Mombasa - A Kenyan police crackdown on Islamists is fuelling
Muslim resentment and moderate preachers say it undermines their efforts to
counter recruiting by al-Qaeda militants with links across the border in
Smashing Islamist recruitment networks among its Muslim
minority has become a priority for Kenya, however, as it tries to end attacks
by Somali militants bent on punishing it for sending troops over the frontier
to fight al Shabaab rebels.
The cost of failure was laid bare in September when al-Shabaab
gunmen, one of whom police say is a Kenyan from the port of Mombasa, raided the
Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. At least 67 people were
Police say their tough approach, taken before Westgate but
stepped up since, has limited the flow of would-be jihadists in and out of
Somalia, citing a drop in the number of suspected militants they have tracked
and arrested in the past year.
But Islamists, former militant sympathisers, independent
security experts and diplomats, some of whom acknowledge short-term benefits
from the police actions, say sweeping detentions and perceptions police are
carrying out extra-judicial killings have fuelled Muslim resentment in the
mostly Christian nation.
Police deny accusations of running anti-Muslim hit squads.
Moderate imams, particularly along the coast where most
Kenyan Muslims live, have been attacked by Islamist radicals and some say they
have been cowed into silence as a result.
Police tactics "are benefiting al-Shabaab more than
they are benefiting the government", said Akullah Khamis, a 33-year-old
Muslim in Mombasa, Kenya's second city. He works with young people and
non-governmental agencies and says he himself fended off a bid by al Shabaab to
enlist his support three years ago.
Kenya's battle against militancy is seen as vital to the
stability of east Africa's biggest economy, the gateway for regional trade and
with a long coastline that has become a transit route for would-be jihadists
trained in Somalia.
The United States, Britain and Israel, which fret about the
reach of Africa's al-Qaeda-aligned Islamists, have trained and equipped Kenya's
anti-terror police and intelligence forces.
Mombasa county police commander Robert Kitur dismissed
suggestions the force was being heavy handed or targeting the wider Muslim
community: "We have never been brutal," he told Reuters. "People
shouldn't generalise this is about Muslims."
"These are not Muslims, these are hooligans. We are
going to deal with these people ruthlessly. We are just applying force when it
However, one man accused by Western governments of aiding
the militants believes widespread arrests, along with raids on mosques and the
deaths of people during clashes with police, are helping al Shabaab recruiters.
"This being done to Muslims opens the eyes of the youth
to al Shabaab being right," Abubakar Shariff, accused by the UN Security
Council and the United States of raising funds and recruiting for al-Shabaab,
told Reuters at his Mombasa home.
Shariff, whose assets have been frozen by Western powers,
denies the charges against him.
There is also new friction between majority Christians and
Muslims, something that historically has been rare. Muslims, who make up about
a tenth of Kenya's 40 million people, also complain of economic disadvantage in
their coastal heartland compared to more prosperous central areas around the
On 4 October, Muslim youths burned a Mombasa church after
Islamist cleric Sheikh Ibrahim Omar died in a drive-by shooting - an attack
some Muslims blamed on police. His mentor, Sheikh Aboud Rogo, was shot dead
last year in similar circumstances.
Police deny wrongdoing and say they are investigating.
Two Christian pastors have been killed in recent weeks and
one group of clergy has asked the government to issue rifles to protect their
Joseph Sigei, police commander in the port of Lamu, near the
Somali border, said the flow of suspected militants across the frontier has
fallen sharply due to police tactics - only a quarter as many suspects had been
detained trying to cross the frontier this year compared to last, he said.
Al-Shabaab's losses in Somalia, where Kenyan and other
African troops had driven them out of many cities and towns, had helped turn
rebels into informants, Mombasa commander Kitur said, describing part of the
"[They] helped us with vital information about who,
where and when radicalisation was happening," Kitur said.
But regional intelligence and diplomatic sources say
recruitment and radicalisation of Muslims goes on, albeit more discreetly in
the light of the police crackdown on Islamists.
One Western diplomat said a small group of
"well-organised violent extremists" was able to drive their message
home because of the weakness of mainstream Kenyan Muslim leadership.
"There is not a good counter-narrative coming from the
moderates and moderate leaders," said the diplomat.
"Burn in hell"
For their part, moderate voices say their work has been
undermined because the police make so many ordinary Muslims feel persecuted,
fuelling suspicion of the authorities.
"Those of us who have stood up to speak against these
things are viewed as traitors," said Hassan Suleiman Mohammed, an imam
whom young Muslims threatened to kill as they fought police during riots on
Mombasa's palm-lined avenues on 4 October.
Mohammed suspects that radicals who incited youths to roll
over his car and jeer him in his mosque during Friday prayers also distributed
a CD that named him and dozens of fellow imams "condemned to burn in
hell" for opposing armed jihad.
Many Muslim leaders who support the government - if not
police tactics - tread a fine line for fear of reprisals from al-Shabaab and
castigation by their communities, said Bryan Kahumbura, an analyst at the
International Crisis Group.
"It is especially difficult to aggressively speak out
against al-Shabaab down at the coast," he said of moderate Muslims.
"So many people feel the government can't guarantee their own personal
security and safety."