The General Service Unit (GSU) training camp in Ruiru hides many secrets, its best one yet a unit known as the Rapid Response Team (RRT), according to an investigative media report citing declassified documents and multiple interviews.
The RRT, which is at the heart of efforts by the United States to combat terrorism in Kenya, is tasked with probably the most dangerous assignment for security agents – hunting down high-value terrorists.
“The RRT was set up, trained, equipped and is guided on tactical counter-terror operations by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA),” reveals a declassified investigation published on Sunday August 30, seen by the Daily Nation.
The unit receives M16 assault rifles, M4 carbines, Glock pistols, M79 grenade launchers, body armour, helmets, M67 and stinger CS grenades among other weapons.
Information about RRT was published in the South African paper Daily Maverick by British investigative journalist Namir Shabibi who interviewed more than two dozen CIA, State Department, Kenyan intelligence, paramilitary and police officers.
The unit, which is informally known as the Rendition Operations Team, is composed of around 60 commandos, and is managed by a paramilitary liaison officer at the US embassy in Nairobi, says the publication.
“Often, the paramilitary team’s raids are driven by intelligence provided by the CIA as well as Kenya’s National Intelligence Service (NIS),” the paper reveals.
“However, multiple current and former US and Kenyan diplomatic, intelligence and police sources said Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, better known as MI6) plays a key role in identifying, tracking and fixing the location of targets, as well in decisions determining their fate: kill or capture.”
Among its notable targets are terrorism suspects and radical preachers like Mohamed ‘Modi’ Mwatsumiro, Jeremiah Okumu (‘Dudah Black’) , Samir Khan and Kassim Omollo.
National police spokesperson Charles Owino did not respond to the Nation’s queries on the unit on Sunday.
One of the few terrorism suspects captured by the RRT is Elgiva Bwire, who is serving a long prison term.
The report added the unit was formed seven years before Kenya Defence Forces crossed to Somalia to hunt down Al-Shabaab. It was formed when William Bellamy was the US ambassador to the country.
“Alarmed by Nairobi being a high-value target for al-Qaeda in East Africa, the US government decided to set aside a large pot of money for counter-terrorism assistance,” the ambassador was quoted in the declassified documents.
Bellamy added that efforts to persuade the Kenyan government into America’s war on terrorism proved “a real hard sell” due to suspicion among the military and police.
According to him, a proposed multi-agency centre for counter-terrorism never got off the ground until the National Intelligence Service (NIS) – then known as National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS) – developed interest, becoming the CIA’s liaison for the development of integrated operations.
“The unit that would later become the RRT was a product of this outreach. Part of a secret CIA programme to train and manage local paramilitaries in hotspots around the globe, the team began with just 18 officers.
Members of “Team 18” were selected by Kenyan police and intelligence to be trained in the US,” the paper narrated.
The recruits, who would become Kenya’s first paramilitary police squad dedicated primarily to counter-terrorism operations, then went to the US disguised as individuals on sports scholarship.
“From there, the men were flown to another destination and driven in buses with blacked-out windows so that the trainees could not know the location,” the paper added.
Though the recruits never found out where they were being trained, many suspected they were at Annapolis Naval Academy in Maryland.
A former senior US official with direct knowledge of the programme revealed they were also likely taken to the CIA training facility at Camp Peary, near Williamsburg in Virginia, also known as “The Farm”.
The team received training from CIA contractors, former special operations forces and SWAT team members of the US police in tactical operations, close-quarter combat, weapons handling, reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering.
The men also undertook several courses with names such as “Renditions Operations Training” and “Disruption Operations”, according to the report in the Daily Maverick.
Former US ambassador Michael Ranneberger disclosed specialised units are needed to deal with extraordinary situations, such as hostage-taking and terrorist activity.
“We do that in a lot of countries, where we will identify a GSU (RRT)-like unit, a special team to work with,” Mr Ranneberger revealed.
“If such units do not exist, we sometimes help establish them then provide the training.”
In its first year, the RRT carried very few counter-terrorism operations, focusing only on the capture and subsequent rendition of suspects.
“One of the RRT’s major coups took place in August 2009 when Kenyan and Western intelligence agencies detected a plot to stage simultaneous attacks on three hotels in Nairobi, one of which was to be visited by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton would later be nominated the Democratic Party presidential candidate but lost to Donald Trump in 2016.
“A subsequent operation, driven by the CIA and NIS, pinpointed the location of suspects who were then captured by the RRT,” the paper added.
The foiled attempt on Clinton saw the then CIA chief Leon Panetta pay a secret visit to Kenya to meet Major Gen (Rtd) Michael Gichangi, the then NIS director, to thank him.
Six months after the Panetta-Gichangi meeting, the US government once again relied on RRT commandos to rendition suspects of the July 11, 2010 terrorist attacks in Uganda when militants bombed a restaurant and a rugby club.
“The position was taken by the NSC (Kenya’s National Security Council) to exercise the right of “active pursuit”, because that (terrorism act) was seen to harm our tourism,” former Kenyan vice president Kalonzo Musyoka, who served on the Council from 2008 to 2013 told the newspaper.
Before the Uganda operations, RRT was involved in renditions from Somalia to Kenya.
The unit also played a significant role in neutralising the April 2, 2015 Garissa University and the February January 15, 2019 DusitD2 Hotel Complex attackers.
Other than the RRT, the CIA and M16 also collaborate with a dedicated team of Kenyan intelligence officers, as part of a liaison cell within NIS’ Counter-terrorism Unit, codenamed ARCTIC.
A joint M16-ARCTIC operation led to the capture of British national Jermaine Grant who is serving a prison term in Kenya.