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Lessons from Kenya’s Coast and why extremism is a global burden

By NGALA CHOME | February 26th 2017
Terror suspects (from left) Nasra Hyder, Salim Mohamed Rashid, Aisha Faiz Hyder and Fatuma Mohamed Rashid (partly hidden) at the Shanzu Law Courts in Mombasa last week. [PHOTO: file/STANDARD]

Last week, the Anti-Terrorist Police Unit (ATPU) arrested eight people in Mombasa and Mtwapa for suspicion of engaging in terrorist activities. According to the police, two of them, Nasra Faiz, 27, and Salim Rashid, 21, had been deported from Turkey whilst en route to Syria to join the so called Islamic State (IS).

Recent trends, in extremist recruitment and radicalisation activities in Kenya, are discernible from these arrests.

In February and November of 2014, a contingent of the ATPU, General Service Unit (GSU), and the regular police raided Masjids (mosques) Musa, Majilis, Sakina and Swafaa in Mombasa for suspicions of extremist recruitment. In total, 376 people were arrested and 91 were subsequently released for lack of evidence.

In August 2015, counter accusations pitting the government against a number of families, human rights activists and journalists regarding the whereabouts of about 200 young people on the Coast circulated widely. While the police claimed these people had travelled to Somalia to join the extremist militant group, Al Shabaab, communities alleged that these youth had been picked-up by people in unmarked cars – believed to be police officers – after which they could not be traced, with some found dead.

One famous case, which was actually brought before a court of law, was that of Hemed Salim Ahmed, who was last seen at Masjid Musa during one of the police raids on February 2, 2014 being accosted out of the mosque by the police.

Given the late Abubakar Sharif’s (Makaburi) distinguishable ability to bridge the gulf between genuine social protest and extremist violence, it is possible that some of those arrested were innocent worshipers caught in the government’s crosshairs; while others were active members of Al Shabaab, including the many that managed to escape.

Most importantly, the mosque raids of 2014 had shown violent extremists that the knowledge of the authorities regarding their activities had improved since the period between 2004 and 2006. It is during this period that Kenyan nationals begun travelling to Somalia to join the resistance against the Transitional Federal Government, namely Saleh Nabhan and Aboud Rogo of Mombasa; and Juma Otit Were and Suleiman Mwangi Irungo of Nairobi.

Since, select Kenyan mosques – especially those that had provided alternative platforms for political debate since the complete demise of the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK) in 1997 – established themselves as hubs for radical preaching and the increasing projection of an anti-American extremist ideology that framed local Muslim (sometimes coastal) concerns within a language of global jihad. According to investigations conducted by the United Nations Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea (SEMG), mosques such as the Pumwani Riyadha in Nairobi and Masjid Musa in Mombasa had, by 2008, formed an elaborate Al Shabaab support network, commonly known in intelligence circles as Al Hijra. Al Hijra operatives managed to send hundreds of Kenyans to Somalia to fight alongside Al Shabaab.

But combined with the unresolved assassinations and disappearance of its key leadership, especially between 2012 and 2013, the assault on mosques in 2014 was the final nail on the coffin that necessitated a change of strategy by Kenya’s religious militants.

A dispersed network

In an upcoming academic article, I have argued that violent Islamism in Kenya results from a framing of local Muslim grievances within a language of ‘global Jihad’, a simple yet powerful ‘glocal’ strategy which has communities of support (sympathisers) and is legitimated by religious ideas of validation. The conclusion is that Kenya currently faces a radically different security challenge, as an adaptive, largely amorphous, and sharply dispersed multi-ethnic network of Kenyan-born religious militants has arisen.

Drawing on intelligence information, a 2016 report published by the Security Sector Programme of IGAD suggests that at least, since 2015, this network has largely sub-divided itself. The report also shows that operatives have dispersed, and new cells, which may or may not be inter-linked with each other and/or with Al Shabaab have proliferated. These claims can be corroborated by an analysis of media reports.

