Extremist Group Gains Foothold Among Kenyans
NAIROBI, Kenya — When the United States tried to capture a powerful militant in Somalia last weekend, it did not go after the leader of the Shabab extremist group, but a Kenyan national whose ties were as much in his native country as in the Horn of Africa.
Outside of Somalia itself, Kenya sends more fighters to the Shabab than does any other country, analysts say. Young Kenyan men have ridden buses to the border in large numbers for years, local Muslim leaders say, drawn by payments of up to $1,000 to cross into Somalia and fight for the group.
But ever since the Kenyan military stormed into southern Somalia two years ago, many Kenyan fighters have been coming back home, local leaders and experts say, creating a larger, increasingly sophisticated network of trained jihadists in a country where people from around the globe gather in crowded, lightly protected public places.
“The growing number of militants in Kenya,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Councilin Washington, “is a serious concern — or ought to be — for both U.S. policy makers and their Kenyan counterparts.”
Unlike Somalia, which has been isolated by decades of chaos, Kenya is home to thousands of American expatriates working for multinational companies, the United States Embassy, the United Nations and nonprofit groups. Beyond that, tens of thousands of American tourists come here for safaris and beach vacations every year, prompting the United States to issue a travel warning after the deadly siege on the Westgate mall in Nairobi last month because of “potential terrorist threats aimed at U.S., Western and Kenyan interests in Kenya.”
To much of the world, the attack on the mall, in which Islamist radicals killed more than 60 men, women and children, underscored the growing international threat of the Shabab, a group that once seemed more focused on imposing Islamic law in Somalia than with staging major attacks across international boundaries.
But the siege has also illustrated the growing radicalism of Kenya’s own neglected, disaffected Muslim population. At least one member of the small group of attackers at the Westgate mall was Kenyan, according to Kenyan officials, and several witnesses have described hearing the combatants speaking Swahili, one of Kenya’s national languages, sometimes flawlessly.
Kenya’s slums have long provided a fertile recruiting ground for Muslim extremists, but analysts say that the Shabab have been finding recruits from across the country, not just in traditionally Muslim areas like Mombasa or Somali enclaves and refugee camps. The heavy-handed response by the Kenyan police seems to have driven more young men to embrace radicalism.
Deadly riots broke out last week in the coastal city of Mombasa after a popular Muslim cleric was shot dead in what many believe was an attack by security services.
“A day after the killings,” said Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, a fundamentalist cleric in Mombasa, “a group of boys came to me and they said, ‘Sheik, find us a way to communicate with Al Shabab. We want to help, but we don’t have weapons.’ ”
Mr. Ahmed, a middle-aged man in a white cap and hennaed goatee, was one of three Kenyan supporters of the Shabab listed by the United States Treasury Department last year, accused of acting as a “recruiter and facilitator” for the group. In an interview on a rooftop here, Mr. Ahmed denied the charges, saying that when youth from the area ask him for help joining the Shabab he tells them not to go.
But were it not for the bail money that friends posted because of pending charges against him, Mr. Ahmed said, he would be in Somalia for jihad “tomorrow.”
Until recently, the Shabab’s Kenyan affiliate, Al Hijra, was “a group that appeared to be fumbling and amateurish, operationally,” said Matt Bryden, a former head of the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea. But “a core of committed fighters has emerged and they have been learning.”
Fighters who have trained in Somalia are filtering back into Kenya, he said, bringing new discipline, dedication and expertise.
“There have also been indications that over the last six months or so they’ve been scaling down grenade throwing and small stuff, partly to get some relief from law enforcement, but also because they realized this wasn’t getting them anywhere,” said Mr. Bryden, now a director at the Sahan Research and Development Organization, an independent group based in Nairobi. “They decided to aim for something that would do more damage and be more spectacular.”
A Kenyan intelligence report last year said that a Kenyan explosives expert had trained 20 Kenyan militants in Somalia, including in Baraawe, the port town where Navy SEALs staged an unsuccessful raid on Saturday to capture Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, a Kenyan citizen who uses the nom de guerre Ikrimah and is accused of plotting attacks in both Kenya and Somalia.
The Kenyan militants are increasingly sophisticated and dangerous, with safe houses and weapons stores at their disposal, according to the intelligence report. Aware that they are being watched, the report said, militants here have cut down on mobile-phone contact and begun using unsent draft e-mails in accounts for which they share passwords to communicate without detection.
“Al Shabab has started investing more in building out its own network in Kenya,” said Katherine Zimmerman, senior analyst at the Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute. “There is an Al Shabab network that extends down through Kenya and into Tanzania.”
Abdi Aynte, executive director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu, Somalia, said that with porous borders and corrupt police officers, it was relatively easy to cross into Kenya with a bribe at the border.
“There is no inhibiting force at all to prevent you from going into Somalia or from Somalia into Kenya,” he said.
Other Shabab recruits have come from as far as Britain, Burundi, Chad, Uganda and the United States, potentially expanding the group’s ability to take advantage of local passports, accents and communities to operate. Many analysts said that it would be difficult for the Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the Westgate attack, to plan and execute a complex attack like the one at the mall without the assistance or participation of local networks.
Abdul Haji, a Kenyan businessman who rushed to the Westgate mall to try to rescue his brother, said he found himself locking eyes with one of the assailants, less than 100 feet away. He said the man did not look Somali and spoke to him in flawless, native Swahili, saying, “Kuja, kuja,” or “Come, come,” gesturing for him.
The government’s tensions with segments of Kenya’s Muslim population has been building for years. When Kenya’s one-party system ended in the early 1990s, the government refused to register the Islamic Party of Kenya. After the arrest of several Muslim religious leaders, riots broke out and top party members were arrested.
The police focus on Kenyan Muslims intensified after the bombing of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and it deepened after a deadly attack on Israeli tourists at a hotel in Mombasa in 2002.
Last year, the killing of an influential cleric, Sheik Aboud Rogo Mohammed, who had been accused by the United States of drumming up money and fighters for the Shabab, led to days of riots. Many Muslims accused the police of being behind the killing.
Just last week, another fundamentalist cleric, Sheik Ibrahim Ismail, was shot and killed along with three of his followers in similar circumstances.
“We knew they were going to kill him one day,” Mr. Ahmed said. “I am going to be killed one day.”
Source: The New York Times
Nicholas Kulish reported from Nairobi, and Josh Kron from Mombasa, Kenya.