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Ukunda’s dance with radicalisation

By Sunday Standard team | February 10th 2019

In 2008, a group of men, previously held in Ethiopia over terror-related charges, were flown from a stint in detention in Addis Abba and straight to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).

The men, arrested 18 months earlier, had been fingered by several international agencies and governments over alleged links to terror cells.

The eight, all Kenyan citizens, were arrested on diverse dates between January 7 and 11, 2007 at Kiunga in Lamu. Subsequently, they were removed from the country and handed over to Somalia and Ethiopian authorities.

But by the end of that year, and through the intervention of a high ranking politician who was eyeing the vote rich Muslim block in the divisive 2007 elections, conversations about their return to the country were ongoing. In October of 2008 they came home.

After touching down at JKIA, they were flown to Moi International Airport where a convoy of vehicles waited for them. Six of the men were from Kwale County, and on that day they made a triumphant entry into the sleepy town to a rapturous welcome. In the eyes of those who received them, they were heroes.

In Ukunda, they were at the centre of a county with one of the highest Al Shabaab recruitment rates. Scholars and researchers say that almost half of the 1,500 returnees that came back into the country between in the years leading up to 2016 called Kwale home.

“One of the key reasons is that Kwale has had so many conflicts since 1992. We have had them in 97 clashes, the 2002 Kaya Bombo violence, the Mlungunipa 1 and Mlungunipa 2 skirmishes. If you have a conflict that has never been addressed, the risk of having a standby militia is always very high,” Hassan Ole Naado said in an interview with sister station KTN over the shocking numbers of returnees in Kwale.

Naado is the Deputy Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM).

It is not just the conflicts that fuel tensions in Kwale. The county has been home to some of the most radical clerics, some killed, others on the run. Many of them remain active recruiters of Al Shabaab members and custodians of radical ideologies.

A history of conflict

The history of conflict can be traced further back to 1989 when a police contingent raided the Guraya Mosque in Mombasa’s majengo. A decade later, another similar attack took place, this time on the night of August 12, 1998 when Masjid Chai, in Kwale’s Tiwi area, was raided.

Police reports say that on that night, a unit was hot on the heels of a wanted man, Ramadhan Athman, who was on the run after an assault charge had been put on him three weeks before. Through tip offs from the public, they were able to trace him to Masjid Chai on that night.

Unknown to them, a wedding was going on and when they stormed the mosque with guns and boots, six people lay dead, including one policeman. The groom, Ali Mwajefa, too was killed. It later emerged that the couple was being wedded for the second time after radicalised voices within the mosque claimed that the first wedding hadn’t been conducted with the strictness that was required.

Because of this, the mosques Imam Abdulkarim Mwatachuka, who was also killed that night, ordered for a repeat of the ceremony.

Ramadhan Mwajembe, the Imam who had conducted the couple’s first wedding three years earlier, told the press that the couple repeated their wedding after joining the Answar Sect that demanded a purified wedding.

Proponents of the sect included Sheikh Abdul Azziz Rimo, himself a native of Ukunda as well as the yet to be infamous Aboud Rogo.

The then Interior Security Minister Marsden Madoka offered another explanation, saying that the youth within the mosque were commemorating the anniversary of the Likoni killings that started off with an attack on a police station within the township on the night of August 13, 1997. 

Hundreds of armed individuals invaded the station, stealing guns and killing 13 people, including six police officers. They also made away with 20 rifles and 5,000 rounds of ammunition in what appeared like a preparation for large scale attacks in the run up to national elections later that year.

Family ties

But as the back and forth went on between local leaders and the state over the Masjid Chai attack, another recognisable voice from the coast lent their voice to the debate. His bone of contention was the foreign funding of the expansion of mosques within the South Coast.

“Such foreign funding causes religious discord internationally. This funding makes the imams of these mosques sing to the tunes of their paymasters,” Sheikh Khalid Balala said at the time.

It is this foreign funding that would bring together a group of men bound by a common home, a shared sense of victimhood and a skewed belief system who cemented all these ties through unbreakable marriage ties.

When in one of his sermons, Aboud Rogo, the self-confessed radical cleric believed to have recruited many youth to Al Shabaab, declared that ‘true mujahedeen are from Ukunda’, he had this close knit group in mind.

The first in this circle is a near recluse called Hassan Mwayuyu, a slick operator whose base of operations was Ukunda Town. Those who knew him said he was annoyingly polite and answered to calls of ‘Sheikh’. He only moved from his sewing machine when he was going to one of two places - the mosque or his house.

But underneath the calm and collected look was a dark secret. Anybody who went to or wanted to go to Somalia had to get his permission. Those who felt they could go without his blessing ended up executed.

A family man, he thrived in marrying of his children to fellow believers and on one occasion duped both his daughter and wife to marrying a wanted terrorist.

The bride groom, Salim Nyiru, was so wanted that he never showed up for his wedding. The bride only realised this after the man who had taken the vows disappeared after the wedding only for Nyiru to appear that night. But it was too late. Nyiru had already got a bride for himself.

Nyiru was not his only wanted son-in-law. With the Rogo connection, he married off at least three of his other daughters to men similar to him, his sons-in-law sprinkled from all along the coastal strip from Tanzania, Kilifi and Mtwapa.

Another of the Ukunda wanted men is Ramadhan Kufungwa. A native of Ukunda, Ramadhan became an all too willing successor to Al Shabaab cells after the deaths of Rogo and Makaburi.

Investigations by Sunday Standard show that after inheriting this block, one of the first things he did to earn his stripes was organise the 2014 Mpeketoni massacres.

To do this, Kufungwa, mobilised the Mombasa and Kwale youth into vicious gangs that run roughshod through major towns in the coast, violently robbing shops, pedestrians and businesses in what they called ghanima - the spoils of war. The proceeds from the robberies were put into the planning of the June 15 - 17 killings.

Some of the participants in the Mpeketoni attacks were part of the group that made that triumphant entry into Ukunda from Ethiopia in October of 2008.

“There is still some sympathy within the community over these people,” Professor Halimu Shauri of Pwani University, says. “The solutions cannot lie on a hard approach only.”

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