For instance, while it has been widely known that prisons, universities and high schools are the new frontiers for extremist recruitment, and that there has been an increasing prominence of women and young girls amongst those suspected of terrorist activities; the report elaborately describes at least three attempts during which imprisoned Al Hijra associates have tried (with the help of female jihadists and cells recruited from prison) to launch attacks against the military camps at Isiolo, Manda and other targets in Mombasa.

Additionally, the claim that recruitment has focused on non-traditional areas such as Western Kenya and the Rift Valley, is evidenced by the arrests, in February 2014, of Nixon Kipkoech Rutto, and again in June 2016, of Javan Morton Murai alias Jamal from Vihiga County, both of whom had joined Al Shabaab. Despite operational and logistical challenges faced by this highly dispersed network – with operatives based mostly in Nairobi, Mombasa and Tanga in Tanzania – it has sent people from Kenya to Somalia and to Syria, especially through Western Kenya and into Libya, to join IS.

The arrests on March 6, 2016 of four men at Busia, on suspicion that they were heading to Libya to join IS, and last week’s arrests in Mombasa reveal the transnational nature of this network.

In sum, and reminiscent of recent radicalisation and recruitment trends in the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Canada and the United States, Kenyan supporters of violent jihad are increasingly getting radicalised through the internet.

The response to counter the threat to security that these individuals present has been limited by challenges such as weak inter-agency coordination, policy fragmentation and reactive rather than pro-active policy formulation. In addition, low civil society capacity and lack of government support, including low capacity for research, exists.

Except for a few studies, and despite the fact that some members and leaders of this network are well-educated and from well to-do families, existing analysis – often driven by donor interests and rigid programmatic objectives – tends to emphasize socio-economic conditions such as poverty, unemployment, lack of education, human rights abuses by security agencies among others.

Resorting to violence

Caution must be exercised, as many who are affected by these conditions do not, in fact, resort to violence, and that it is often unclear that those among them who do are motivated primarily by these factors.

In addition, no study exists that has found that some people are ‘terrorist’ by nature, i.e. individuals who are committed to terrorist activities for whatever reason to justify their mischief.

Scholars such as Jerrold Post have argued that many religious militants who kill to attain some political objectives are in actual sense psychologically normal in the sense of not being clinically psychotic; they are neither depressed nor severely emotionally disturbed. In this way, cultural identity and the socialisation process offer more explanatory power.

Studies based on interviews with religious militants from different religions have found that all ‘cultures of violence’ have a community of support, ideologies of validation behind them, and a dominant perception that those communities are under attack, or are violated – whether true or not. Therefore, religions all over the world are offering the ideological resources for an alternative vision of public order.

Religious justifications of physical violence, or just war, combine with shared perceptions of oppression that constitute cultures of violence. If convincing enough, these ideas tend to draw sympathy and/or membership from anywhere in the world.

In Kenya, many, especially young people confused with social and political events around them, have turned to religion for answers.

The neo-fundamentalist ideology espoused by the likes of Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, and IS has historical antecedents in Kenya. But its immediate background is the 1990s and after, i.e. state responses to Muslim activism (such as the refusal to register the IPK in 1991), the informalisation of public authority and a dominant Pentecostal culture that is distinctively hostile to Islam.

In this ideology, many have been urged to lose interest with the exigencies of life and politics in Kenya and join a global insurrection to overturn the global system.

Using religious imageries of cosmic war, the world has been turned into black and white, ally and foe. The foe is demonised, allowing the victim to perceive of him or herself as God’s solder with a divine mandate to kill.

While the important task of investigating, interdicting and prosecuting violent criminals remains a key responsibility of the state, it seems that governments, donors, and security agencies might want to allow local communities to address, using religious debates and discussions, the growing prominence of this violent ideology.

—The writer is a PhD candidate at Durham University in the U.K. His research explores the politics of militant Jihad in Kenya and the contemporary history of Kenya’s Coast.

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