In June 2017, the Assistant Regional Security Officer-Investigator (ARSO-I) at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi worked with State Department consular officers, other U.S. federal agencies, foreign embassies, and the Kenyan National Police Service’s Serious Crime Unit (NPS) to successfully locate and rescue individuals held against their will at three ethnic Somali re-acculturation facilities.
The centers were set up to inculcate traditional Somali culture in Somalis whose families believed they had lost touch with it while living in other countries. While some of these centers are legally licensed and monitored by the Kenyan government, others are not.
Many of the victims of these unlicensed facilities had been duped by their family members into traveling from the United States and other nations to Kenya, where representatives of these unlicensed centers abducted them upon their arrival and held them captive inside the facilities, in some cases for several months. Kenyan investigators have since discovered that some staff relied on violent beatings and torture to control their captives.
Consular officers at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and the ARSO-I — a Diplomatic Security Service special agent assigned to the U.S. Embassy’s Consular Section in Nairobi to conduct investigations — learned of these abuses in November 2016, when a U.S. citizen victim escaped from one of the facilities, arrived at the U.S. Embassy, and reported that he had been kidnapped and beaten by staff at one of the unlicensed centers.
Over the next few months, consular officers received additional information about other U.S. citizens being held captive at re-acculturation facilities in Nairobi, including a message sent by one individual who claimed to still be in captivity.
The ARSO-I worked with his Kenyan law enforcement partners, including a Diplomatic Security Service vetted unit of Kenyan National Police Service officers who are officially assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and who report directly to the ARSO-I, to investigate the kidnappings and develop an operational plan to rescue the victims.
In April 2017, Kenyan police, including the DSS vetted police unit, raided one of the centers and rescued approximately 50 individuals being held against their will. Police arrested three of the facility’s employees. Following further investigative leads, on June 14, 2017, the vetted police unit led specialized Kenyan police squads in raids on three rehabilitation centers in Nairobi.
Inside the facilities, investigators found rooms equipped with whips and chains and bearing dried blood on the walls. The officers also encountered victims who had been beaten, shackled, or who had fingers amputated during torture sessions.One victim bore a scar from a blow to the head by a staff member wielding a machete.
Thanks to the investigative collaboration of the DSS ARSO-I and Kenyan police, authorities rescued 71 victims, including one U.S. citizen and 12 other foreign nationals, and arrested 15 suspects, including a facility owner, a general manager, and several “security” and “counselor” personnel.
The investigation is ongoing. In the months since the June rescue operations, the ARSO-I and the vetted police unit assisted Kenyan police with raids on four more re-acculturation centers. Police rescued more than 180 individuals from nine different nations in those operations, arrested six more suspects, and are seeking the arrest of a seventh individual.