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Why Sheikh Sharif Abubakar alias Makaburi’s killing is a major blow to fundamentalists

By Standard Team | Apr 6th 2014 | 7 min read

Muslims in Mombasa last Friday. They had threatened to protest last week’s killing of Sheikh Sharif Abubakar alias Makaburi by unidentified gunmen. [PHOTOS: GIDEON MAUNDU/STANDARD]


By Standard Team

Mombasa, Kenya: Following the April 1, 2014, killing of radical Islamist Sheikh Sharif Abubakar, alias Makaburi, analysts of Islamic trends are debating his legacy and what the sudden death means to the violent strain of Islam he espoused.

Whereas the security authorities considered Makaburi a threat with links to Al Shabaab and the global jihad, secular or Muslim scholars tend to analyse his contribution to radical Islam and legacy differently.

“He believed in the ideology that all problems in this world would be solved if Islam ruled the world,” says Yusuf Abubakar, a Mombasa-based lawyer, who knew the slain activist for well over a decade.

“He was a populist. He was basically a noisemaker who was made popular by the local and international Press,” offered Catholic Priest Fr Gabriel Dolan, who has followed Makaburi’s activities closely and who believes that although the deceased was linked to several crimes, his stature was largely a creation of the media and that he was “a fundamentalist and demagogue with a simplistic view of religion”.

Hassan Kulundu, an analyst of Muslim trends and movements, describes Makaburi as a victim of “little knowledge, which he spread among gullible people,” adding that while he lived, Makaburi and his legion of followers promoted an aura of militancy around themselves so that they could not be challenged intellectually by other Muslims.


But what did Makaburi believe in, and will the system he propagated, sometimes violently, thrive after his departure? Most scholars and Muslims in Mombasa and other parts of Kenya are reluctant to discuss the matter of Makaburi’s philosophy and creed. Naturally, they gave all sorts of excuses, but the main reason they cannot utter a word in Makaburi’s analysis is that they fear alarming his legion of militant supporters, who can retaliate in a very violent manner.

Fr Dolan says Makaburi tended to become very extreme in his last days, a period that Kulundu says saw the beginning of the destruction of myths the cleric had propagated among his followers. Kulundu reasons that the February 2 storming of Musa Mosque was a deadly blow to the myth that the State could not enter a mosque or that Muslim radicals were invincible. He says Makaburi’s killing will debunk more myths.

Kulundu even questions Makaburi’s use of the name Sharif, arguing that many Arabs tend to use it to advance claims to direct blood ancestry to Prophet Mohamed.

He believes that Makaburi’s destruction of graveyards inside some mosques in Mombasa many years ago on allegation that it was heretical to bury people in mosques could partly have been motivated by racism or was based on the Salafist belief that many prominent Muslims in Mombasa were closet Shias, the second most influential Muslim sect after Makaburi’s Sunni.

A Mombasa security expert who asked to be identified only as Martin reasons that if State agents killed Makaburi, the intention was “to remove a physical threat, disorient and divide his followers and debunk the appeal of his doctrine, at least in the short term”.

Unbeknown to most people, Makaburi himself declared an edict or fatwa against most known Muslim scholars and Imams a few days after the February 2 raid on Musa Mosque, which became the main dispersal point of his radical ideas, declaring his rivals as apostate and indirectly calling for their murder.

In the previous unknown fatwa, Makaburi uttered that the heads of most Kenyan Muslim clerics “are a just target” a euphemism that they could be beheaded. Little wonder that many Muslim moderates are silently happy that “the menace” that de-ligitimised and made them live in fear is gone.

These kind of threats formed the basis of Makaburi’s theology and practice. According to a UN Monitoring Report published on July 12 last year, Makaburi’s influence spanned across Kenya into Tanzania and Burundi, where he had tried to recruit Muslim youths into Al Shabaab.

The report alleges that Makaburi had taken over the Al Shabaab roles of his slain predecessor and comrade Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohamed and that he was the leader of Al Hijra, Al Shabaab’s affiliate in Kenya.

