POLITICS JANUARY 26, 2004
The sunburned Englishman sat at the bar of the Peponi Hotel in Lamu, nursing a vodka-and-grapefruit-juice cocktail and sucking on an Embassy cigarette. A former resort owner who sold out a couple of years ago but still pays regular visits to this island off the Kenyan coast, Gerald had recently returned from a fishing trip to the neighboring island of Kiwayu—a journey that had turned up unsettling evidence of the changes creeping into the region. The Kiwayu beach hotel was deserted, he said, except for a pair of FBI agents who had converted their bungalow into a listening post. According to Gerald, the men were providing backup for CIA operatives and American Special Forces troops who had recently snuck across the border into Somalia to kidnap a Yemeni, known as Sheik Jaylani, who is linked to the suicide boat-bomb attack against the USS Cole in Aden three years ago. "You could tell from their pasty faces that they weren't there to go fishing," he said.
First made popular by Mick Jagger in the 1970s, this sleepy island just off the Kenyan coast has long been a favorite retreat for Europeans, both entertainment royalty and low-end backpacker tourists, all of whom want to escape the real world. During the past year, however, the real world's problems have crept in. The Thanksgiving Day 2002 suicide attack on the Paradise Hotel near Mombasa and the simultaneous attempted downing of an Israeli jetliner with shoulder-fired missiles have badly damaged Kenya's tourism industry: Though in 1996 Kenya attracted more than one million tourists, the Kenya Tourist Board says that it drew roughly 480,000 between January and November of 2003. The attacks also gave Lamu a new—and more sinister—reputation. Several of the men who planned and carried out the November bombing, it turned out, were members of an Al Qaeda-affiliated cell that used Lamu and other remote islands along the Kenyan coast as way stations and hiding places while they plotted. In fact, Lamu has quietly become a breeding ground for militant Islam. Now, Kenyan and American law enforcement officials have descended on this paradise, moving into Lamu's hotels, conducting interrogations, and frantically searching for Al Qaeda members.
WHEN I VISITED Lamu in early December, it was difficult at first to notice the changes on the island. The unpolluted waters still teemed with sailfish, marlin, dolphins, and turtles. Waves lapped onto white-sand beaches wedged between rolling dunes and coral reefs. On the seaside patio of the Peponi, a small, family-run hotel on Shela beach that's the social center of the island, there was the usual crowd of Europeans and the occasional American who gossiped over stiff drinks while Kenyan beach boys in Rastafarian hairdos proffered rides on old wooden sailing dhows, traditional ships that historically plied the coasts of Africa and Arabia. The most obvious disruption remained the annual Christmas arrival of Monaco's Princess Caroline and her notorious husband, Prince Ernst August of Hanover, who built a $3.5 million villa and landscaped gardens next to the hotel six years ago and who are fond of holding raucous parties at their beach house with several dozen of their aristocratic friends. Peponi regulars still talk with a mix of horror and amusement about New Year's Eve 2000, when a drunken Prince Ernst beat up the German owner of a discotheque on nearby Manda Island after claiming that the disco's lights and noise were ruining Lamu's tranquil atmosphere. The owner ended up in intensive care.
But, in the dank warrens of Lamu Town two miles down the beach, there are more serious problems. The residents of Lamu Town are primarily Muslim traders, fishermen, boat-builders, and coconut farmers. Most do not share in the island's tourist-generated wealth and have felt neglected for decades by the Christian-dominated Kenyan central government. In fact, the money from tourism has benefited only a handful of property owners in Lamu who rent their houses to wealthy Europeans, some Christians brought in to work at such resorts as Peponi, and a few Muslim boatmen, furniture-makers, and antiques vendors. But, for the most part, the Europeans on the island inhabit their own private world, while Lamu Town remains a filthy, garbage-strewn place with open sewers and donkey feces in the streets. Worse, years of neglect by the regime of corrupt former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, a Christian who left office in late 2002 after 24 years in power, deepened the town's poverty and fostered resentment toward the Kenyan government and the West, which backed Moi. In fact, Lamu Town voted overwhelmingly for the opposition party in Kenya's last national election.
