Amir Mohamed Meshal, a twenty-four year old American from Tinton Falls, New Jersey, travelled to Somalia in December to help the Union of Islamic Courts rebuild Somalia. When Ethiopian forces, with the backing and support of the US military, helped install the transitional federal government, he found himself in an active war zone. Like many people caught in Mogadishu, he fled south, to Kenya.
In Kenya, he was arrested and held so he could be questioned by FBI agents, who were concerned that he might be associated with Al Qaeda – US involvement in “stabilizing” Somalia appears to be based on the premise that the Union of Islamic Courts might create a safe haven for terror by controlling Somalia. The FBI concluded that Meshal had no terror connections. The US State department contacted his family in New Jersey and told them that if they sent a plane ticket, Amir would be able to come home.
But at some point in February, he and between 63 and 150 people who’d been arrested in Kenya, fleeing Somalia, were deported back to Mogadishu and then transferred almost immediately to detention facilities in Ethiopia. It’s unclear what will happen to him now – if the Ethiopians determine that he was an enemy combatant, he could face the death penalty or life in prison.
According to Shashank Bengali and Jonathan S. Landay, writing for McClatchy Newspapers, the US State Department isn’t demanding his release from custody: “‘We have asked that his case be handled in a timely and a fair manner in accordance with local laws and procedures,’ said Gonzalo Gallegos, a State Department spokesman in Washington.” In other words, good luck with the Ethiopian judiciary, kid. Elizabeth Kennedy, writing for the AP, comes to a different conclusion: “They [the US State Department] have furiously objected to the circumstances behind his presence in Ethiopia, a steadfast U.S. counterterrorism ally.” Given the amounts of military and financial support the US is giving Ethiopia, I find it hard to believe that those objections were too furious, or the young man would be headed home to New Jersey.
The US government knows that the Ethiopian justice system leaves much to be desired – over a hundred journalists and oppositiion activists are imprisoned in Addis Ababa for vague charges of “incitement to genocide”, which appears to translate as “opposition to the Zenawi government.” Accusations of torture and mistreatment within the Ethiopian prison system are widespread.
Evidently we’re more interested in our own citizens when they claim to be Al-Qaeda affiliated. Daniel Joseph Maldonado was also arrested when fleeing Somalia. He confessed to training with Al Qaeda and was extradited to Texas, where he’s facing charges.
The Kenya Human Rights Council is referring to these deportations as “extraordinary rendition“. This shameful technique is one in which the US government turns over suspects to governments which we know practice torture so that we can get information from suspects without getting our hands dirty. It’s unclear to me that this is, in fact, what’s occurring here – the FBI had questioned Meshal extensively and determined he was not a threat. But it’s also not at all clear why the US State Department allowed Meshal to be extradited to Ethiopia and why they’re not raising bloody hell to get him released.
The background to this situation – which doesn’t just affect Meshal but a large number of other detainees deported from Kenya – is the inexplicable involvement of the US military in a third front in the “war on terror”. Not content with our complicated involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US government provided air support, training, financing and, quite possibly, boots on the ground to support the Ethiopian army’s invasion of their neighbor. Prior to the invasion, southern Somalia had reached a low level of stability – it has now descended again into street fighting and warlordism. There’s been little discussion of US involvement in the horn of Africa in the US press beyond triumphalism about chasing Al Qaeda out of the country. I’d like to think that the situation of a young man from New Jersey will bring some attention to the situation and my government’s role in it, but I’m not holding my breath.
Kenya’s role in these deportations is causing predictable anger and dissent within Kenya’s muslim population, who worry that Kenyan muslims may be arrested due to suspicion of Al Qaeda affiliation. The World Cross Country Championships are taking place in Mombassa tomorrow and Kenyan authorities expect widespread protest against these extraditions.
Why isn’t the US government demanding Amir Mohamed Meshal’s immediate release from Ethiopian custody? I have high hopes that we’ll hear more about the situation in the next few days. This is one of those stories where blogger interest may prevent the situation from disappearing under a wave of interest in Democrat/Republican showdowns in US congress – please link to the McClatchy story if you’re as concerned as I am about this situation.
The Washington Post has a story on Meshal today as well, and includes the quote: “An intelligence official said the CIA was not involved in Meshal’s case, and the State Department said it had formally protested the transfer. It has not officially sought Meshal’s extradition from Ethiopia, however.” The headline for the Post story is “U.S. Presses for Release of American Held in Ethiopia” – it’s not entirely clear to me how that paragraph aligns with the headline. Is the State Department negotiating with the Ethiopian government for Meshal’s release, or merely filing a nominal protest?