When Ustadh Ahmed* was on his way to teach his usual Quran memorisation class at Madrasa Tul Falah in the quiet village of Likoni in the coastal region of Kenya on the morning of 19 December, he saw something that made him stop dead in his tracks.

A convoy of three land cruisers drove up to the madrassa and heavily armed security personnel, including what appeared to be Westerners, climbed out. Some of them entered the school, while others surrounded the perimeter of the building.

Fearing for what was about to unfold, Ahmed hid in a nearby building and later sought shelter in a mosque. Amidst news reports hastily claiming that the madrassa was a “terrorist cell” where young children were being “radicalised”, Ahmed related what he saw and knew to the NGO, Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI).

What has emerged is a clouded picture, raising key questions around counter-terrorism actions and children’s rights, the damage done by inaccurate, hysterical media coverage and the violation of the rule of law across international borders, with the complicity of the US and the UK.

Pupil claims of mistreatment result in surveillance by the UK and US

During the raid, 94 children were woken up and taken into custody for interrogation. This included four children from the United States, four from the United Kingdom, one from Canada, two from Saudi Arabia and one from Djibouti.

Since then, 50 have been released while 44 remain remanded in a children’s centre in Likoni. This interrogation is being done without legal representation, in violation of Kenyan and international law, and with the involvement of Kenya’s brutal Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU).

Read more: Children rounded up in Kenya madrassa raid by FBI and Scotland Yard must be returned to parents

The involvement of the ATPU and foreign agencies is perplexing. According to Ahmed, the madrassa had been put under surveillance after one of the pupils, a UK citizen, had complained of poor living conditions to authorities on his return to the UK in Ramadaan this year. The said pupil appeared to make no mention of terrorism, but he has not since returned to Kenya.

According to the MUHURI report: “He [the pupil] never liked the lifestyle he was exposed to in the Madrassa and kept on complaining that he was mistreated and asked to be taken back home where life was better than how it is in Kenya. He managed to start communication with his friends in London and reported the matter to the UK authority who then initiated an investigation on his allegations. During his stay in Kenya he had a few friends who were also coming from the West and had lamented to him that if he succeeded leaving the place he should alert well wishers particularly the authority to come to Kenya and rescue them.”

In other words, an unverified claim of abuse rapidly escalated into a counter-terrorism event.

According to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, the raid was conducted by members of the children’s department, the Kenya police including the brutal ATPU, foreign authorities (it was initially reported Scotland Yard and the FBI), the ministry of foreign affairs and the department of trafficking in persons.

Inaccurate media reports add hysteria to the situation

The first reports emerging from the incident appeared in The Star, where a story by journalist Kelvin Osarigo claimed that the madrassa was a “terrorist cell”, complete with an ex-ISIS member who was allegedly “radicalising” young children.

However, Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya officials denied that the Madrasa had any links to terrorism and human trafficking. Treasurer Sheikh Hassan Omar said security forces had “picked and harassed our children without any reason”.

And on further enquiry by MUHURI, Osarigo divulged that he had never made these claims in the original story and that these “facts” had crept in during the editing process.

This appears to be an attempt to excuse the brutality of the operation, which saw children as young as 5 years old rounded up in a warrantless raid, interrogated by members of the ATPU, with no legal representation and very little communication to terrified parents and guardians.

Somali children are most vulnerable to abuse

Since then, police officers have said that as soon as “interrogations are complete”, children will be returned to their parents provided parents have the necessary documentation to prove that the children are theirs.

Aside from the fact that interrogating minors is a problem in itself, this is highly concerning for the Somali children being held. According to the Nation, the majority of the children at the madrassa are Somali orphans and have guardians who are responsible for them.

Many of these guardians do not have the necessary documentation to prove their relationship to them. These children are still in custody under the eyes of the abusive ATPU.

In Kenya, Somali nationals are stigmatised and criminalised by the authorities in a prevailing Islamophobic environment that deliberately associates them with terrorism.

Read more: 3 ways the War on Terror contributes to starve millions in Somalia

While international media hones in on the status of the children from the West, these Somali children are in danger of being lost within a discriminatory and dangerous prison system characterised by the abuses of the ‘War on Terror’.

The silence of the local press and lack of follow up on the issue is even more concerning. Some sort of official process was set to begin on the 4th January but the story has rapidly disappeared from the news.

However, the vulnerability of these Somali children simply cannot not be ignored.

The madrassa may close amid an environment of fear and hysteria

The madrassa, it has emerged, served as a rehabilitation centre as well as a school – housing many orphans of the ‘War on Terror’ in Somalia while educating them in the Quran. Now, according to several people, Madrasa Tul Falah will most likely be shut down.

Instead of bringing counter-terrorism units into the picture, and being swayed by foreign pressure, foreign and local authorities should have calmly and properly investigated claims of mistreatment and abuse within their jurisdiction to do so and by abiding by the rule of law.

This should have included staying true to the tenet calling for the presumption of innocence before being proven guilty in a fair court process.

In this way, children would have been protected, the rule of law preserved, and tragedy averted.

“We believe there was a better way the authorities could have handled the situation instead of storming into a learning institution in a relatively quiet society only to arrest innocent kids whose main aim is to learn the word of God,” said a representative of MUHURI.

However, in a global environment where the smallest opportunity to demonise Islam is exploited by foreign and local security services, hopes for a just response to such situations, with due consideration being given to the views of local imams and community leaders, are being overridden.

We continue to call for the immediate release of the children so they can be returned to their families.

*names have been changed for protection

Read more: CAGE Africa supports calls for a full and independent investigation into extrajudicial killings in Kenya


(CC Image courtesy of missy on Flikr)

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)