Al Hijra was said to be the new version of the defunct Muslim Youth Council (MYC), which operated from Riyadha Mosque in Nairobi’s Pumwani slums under the guidance of Kenyan Al Shabaab fugitive Ahmed Iman Ali.

Recent intelligence reports show that Al Hijra had cells in Kisumu, Nairobi, Eldoret and other key Kenyan towns ready to strike.

Kulundu and Yusuf believe that Makaburi’s speeches flowed from his adherence to a radical Islamic school of thought commonly known as Wahhabism or Salafism.

Historically, Wahhabism emerged as a Muslim revival movement in the Middle East during Ottoman Occupation close to four centuries ago. The movement sought to return Muslims to so-called authentic Islam. The modern rendition of Wahhabi doctrines is often called Salafism and exponents are Salafists.

Most analysts describe Makaburi, whose records at secular or religious schools are scanty, as a Salafist who was welded to the post-1979 ideas that swept the Muslim world following the Iranian revolution of that year.

Salafists are generally distinguished from other Muslims by their literal interpretation of Islamic law or Sharia. Kulundu argues that “they interpret the Koran disjunctively” and mischievously to justify their political agenda and appear to be obsessed with violence and revenge. The analyst says Salafists concentrate most of their justification for revenge against non-Muslims and Jews and violent jihad in general on a few specific verses or paragraphs of Surat al Baqara (the second chapter) of the Koran.

Many people from East Africa were invited to study in Yemen and Saudi Arabia where they acquired Salafist doctrines and when they returned they lay in wait until the early 1990s.

According to lawyer Yusuf and other sources, Makaburi might have travelled to Yemen several decades ago to work or trade.

Yemen effect

Makaburi himself alleged that he worked in the security forces in that country and apparently got radicalised there. About a decade ago Salafists appear to have acquired immense influence in Mombasa and its chief exponents were Rogo, the late Samir Khan and later Makaburi and Sheikh Ibrahim Amur who is also deceased. Mombasa Salafists led by Rogo and Makaburi had gradually infiltrated key Islamic training schools in Kisauni, Majengo, Likoni and Kwale with doctrines that thrive among the less educated and impoverished youths with historical grievances.

Of the original school of radicals, Makaburi was the last one to be killed. Now that he has departed, what will happen to the Salafist movement or Al Shabaab network he was associated with?

“The fundamentalists do not see it (his April 1 killing) as a loss,” says  Fr  Dolan who believes that killing Makaburi will embolden the fundamentalists who will rationalise it as a justification for martyrdom. Fr Dolan told The Standard on Sunday that Makaburi’s brand of liberation theology teaches martyrdom as a necessary part of the struggle against infidels and secular society.

“When you kill such people they become martyrs and so his followers will not feel defeated. Instead they will feel justified to engage in this kind of struggle,” says Fr Dolan who adds that Salafism “is not over” with Makaburi’s death because he will achieve a stature among his followers that cannot be crushed by the force of arms.

 Reckless statements

Yusuf and Kulundu have argued that although the ideas Makaburi espoused would not be crushed easily, his physical absence will be a temporary setback to the network he created and it may not be easy to find someone as bold as the late activist as a replacement.

Yusuf and Father Dolan tended to downgrade Makaburi’s importance in the jihadist movement by arguing that the late activist cancelled out his worth by careless and reckless statements that exposed him and put him in trouble.

“He was a good mobiliser who was not afraid and people could listen to him,” according to Yusuf who also states that Makaburi “was careless with his words and that is not being a strategist.”

Fr Dolan advances an argument that most likely “there was someone behind him who was using him without his followers’ knowledge” but that on his own he was often a careless operator who played into the hands of his enemies.

Dolan believes that if the state knew anything about Makaburi’s death, then he  (Makaburi) justified the act in his last local TV interview where he approved the September 21, last year Westgate Shopping Mall terrorism acts and when he also called for the withdrawal of Kenyan forces in Somalia.

But Yusuf says that in spite of his recklessness Makaburi will be hard to replace within Kenya’s jihadist circles because his followers will not be as bold and eloquent as he was. “Under the current circumstance it will be difficult to come across someone as courageous as Makaburi,” says Yusuf.

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