Clement Ibrahim Muhibitabo is one of the forgotten ones.
So is Ines Chine. So is Abdul Hamid Moosa.
Rwandan, Tunisian and South African citizens respectively, the three Africans are among the victims of one of the largest if most obscure rendition programs in the global war on terror: the mass arrest, deportation and secret imprisonment of some 100 people who fled an invasion of Somalia last year—a roundup that even included women and small children.
It may be little-known to the American public, yet it has stoked deep anti-U.S. sentiment among Muslims in the Horn of Africa.
That fury may even have contributed to the bloody election crisis in Kenya that first erupted last December and killed 1,300 people. Muslim human-rights groups and political analysts in Kenya say the renditions helped incite the nation's Muslims to vote en bloc against a pro-American president and set the stage for an explosive, razor-close election.
While the operation netted a handful of hard-core Islamist militants who were training at jihadist camps in Somalia—an American among them—the vast majority of the detainees have been released without charges.
Many were held for months at "black site" secret prisons in Ethiopia. Today they have scattered across Africa and the world, their stories overshadowed by the more famous detainees at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"You know what was strange? They only interrogated me twice," the Rwandan, Muhibitabo, recalled of the American agents who showed up in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to grill him about Al Qaeda. "It was like I was unimportant to them. Like I was a mistake. A mistake that took away four months of my life."
Like most of the people ensnared in a security affair known locally as "Africa's Guantanamo," Muhibitabo, a gem trader, was arrested after fleeing to Kenya from Somalia in January 2007.
With covert U.S. support, Ethiopia had just toppled a radical Islamist movement in Somalia. And jittery authorities in neighboring Kenya, advised by CIA and FBI agents, were screening the tide of refugees streaming across their border for militants.
At least 150 suspects from more than 18 countries ended up being shunted into Kenyan jails, says Human Rights Watch, an international humanitarian group. More than 100 were later loaded, handcuffed and blindfolded, onto chartered airliners and flown secretly to Ethiopia for months of further questioning.
"We had no access to lawyers, no contact with embassies, no phone calls," said Moosa, 42, a South African accountant who says he traveled to Somalia to look into the possibility of charity work for the country's Islamic movement.
"I was kept in solitary for a month, shackled ankle and feet, night and day," said Moosa, who spent almost five months in Ethiopian custody. "The Ethiopians would come collect me, blindfold me and drive me to some apartment in Addis. And the Americans would be there waiting behind a desk, asking me over and over about my terrorist connections."
Kenya and Ethiopia—both Christian-dominated countries—have longtime security concerns with their anarchic neighbor, Muslim Somalia. For its part, the U.S. has accused Somalia's Islamists of hosting top Al Qaeda operatives such as Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a mastermind of the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Africa.
The most high-profile case to emerge from the clandestine African renditions was Mohammed Abdul Malik, a Kenyan accused of participating in the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa in 2002. Abdul Malik was caught after fleeing from Somalia. Deemed too important for jail in Ethiopia, he was secretly expelled to Guantanamo Bay.
"The police handed him over to the Americans without giving him a single hour in a court," said Mariam Mohammed, the suspect's sister. "We still don't know the evidence against him."
How much Washington actually steered the sprawling arrest and deportation operation—a covert counterterrorism sweep second in scope only to the deportation of more than 200 terror suspects out of Afghanistan immediately after the fall of the Taliban—remains unclear.
The Bush administration declared that it had abandoned its own secret prison program the year before, in 2006.
International human-rights groups, Western diplomats in Kenya and press reports, however, have linked Washington to the more recent African operation. Officially, American diplomats downplay this.
"The U.S. cooperates with Kenya and Ethiopia on security matters, with full respect for the sovereignty of both countries," said State Department spokesman Nicole Thompson, declining to go into more detail.
Still, the U.S. thumbprint is there. The luxury Sheraton hotel in Addis Ababa swarmed with U.S. intelligence officers during the processing of the detainees early last year, diplomats in Ethiopia say. And many ex-prisoners have described being interrogated by American agents using names such as "Dennis" or "Tom."
"The scale of this was enormous," said Stephen Grey, the author of "Ghost Plane," a book about the global U.S. rendition program. "It's almost a second phase of the rendition process, where the actual transportation was outsourced to keep the U.S. in the background."
Among those captured was Daniel Joseph Maldonado, an American who is now serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison in Houston for undergoing military training at a camp in Somalia. Canadians, Swedes, Eritreans and Syrians also were detained.
But the operation's most controversial captives were 11 women and 11 children.
One detainee, the Tunisian named Chine, was shot during her arrest along the Kenyan border. She was pregnant at the time. Her baby survived, and she is currently living in Egypt.
Another, Halima Badroudine Fazul, the wife of the Al Qaeda suspect wanted for the U.S. Embassy bombings, spent almost five months in an Ethiopian prison camp with her three young children. Eventually she was deported to her home country, the Comoros.
Fairly or not, many in East Africa's traditionally moderate Muslim community blame the U.S. directly for such treatment, saying the Ethiopians were doing Washington's "dirty work." Ethiopia has denied all allegations of detainee abuse.
"I don't know what the U.S. was thinking," said Al-Amin Kimathi, director of Kenya's Muslim Human Rights Forum, a civic group that took the lead in exposing the operation. "Maybe they thought it would be easier to get away with something this big in Africa. Now most Muslims here really hate the U.S."
Political analysts say that Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki's strong anti-terror cooperation with the U.S. contributed to his nation's violent election crisis that began last December and spilled over into the new year. Angered by the renditions, Kenya's minority Muslims voted en masse for Kibaki's opponent, Raila Odinga, leading to a close race that exploded into street battles.
In October, Ethiopia freed eight Kenyans held in custody for more than a year. Meanwhile, all those released without explanation are trying to get on with their lives.
"I still have some anxiety leaving my apartment," said Moosa, the South African. "I'm a bit paranoid. I will never leave South Africa again."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun