lives and injured several thousand others.
Ms. NAOMI KERONGO (Terrorist Attack Survivor): After the blast I lost myself. I could not recall myself anymore.
WESTERVELT: Naomi Kerongo is one of 15 hunger strikers who've been camped out at this memorial park for more than four months. They're asking for compensation from the US and Kenyan governments. Kerongo says she was a career bureaucrat in the Kenyan Ministry of Commerce and Industry, right next to the US Embassy. The building was ripped apart by the blast.
Ms. KERONGO: I was here. This building looked like a bust. It was removed. Today you can see the building, the grass, the trees, the flowers. And how about man? They have treated us less than the buildings which were repaired.
Ms. ESTHER AMUNGA(ph) (August 7th Memorial Trust): This was the truck that exploded. This was the entrance.
WESTERVELT: Esther Amunga points to pictures of the carnage that day, big photos of stunned, bloodied faces under shiny new glass displays at the blast site's still unopened visitors center. Amunga is with the non-profit August 7th Memorial Trust, which runs the park. She and the trust want the hunger strikers to take their protest elsewhere.
Ms. AMUNGA: We sympathize with them, but we cannot sympathize forever. You know, they say they want to die in the park, but the whole objective of the park will be lost.
WESTERVELT: To some, that attitude highlights the Kenyan government's view of terrorism. It's something seen as a thing of the past, painful moments best remembered through quiet whispers. In Kenya these days there is no public acknowledgement that Kenya has homegrown extremists. Alfred Mutua is government spokesman for Kenya.
Mr. ALFRED MUTUA (Government Spokesperson): You have to realize that the terrorists are not in Kenya and a majority of them died in the attacks.
WESTERVELT: But many ordinary Kenyans remain deeply skeptical. The government still can't control rampant carjackings, muggings and other crime in Nairobi, casting doubt on law enforcement's ability to combat the tougher problem of terrorist sleeper cells. And corruption remains a giant problem. Kenya was just listed in the top 10 of the world's most corrupt countries by the independent research group Transparency International.
(Soundbite of metal detector)
WESTERVELT: Western safari-goers in downtown Nairobi walk quickly through a hotel metal detector. Kenya is dependent on the nearly one and a half million tourists who visit the country every year. Dr. Ongong'a Achieng is executive director of Kenya's tourism board.
Dr. ONGONG'A ACHIENG (Director, Kenyan Tourism Board): Kenya is one of the safest country in Africa. We have long dealt with the issue of terrorism attacks, and it is never one of our major concern as such.
Mr. TED DAGNE (Congressional Research Service): Unfortunately, the Kenyans have not gotten it yet.
WESTERVELT: African expert Ted Dagne is with the Congressional Research Service. He says the Kenyan government's persistent belief that terrorism is a foreign and outside problem is dangerously naive.
Mr. DAGNE: These are not Middle Easterners roaming around Kenya. These are Kenyans with affiliation to al-Qaeda. And the leaders who carried out the attacks on our embassies are still at large.
WESTERVELT: Those still at large include Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Kenyan citizen; he was considered a senior planner of the attack on the US Embassy and the 2002 hotel bombing. So far, Kenya's legal system has been unable to successfully prosecute a single al-Qaeda suspect for those terrorist attacks. This summer half a dozen suspected extremists accused in the Paradise Hotel bombing walked free after a magistrate ruled there wasn't enough evidence against them. One was Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a radical Islamist preacher who was charged with murder and spent time in a Kenyan jail.
Mr. ABOUD ROGO MOHAMMED (Islamist Preacher): Two years and two months.
WESTERVELT: Today Rogo is a free man. Among other charges, Rogo was accused of helping to arrange the marriage of terrorist mastermind Fazul Abdullah Mohammed to a Kenyan woman. Rogo smiles broadly when asked about the court case. He claims he's just the victim of overzealous Kenyan prosecutors who he says are doing America's bidding.
Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) I have no bad feelings towards them. They're not independent. They're doing the work of Western countries, especially America.
WESTERVELT: Rogo's defense attorney, Maobe Mao, represented two other suspected terrorists. He says his clients got off because they're innocent, but he says Kenyan prosecutors have proved inept when it comes to terrorism.
Mr. MAOBE MAO (Attorney): They were disorganized. They were clumsy. And sometimes they were just plain incompetent.
WESTERVELT: Attorney Mao alleges that Kenyan authorities let two suspected leaders of the embassy bombing cell get away, Fahid Mohammed Ali Musalaam and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan.
Mr. MAO: In fact, one of the senior officers came and admitted in court that in the year 2002 they had in their custody the two masterminds. These men appear on the FBI most wanted list and ...(unintelligible) they escaped.
WESTERVELT: Both Musalaam and Swedan are Kenyans. Both are still at large. The Kenyan government disputes that they let them fugitives slip through their hands. But the legal failures have prompted complaints from Western diplomats, including a top US official in Africa who said Kenya's prosecution of terrorism, quote, "remains far below the standard required to deal with the threats at hand."
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken via projected acoustics)
WESTERVELT: Here at the Jamia mosque, Kenya's largest, mistrust is growing between the minority Muslim community and the government. Ten percent of Kenyans are Muslim. Five times the Kenyan Parliament has voted down versions of what's called the Suppression of Terrorism Bill. The proposed bill would have allowed suspected terrorists to be held incommunicado for up to 36 hours, among other controversial measures. It was widely seen by Kenyans as extreme.
Sheik ABDULRAHMAN WANDATI (Muslim Consultative Council): Look, the Suppression of Terrorism Bill is targeting Muslims.
WESTERVELT: Sheik Abdulrahman directs Kenya's Muslim Consultative Council. He says proposal of the bill has already damaged relations with the Muslim community.
Sheik ABDULRAHMAN: I'm concerned that even though the bill has not been passed as law, the police are using its provisions to incarcerate people. We have had cases where some of the people who have come out of such incarceration have alleged torture by the police.
WESTERVELT: The Kenyan government denies that, but several Kenyan Muslim leaders say the mere perception of abuse and charges the government is targeting the country's Muslim minority may end up fostering the very extremism the bill is meant to suppress. The government will try again soon to reintroduce the bill in Parliament.
Meantime, some Kenyan victims of the US Embassy bombing continue their protest at the blast site, demanding compensation. Simon Musharia(ph) says he was taking one of his daughters to school past the embassy when the blast went off. A tall, gaunt man, Musharia's big smile creases below tired eyes. His hands and back were badly injured in the bombing.
Mr. SIMON MUSHARIA (Terror Bombing Victim): Maybe if people are able to come and see that we are people just as human beings like anybody else, maybe we can be able to restart our lives.
WESTERVELT: In recent days Musharia and other protesters were forcibly removed from the memorial park on orders from the non-profit trust that runs it. A few protesters remain there today, camped out, just outside the park's gate. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
(Soundbite of street noises)
BLOCK: Tomorrow on the program, a report on Yemen and radical Islam. Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland takes an unorthodox approach to the terrorist threat.
NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.