And, though Lamu is hardly a hotbed of Islamic extremism, Moi's mistakes and the dichotomy between Western tourists and the Lamu Town poor have created a welcoming atmosphere for Muslim extremists' anti-Western message. As I wandered past black-veiled women and scrawny children in Lamu Town, I confronted graffiti on the ancient walls celebrating Osama bin Laden and warning, Bush, prepare for another attack. Omar, my guide, told me that two of Lamu's dozen mosques—one Shia, one Sunni (which have become known as fundamentalist hotbeds) erupted in celebrations after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks two years ago. "The police made a lot of arrests after September eleventh, and they keep a close watch on those known to be [Al Qaeda] sympathizers," Omar told me. "That's driven many of them underground, but they're still there."
Lamu residents told me that the imams in the hard-line mosques are locally trained, but Al Qaeda clearly has stepped up efforts to recruit Muslims in the region. Al Qaeda operatives typically marry into Kenyan families and then use the hundreds of mosques that dot the coast to recruit locals angry with the Kenyan government, which has long had close ties not only to the United States but also to Israel. Anarchic Somalia, 60 miles to the north, typically serves as a training ground for these recruits.
But Al Qaeda members also take shelter on these islands off the Kenyan coast. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a deeply religious native of the Comoros Islands who received terrorist training in Afghanistan and Somalia, hid out for most of 2002 on the remote Kenyan island of Pate—a six-hour speedboat journey from Lamu. There he married into a local family, taught at an Islamic school, and even started a local soccer club that he called Kabul, which competed with the island's other team, known as Al Qaeda. And, according to both Kenyan and FBI investigators, while not teaching soccer, Mohammed planned and carried out the Thanksgiving Day attack in Kenya with eight Kenyans he'd recruited. Among them was Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan from Mombasa, who built the bomb used to destroy the Paradise Hotel and then hid out in Lamu for a week with relatives before fleeing to Somalia. In fact, Kenyan investigators believe all the terrorists who survived the November 28 attacks regrouped on Lamu and left two days later for Somalia by dhow. And terrorist cells reportedly remain active in the area. Kenyan police recently arrested and interrogated a group of terrorist suspects in the Lamu area, who allegedly revealed that Al Qaeda had developed a plan to blow up the newly constructed U.S. Embassy in Nairobi last June using a truck packed with explosives and a small aircraft carrying a bomb. Ultimately, the Al Qaeda cell aborted the planned bombing.
Lamu's unfortunate new reputation has drawn cops from all over the world. The week I visited the island, the U.S. government issued a terror alert for Kenya, prompting the evacuation of the Hilton Hotel and several other buildings in downtown Nairobi where foreigners are known to congregate. Kenya's anti- terrorism police now are frequent visitors to Lamu, and the FBI recently set up shop at the Peponi during joint U.S.-Kenyan exercises near the Somali border. Members of the regional anti-terrorist task force, led by the U.S. military and based in nearby Djibouti, also have been searching the Lamu region. And, according to The Times of London, the FBI and Kenya's anti-terrorism police squad launched a massive combined manhunt for Fazul Abdullah Mohammed along the Kenyan coast in May 2003. They have been busy interrogating relatives of Mohammed's who live in the Lamu area.
THOUGH MILITANT ISLAM may be gaining favor here, most locals on Lamu don't like to talk about the creeping fundamentalist influence. With Kenya's tourism industry still reeling from the November 28 attacks—Abercrombie and Kent, the country's largest luxury tour operator, significantly scaled down its operations last month—there's a fear that drawing attention to the problem on Lamu will scare away even the few remaining die-hards. Omar, my guide in Lamu Town, turned visibly angry when I asked him to lead me to the Nabhan family. "They don't live here anymore," he insisted.
Other Lamu locals have developed their own unique methods for coping with the threat of terrorism in paradise. At sunset one evening, I hired a dhow for a cruise around Lamu and the neighboring islands. With his bleached blond hair tucked beneath a multicolored Rastafarian cap, Captain Abdul, the skipper, expertly guided the craft through inlets lined with mangrove trees while sucking hard on a joint the size of a Cohiba cigar. "Just have some of this spliff," he said, offering me the marijuana. "Pretty soon, you won't even remember that Al Qaeda exists."