In September 2013, militants linked to al-Shabab carried out a deadly attack at the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi’s Westlands area. The assault killed 67 people and refocused international attention on the organization.[1] The operation appeared to embolden al-Shabab, which until that point had been on the defensive in Somalia.[2] As the attack on the Westgate mall unfolded, al-Shabab claimed responsibility through Twitter posts, stating that they sent men armed with AK-47s into the shopping mall to retaliate against Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011.[3] As they had done previously, al-Shabab followed these tweets with warnings that Kenya’s failure to withdraw its forces from Somalia would have dire consequences.[4] Evidence quickly emerged that al-Shabab affiliates in Kenya assisted the militants in executing the Westgate shopping mall attack.[5]

This article profiles al-Hijra, formerly known as the Muslim Youth Center (MYC), which is considered a key al-Shabab affiliate in Kenya and East Africa.[6] It traces al-Hijra’s evolution from the MYC to a group with a substantial underground network in Kenya, capable of posing a major threat to domestic security.[7] Understanding al-Shabab’s network in Kenya is especially important in the wake of continued attacks targeting Kenya, the latest of which killed 10 people in Nairobi on May 16, 2014.[8]

A Profile of Al-Hijra
Al-Hijra is a covert group of primarily Kenyan Somali and non-Somali Muslim followers of al-Shabab in East Africa. It is reportedly led by Shaykh Ahmad Iman Ali, who left Kenya to join al-Shabab in Somalia in 2009.[9] Al-Hijra’s geographic center of support is on the Muslim Swahili coast of Kenya and Tanzania, although its base is in the Majengo area of Nairobi.[10]

Al-Hijra’s predecessor, the MYC, was formed at the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque, one of the oldest Islamic institutions in Nairobi, as a community-based organization in 2008.[11] The MYC’s primary objective was to offer counseling, as well as to work for positive social and economic change for the Muslim youth in the Majengo slums who felt discriminated against as Muslim minorities in Kenya.[12] The MYC was funded by the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque Committee (PRMC) through money generated from, among other sources, large sections of land in the Majengo slums and by rent payments from second-hand clothing stalls in the nearby Gikomba market—land which the PRMC owns.[13] The PRMC is also said to control large storage facilities where traders keep their goods and pay rents.[14] The slum and the Gikomba market border Eastleigh, a district in Nairobi that residents call “Little Mogadishu” because of its large population of Kenyan Somalis and refugees who have fled the war in Somalia.

The MYC, however, reportedly developed links to al-Shabab, and was accused of recruiting Kenyan youth to fight for the terrorist group in Somalia.[15] The MYC thrived by generating funds, as well as recruiting and training networks for al-Shabab in Kenyan towns such as Nairobi, Garissa, Mombasa and Eldoret.[16] Some of the recruits had their travel facilitated to Somalia, where they would fight for al-Shabab.[17]

The MYC’s founder, Shaykh Ahmad Iman Ali, was reportedly born in 1973 or 1974 in Kenya.[18] He studied engineering in Nairobi, where he graduated in 1997 or 1998 (although other reports claim he graduated in 2001).[19] After graduation, he worked for Shell and Exxon Mobil oil companies as an engineer.[20] As a youth leader at the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque, Iman Ali oversaw the construction of a new mosque building. In 2007, he masterminded the ouster of the executive committee of the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque, leading to the removal of five officials over alleged corruption and mismanagement.[21] Al-Shabab’s leadership allegedly took note of his fundamentalism and secretly appointed him as the de facto leader of its cell in Nairobi.[22] In 2009, reports emerged that the MYC was recruiting youth for al-Shabab from within the mosque. Iman Ali left for Somalia in 2009, where he became leader of the al-Shabab cell in Kenya.[23] His role was to plan terrorist operations with militants in Kenya.[24] Members of the mosque then suspected that the committee had previously channeled funds to al-Shabab when under Iman Ali’s leadership.[25]

Iman Ali’s MYC, however, had long aspired to carry out attacks in Kenya.[26] That aspiration gained momentum in October 2011, when Kenyan troops entered Somalia to pursue al-Shabab militants.[27] On January 10, 2012, nearly three months after Kenyan troops deployed to Somalia, al-Shabab announced a merger with the Kenya-based MYC.[28] It also designated the MYC’s Iman Ali as al-Shabab’s representative for Kenyan affairs.[29] In a statement, the MYC welcomed the development, stating there was no doubt that Iman Ali’s elevation as the supreme amir of Kenya was recognition from the “Somali brothers who fought tirelessly against the kuffar on the importance of the Kenya mujahidin in Somalia.”[30]

The following month, in February 2012, the MYC renamed itself al-Hijra, with Iman Ali as its leader.[31] The proposal to change the name was floated at a secret strategy meeting between the MYC and PRMC in Majengo in Nairobi.[32] According to the United Nations, the MYC chose to change their name to avoid the scrutiny of the authorities, which had taken action against MYC-affiliated names and bank accounts.[33]

The MYC’s official name change was not immediately noticeable on their social media outlets. Twitter and Tumblr accounts linked to the MYC continued to release statements under its old names.[34] The “MYC Press” Twitter account still continues to operate, posting discussions on jihad and other matters affecting Muslims. There was much activity on the Tumblr account from January to September 2013, but the last press release was issued in September 2013.

A letter from the members of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea said in 2012 that al-Hijra continued to operate in Kenya with relative freedom, sending funds and recruits to Somalia in support of al-Shabab, while simultaneously developing plans to conduct terrorist attacks inside Kenya, deploying several operational cells for this purpose.[35]

Pressure on Al-Hijra
Nevertheless, al-Hijra’s activities, as well as those of the PRMC, have been disrupted by international and regional security services.[36] Moreover, a number of unexplained killings have targeted clerics considered supportive of al-Shabab and Islamist militants in Kenya.

On April 1, 2014, gunmen killed Abubakar Shariff Ahmad (also known as “Makaburi”), an extremist cleric who supported al-Shabab and may have been a member of al-Hijra, under controversial circumstances in the coastal city of Mombasa.[37] His death came days after he reiterated his support for al-Shabab and defended the Westgate terrorist attack.[38] “I support the Westgate attackers,” Makaburi told the BBC. “We as the Muslims cannot sit back and do nothing about it while our brothers and sisters get slaughtered worldwide, the Westgate attack was well deserved.”[39] Makaburi, who faced three charges related to terrorism in December 2010, allegedly aided al-Hijra militants in procuring weapons for an attack on a church under the orders of Iman Ali in March 2014.[40]

Both the United States and United Nations had designated Makaburi as a terrorist.[41] The United Nations had previously described him as a leading facilitator and recruiter of young Kenyan Muslims for violent militant activities in Somalia.[42]

Prior to Makaburi’s death, unknown militants killed another key Islamist ideologue, Shaykh Aboud Rogo Mohammed, in Mombasa on August 27, 2012.[43] Rogo was considered an ideological leader for al-Hijra’s predecessor organization, the MYC.[44] Rogo’s successor, Shaykh Ibrahim Ismail, was also assassinated in a drive-by shooting in October 2013.[45]


Despite these setbacks, al-Hijra appears determined to restore its efforts in Kenya. Based on the number of recent attacks in Kenya, the group has possibly been reinvigorated by fighters returning from Somalia and local recruits from East Africa. This network poses a serious threat to Kenya’s domestic security, given that its members operate clandestinely. Moreover, in October 2013, UN and European officials expressed concern that al-Shabab and al-Hijra were planning future attacks employing the Westgate tactical model.[46]

As stated by prominent Somalia analyst Matt Bryden in October 2013, “Al-Hijra has been under surveillance for a number of years and the Kenyan state has accumulated enough intelligence on its ideological leaders to disrupt the movement. For some reasons, there is reluctance to provide classified intelligence to the law enforcement agencies for effective prosecutions. And this ought to change.”[47] In the wake of the Westgate attack and the continued violence affecting Kenya, the Kenyan government is now clearly aware of the threat posed by al-Shabab and its East African-based affiliates such as al-Hijra. Al-Shabab has managed to establish a dangerous network in Kenya, and the Kenyan government will have to concentrate resources on dismantling that network domestically.

Fredrick Nzes is a journalist based in Nairobi. He writes frequently about politics, religion and terrorism.

* Correction: This text was modified at 2:30 PM on May 31, 2014, as it mistakenly said that Kenyan militants linked to al-Shabab were involved in the Westgate attack. It has been corrected.

[1] “It’s Not Over, Somali Terrorists Say After Mall Attack That Killed 67,” CNN, October 2, 2013.

[2] Nevertheless, months before the assault, a string of grenade and small improvised explosive device attacks occurred in Nairobi, Mombasa, Garissa Wajir and Mandera, killing and injuring Kenyan civilians, police, and military officers. See “African Politics: Diverse Threat,” Economist, October 15, 2013; “At Least 10 Killed in Grenade Attack in Northern Kenya,” Africa Review, June 23, 2013.

