Elders lose control
“We have seen a very different dynamic now. The young converts are the ones who are being lured into terrorism,” said Al-Amin Kimathi, a Kenyan human rights activist who was released last year after being held on suspicion of involvement in the Kampala bombings. Concern over Al Shabaab’s growing East African contingent was one of the motives for Kenya’s decision to send troops into Somalia last October.
The pull of militancy is placing new strains on the region’s Muslim communities, say elders, clerics and younger Muslims. “The older generation has lost control of the youngsters. They’ve lost it completely,” said Kimathi, who was born a Christian in Nyeri in Kenya’s central highlands and converted to Islam in his mid-30s. Most converts, he said, are “overzealous” and easy targets for Al Shabaab’s recruitment campaigns, especially if they are poor. Because the young men, often converts, do not fit the conventional profile of an Arab or Somali militant, they are harder to track, one European diplomat said.
But Kenya’s police have made life harder for the group’s recruiters. Back in April 2009, when Abdullahi joined Al Shabaab, it was possible for recruiters to carry out indoctrination sessions in a mosque. Abdullahi met Al Shabaab clerics from Somalia when they came to preach in his hometown of Mandera. “It was after afternoon prayers. We went to a corner of the mosque where we could talk quietly,” he said. “They said that jihad was going on in Somalia and that we were all brothers and should join the jihad. They promised us money and food. They said Islam was under attack, and they mentioned Ethiopia. They told us the Ethiopians and other Christians were attacking Islam and they wanted to wash Islam out of the country. That made me feel so angry.” Fuelled by that anger and the fact he could not make enough to feed his family, he headed across the border. Abdullahi had been a herder and then worked for an aid organisation, distributing rice and water.
“I joined for the jihad, I wanted to defend Islam. But of course we needed money to support the family,” he said. The Somali clerics who had visited his mosque paid him $1,000 (Sh86,000) and said more money would follow. It did not. “Of course I believed in jihad,” Abdullahi said, shaking his head. “But what I found them fighting was not jihad.”
“You want to attack”
Al Shabaab may have lost Abdullahi, but there are others ready to take his place, many of them not ethnic Somalis. In the port city of Mombasa on Kenya’s Indian Ocean Coast, sermons by fiery clerics stoke anti-Western sentiment. Suleiman Adam, a 25-year-old mobile-phone card salesman, says his radicalisation began in 2002 when he enrolled in an Islamic boarding school north of the city. Adam, whose forefathers came from Sudan, is the son of a truck driver who could not afford to send his son to a regular high school. Looking back, Adam said, it was obvious that some of his teachers at the school sympathised with Al Shabaab.
There were moments when he agreed. “If you see some American tourist, like a kaffir (unbeliever), you just feel like you want to attack him. You are of that mind that ‘These people are bad. These people want to finish this religion of Islam.’ That was what was in my mind... You feel like going and exploding yourself.” But even in his radical days Adam was not as extreme as some of his classmates, who included non-Somali Kenyans like him. “There are some... who are 50-50. We felt it’s not a jihad, going to explode yourself, that’s not a jihad. It wasn’t making sense. But there were those who were 100 per cent. They believed in that.”
Unscrupulous radical preachers exploit that faith, say community leaders like Imam Mustafa Bakari. Sitting in a cafe opposite his Masjid Fathi mosque in Mombasa, he said he worried that the recruitment would continue “because preachers in Mombasa are continuing with these wrong teachings”.
“We have Muslims here who want to go to Somalia to join Al Shabaab, but I’ve told them they should not go to Somalia because the war there is not jihad. In Somalia, it’s Muslims fighting Muslims and that is not jihad.” A sense of piety is often fuelled by more practical considerations. Mwalimu Rama, 38, a former youth leader who now works for an NGO that counsels young Mombasa radicals, has friends with Al Shabaab in Somalia. Some occasionally call him to chat about their exploits, he said.
But when he tries to persuade them to come home, they scoff. “What, you have a job for me? You want to employ me? Is there actually anything good there, if I come back?” he said they ask.
(Additional reporting by David Clarke, Richard Lough, James Macharia, Humphrey Malalo and George Obulutsa in Nairobi).