Debris is seen after a bomb blast at the Paradise hotel in Mombasa in this handout released, November 29, 2002.
Israeli Defence Force Handout / Reuters

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.

In mid-2012, I met with six Kenyan ex-al Shabaab members to learn about their experiences. One of them, "Hassan," was recruited in 2008 by Kenya's Muslim Youth Center, an al Shabaab outpost in Nairobi's Muslim-majority slum of Majengo. Although religious, the 16-year-old was not ideologically committed to jihad. Instead, Hassan found a comforting companionship in the MYC's charismatic leader Ahmed Iman Ali and his followers. Promises of money -- 40,000 Kenyan shillings ($470) a month -- also helped. "I needed money for high school and planned to do it for a bit, save money, and then go to college and also help my grandmother who I lived with," he told me.

Hassan underwent three months of indoctrination in another nearby jihadist mosque in Majengo before traveling blindfolded by car to Somalia with a group of friends. He recalls hearing the driver negotiating with suspicious Kenyan border guards, who eventually accepted a 50,000-shilling bribe ($590) to wave them through. Once in Somalia, Hassan was quickly put to work raiding local villages. He was forced to maim, kill, and steal, helping both to fund al Shabaab and establish it as a force with which to be reckoned. 

"We used to have to wake up very early in the morning and come back very late," Hassan recounted. "It was horrible, and what they preached was not what they did." He angrily recalled how he was misled: "They told us they were fighting for our [Muslim] brotherhood, but what they are doing there is killing Muslims, especially if anyone went against their orders." As Hassan described the tragic fate of one of his good friends, the depth of his trauma was revealed. "My friend refused orders to rape a villager, and he was slaughtered right in front of me," he explained, his voice beginning to break. "I was so afraid that they would soon do the same to me if I made any mistakes."

The killing was done on the orders of Ali, who by then had moved to Somalia to take charge of al Shabaab's Kenyan contingent and whose kindness during his time as a sheikh in Majengo had been one of the factors that convinced Hassan to join in the first place: "He used to give me money for my family. He was a person who never got mad," Hassan said. He also promised me that if I go to Somalia I will get money to study and for my family." But the brutal killing of his friend was the final straw, and Hassan escaped with another companion soon after, relying, like many others before him, on the kindness of locals for shelter and transport along the way.


The story of how native Muslim Kenyans like Hassan came to join al Shabaab starts with Saudi Arabia's development of numerous Salafist religious institutions in eastern Africa in the middle of the last century. The outposts took off in Sudan and Somalia, where Muslim-majority populations were languishing under dictatorships. In turn, those countries became hubs of Salafi teaching, with Sudan in particular becoming a popular destination for Kenyan Sufi sheikhs seeking training. Many returned home as Salafis. 

With the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991 and the ensuing chaos in Somalia, dozens (according to some accounts) of high-level Salafis flooded into Kenya as refugees. Long before they started recruiting native Muslim Kenyans, they began to make their way to the halls of religious power and gain influence among the Somali diaspora. The Somali Salafis "came here and started taking over many existing mosques," said Saad Khairallah, a senior official in the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM), a primarily Sufi organization that represents many of the country's Muslims. "We told them, 'Build your own,' but they wanted to take our institutions and indoctrinate our members." 

To be sure, Saudi Arabia funded some new Salafi institutions within Kenya, too. One of the first was the Kisauni Islamic center, in Mombasa, which was founded in the 1970s. It was there that an aspiring imam, Aboud Rogo, received his training in the 1980s. Over the next decade, he established himself as one of Kenya's foremost Salafi preachers and, by the 1990s, had forged ties with jihadis around the world. Even so, he had relatively few native followers.

One of Rogo's most charismatic students was a Kenyan named Ahmed Iman Ali, who trained with Rogo in the 1990s and early 2000s. In those years, Islamists in Somalia had started to make gains against the Western-backed transitional government there, and Rogo saw an opportunity: He could use the Islamists' successes to agitate for a violent pan-Islamic response to all Western subjugation of Muslims. 

Ali thus took Rogo's fight to the streets of Majengo. Rather than build a new funding and recruitment network from scratch, he assumed control of an existing one. Ali set his sights on one of the oldest Islamic institutions in the country, the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque Committee (PRMC), which did not have a Salafi or jihadist bent. This organization, with its vast land holdings and control of the largest second-hand clothes market in the country, was a lucrative target. 

Ali soon engineered a coup against the mosque's steering committee by casting it as corrupt and anti-Islamic. He officially set up his own shop in the old PRMC by the end of 2008, naming it the Muslim Youth Center. Using his extensive connections with al Shabaab in Somalia, Rogo offered Ali's and the MYC's recruitment services to the militia, and it was at this point that Kenyans began to join in large numbers. This has not gone entirely unnoticed: A 2011 UN investigation into the MYC maintains that during this period that members of the group began to "openly engage in recruiting for al Shabaab in Kenya and facilitate travel to Somalia for individuals to train and fight jihad in Somalia." 

The MYC conducted its recruitment efforts, including fiery lectures in Swahili and a slick weekly newsletter, Al-Misbah, in plain view of local and national security services. In addition to spreading Salafi ideology, MYC also took advantage of the economic difficulties faced by Kenya's Muslims. Kenya has a serious unemployment problem -- around 40 percent of the population is unemployed. According to USAID, unemployment among out-of-school youth is about 75 percent, and the number is thought to be even higher among Muslims, who generally live in the northeast, one of the country's most deprived regions. In Garissa, a Muslim-majority town that borders Somalia, youth unemployment is at a staggering 90 percent. MYC and al Shabaab have drawn in many of the disenfranchised with offers of a regular wage of 40,000 Kenyan shillings per month ($500, about four times the average national pay). 

