Jihad Comes to Kenya
ALEXANDER MELEGROU-HITCHENS is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at Kings College, London. He is also an investigator for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.See more by this author
In late October 2011, Elgiva Bwire Oliacha, a member of the militant group al Shabaab, killed six and injured dozens more in central Nairobi. The attack was significant not only because it was part of a sudden upswing in jihadist terrorism in Kenya but also because Oliacha is a native Muslim Kenyan. Until recently, experts assumed that al Shabaab's recruitment in Kenya was limited to the country's Somali minority, which numbers roughly a million people. But Oliacha's assault and others like it have forced a reassessment of the nature of militancy in Kenya.
Although jihadists have long been active in Kenya -- one of al Qaeda's first major strikes, in 1998, targeted the U.S. embassy in Nairobi -- for years native Muslim Kenyans almost never took part in terrorist attacks. Kenya, which is dominated by a large Christian majority, has a history of religious tolerance, and its Muslim population is no exception. In fact, native Kenyans were usually on the other side of terrorism: The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a peacekeeping alliance of East African militaries that was created in 2007 to help prop up Somalia's transitional government and fight al Shabaab, has had a significant Kenyan contingent.
But tensions between the Christian majority and the Muslim minority are building. There are many reasons for this, but they include the growth of confrontational Salafi groups and the economic and political marginalization of Muslims. Those problems have been exacerbated by attacks on churches that are specifically designed to provoke communal anxiety. Last November, Christian Kenyan youths rioted in response to a grenade explosion in the Nairobi slum of Eastleigh, attacking Muslims and their businesses. Al Shabaab immediately took to Twitter to capitalize on the sectarianism, claiming that Muslims in Kenya "must construe these attacks as a clear declaration of war against them and defend their properties and their honour." The escalation of these tensions over the past few years is certainly one reason why there are now an estimated 500 Kenyan Muslims currently in al Shabaab's ranks in Somalia.