[3] “Somali Terror Group Al-Shabaab Claims Responsibility for Kenya Mall Attack,” NBC, September 21, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Trial of Westgate Attack Suspects Begin,” Daily Nation, January 15, 2014.

[6] “Security Agencies Worry About New Terrorist Threats in Kenya,” Sunday Nation, October 12, 2013.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jason Straziuso, “Bombings Kill 10, Wound 70 in Kenyan Market,” ABC News, May 16, 2014.

[9] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Pursuant to the Security Council Resolution 2002 (2011),” United Nations, 2012.

[10] “Security Agencies Worry About New Terrorist Threats in Kenya.”

[11] For more details, see the mosque’s website at www. Also see “Al-Shabaab Names Kenyan Leader,” Somalia Report, January 10, 2012; “Was Sheikh Rogo Shot by Americans Agents?” The Star [Nairobi], January 10, 2012.

[12] “MYC Behind Extensive Funding, Recruiting and Training of Mujahedeen in Kenya,” Middle East Media Research Institute, August 2012.

[13] “Muslim Kenyans Fund and Recruit Al-Shabaab, UN Report,” Reuters, July 29, 2011. Gikomba market, which is located next to the slum, hosts the largest second-hand clothing market in East Africa. Also see personal interviews, individuals in Majengo, Nairobi, Kenya, October 2013.

[14] Nyambega Gisesa, “A Portrait of a Jihadist Born and Bred in Nairobi,” Daily Nation, January 30, 2012.

[15] “Masterminds Target Youth to Execute Terror Attacks,” Daily Nation, March 3, 2014.

[16] “UN Report Links Nairobi to Somali Militants,, August 1, 2011.

[17] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Pursuant to the Security Council Resolution 2002 (2011)”; “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2060 (2012),” United Nations, 2013.

[18] “Are These the Faces Behind Westgate Mall Attack,” Daily Nation, September 29, 2013; Gisesa.

[19] Gisesa.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Kenya: Sheikh Ali – The Making of a Terrorist Commander,” Daily Nation, January 22, 2012.

[22] Gisesa.

[23] “Kenyan Picked to Head Local Al-Qaeda Wing,” Capital FM, January 17, 2012.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Gisesa.

[26] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Pursuant to the Security Council Resolution 2002 (2011)”; “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2060 (2012).”

[27] Ibid.

[28] “We are Now Part of Al-Qaeda East Africa,” The Long War Journal, February 10, 2012.

[29] “Al-Shabaab Names Kenyan Leader,” Somalia Report, January 10, 2012.

[30] “Kenyan Picked to Head Local Al-Qaeda Wing.”

[31] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Pursuant to the Security Council Resolution 2002 (2011).”

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] These accounts are located at and

[35] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Pursuant to the Security Council Resolution 2002 (2011).”

[36] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2060 (2012).”

[37] “Radical Preacher Makaburi Shot Dead,” The Star, April 2, 2014; Bosire Boniface, “Impact of Makaburi Death on Radicalism in Kenya as yet Unclear,” Sabahi, April 8, 2014; Benard Sanga and Stanley Mwahanga, “Radical Cleric Sheikh Abubakar Shariff alias Makaburi Shot Dead,” Standard, April 2, 2014.

[38] Ibid.

[39] “Sharif Makaburi Applauds Westgate Attackers Says It Was Well Deserved,” Nairobi Exposed blog, October 8, 2013.

[40] “Mombasa Court Awards Damages to Makaburi Over Unlawful Police Raid,” Sabahi, March 28, 2014; Benard Sanga, “Did Nairobi Based Al Shabaab Group Order Attack on Likoni Church?” Standard, March 30, 2014; Sanga and Mwahanga.

[41] “UN Warned of Al-Shabaab Ally’s New and More Complex Operations in Kenya,” The Long War Journal, September 23, 2013.

[42] “Police Patrol Kenyan Port After Muslim Cleric’s Murder,” Agence France-Presse, April 2, 2014.

[43] “Al-Shabaab Supporter Aboud Mohammed Rogo Killed in Kenya,” BBC, August 27, 2014.

[44] Christopher Anzalone, “Kenya’s Muslim Youth Center and Al-Shabab’s East African Recruitment,” CTC Sentinel 5:10 (2012).

[45] Boniface.

[46] “Security Agencies Worry About New Terrorist Threats in Kenya.”

[47] Ibid.

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