For years, the Kenyan government did nothing about the MYC's recruitment of Muslim youth, despite desperate protests by parents whose children were taken in by Ali. Local sheikhs insist that the authorities turned a blind eye because they were paid handsomely to do so. That is difficult to prove, however, and Kenyan officials strenuously deny it. It may also be the case that the authorities saw al Shabaab as primarily a Somali problem, since there was still little terrorist activity among Kenyans within the country's own borders.

Soon after locals began to agitate, Ali travelled to Somalia to take command of a force of East African al Shabaab members. From Somalia, he has continued to produce videos urging East Africans, and especially Kenyans, to join him. In one of the most recent, released in early 2012, Ali followed the standard al Qaeda script, painting Western and African efforts against terrorism as a guise for extinguishing Islam. His focus this time, though, was Kenya, whose military had by then entered Somalia to assist AMISOM's efforts to fight al Shabaab. "So many of our brothers suffered, and others were oppressed by the Kenyan government," Ali said. "Their recent invasion of Somalia is clear evidence of their enmity towards Islam and Muslims." He went on to call for jihad in Kenya itself. 


My interviews with six native Kenyans who had joined al Shabaab and then deserted confirmed the complicated relationship among ideology, economics, and recruitment. Two of the men claimed that they had joined for purely ideological purposes, having been convinced by either Rogo or Ali; three claimed that they joined for mainly financial reasons; one said he was kidnapped. 

Of the ideologically committed group, "Mohammed," a native of Majengo, was the first to speak to me. He attended the MYC for some time while it was under Ali's control and became a devoted student. "It was like he was feeding us," he told me. "We were totally convinced by him, I can't lie." Day and night, Ali taught them the virtues of jihad -- the "highest honor in Islam" -- and described in great detail the suffering of Muslims in neighboring Somalia at the hands of Western-backed AMISOM troops. As an able-bodied Muslim standing by and watching as his brothers and sisters were killed, Mohammed felt a heavy burden of guilt. 

One night in late June 2009, Mohammed received a call: It was Ali asking to meet him at the MYC. "He told me there was a man taking members somewhere, and also offering money for their families." Intrigued, Mohammed went. For agreeing to go with the man, he was given 40,000 Kenyan shillings ($470) in cash for his family, a huge sum of money for a resident of Majengo. The next day, he and a few others were taken to Mombasa and from there to Kikambala, which is just outside Mombasa, where they were handed over to Rogo for a week of ideological training. After that, they were taken to the island of Lamu, just off the coast of the mainland, and put into a speedboat bound for Somalia. The next thing Mohammed saw was an al Shabaab camp with countless recruits from all over the world -- "white, black, brown, even people like you," he recalled. 

For two weeks, he underwent yet more ideological training, which was followed by judo, karate, and shooting practice. During this time, he began to notice trucks leaving in the morning with a load of fighters and returning at night almost empty. Told to keep quiet by his superiors, he instead sought out those fighters who did return. Al Shabaab was busy consolidating its power in Somalia, and most of its activities centered on raiding villages and terrorizing local populations. Mohammed was shocked to learn from the fighters that most of al Shabaab's victims were Muslims -- including many al Shabaab fighters themselves.

As his time to enter battle drew near, Mohammed decided to escape. He and four of the Kenyans with whom he had travelled to the camp ran away one night, encountering a sympathetic truck driver who helped them on their long journey back to Nairobi. Mohammed is among the lucky ones; many others tried to do the same, he said, but were caught and executed almost immediately.

Now back in their home country, all of the men I interviewed are stuck in a terrifying limbo. Al Shabaab has issued a fatwa calling for the murder of any deserters, and a number of them have been shot and killed in the Majengo slum.


Kenyan authorities have finally started to take the militant threat seriously. Their response has been brutal: Security forces have been accused of relying on torture and extra-judicial killings. In May 2012, men dressed as police officers arrested Samir Khan, a known deputy of Rogo, and his mutilated body was found days later in a national park. Rogo met a similar fate in August, when unknown assailants killed him in a drive-by shooting. All the men I spoke to are as afraid of the government as they are of al Shabaab. "Anyone who has been a member of al Shabaab," said one, with sad resignation, "he is hunted by both sides." 

Considering that many other Kenyans who are still with al Shabaab in Somalia are disillusioned with the group, SUPKEM sheikhs wholeheartedly support setting up an amnesty program that would guarantee al Shabaab deserters safety and perhaps employment upon their return. Still, they do not believe that there is sufficient will among government ministers to carry out such a plan. "From whose pocket is the money for this going to come?" asks SUPKEM's director general, Latif Shabaan. "The system now is to kill them [returning al Shabaab members], not to rehabilitate."

Not all of those who left Somalia to return home have rejected al Shabaab. In fact, many fighters are being pushed out of Somalia into Kenya as al-Shabaab loses control of its territories there to AMISOM. They are bringing with them their guns, grenades, and ideas. In July 2012, Kenyan police issued a number of warnings about individuals who they believe have returned to Kenya under instructions from Ali to carry out attacks on civilian and military targets. It is likely, therefore, that in the coming months Kenyans will suffer more homegrown violence. 

The government could still respond before the situation spirals out of its control, and the amnesty that SUPKEM supports would be a good start. It is likely that many Kenyan al Shabaab fighters would pounce on the opportunity to put down their arms and return safely home. They would need assurances from the government that security forces would not target them, likely in return for valuable intelligence. But SUPKEM and other Kenyan Muslim groups are not holding their breath. As the situation currently stands, they can do little more than wait for the next attack in this new front of jihad.

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  • 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.
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