On October 14, 2011, Kenya announced that it was deploying troops to Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabab, the al-Qa`ida-linked Somali militant group that has abducted foreign aid workers and tourists in Kenya. Since its October intervention in Somalia, militants have executed a number of terrorist attacks in Kenyan territory. Although authorities blame al-Shabab for much of the violence, it has also become clear that Kenya has a domestic radicalization problem of its own. Kenyan nationals have conducted a number of recent terrorist attacks in Kenya, with many of them receiving military training from al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia.[1]

Radical clerics in mosques in North Eastern and Coast provinces, as well as in Nairobi, have recruited Muslims in Kenya for militancy. Although 80% of Kenya is Christian, its Muslim population—which accounts for about 9-10% of the population—is largely concentrated on its eastern coast as well as on the border with Somalia.[2]

This article details recent terrorist attacks in Kenya and also identifies the factors behind the radicalization of Muslims in Kenya.

History of Terrorist Attacks in Kenya
Throughout its recent history, Kenya has been victim of sporadic terrorist attacks.[3] The most prominent of these incidents was on August 7, 1998, when al-Qa`ida attacked the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, killing 213 people.[4] The attack was coordinated simultaneously with the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 12 people.[5] On November 28, 2002, al-Qa`ida militants attacked the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, killing 15 people.[6] Almost simultaneously, militants fired two shoulder-launched missiles at an Israeli charter plane in the same city, missing the target.[7]

The recent escalation of terrorist attacks in Kenya, however, is the direct result of the al-Shabab insurgency in neighboring Somalia. On October 1, 2011, Marie Dedieu, a 66-year-old disabled French woman, was kidnapped from her home near Kenya’s Manda Island by suspected al-Shabab gunmen.[8] She died while in the assailants’ custody that same month.[9] On October 13, suspected al-Shabab militants kidnapped two female Spanish Médecins sans Frontières aid workers from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, and took them to Somalia.[10] This series of cross-border attacks, as well as prior kidnapping incidents, spurred Kenya’s military to intervene in Somalia on October 14.[11]

Once Kenyan troops entered Somalia, al-Shabab warned it would launch a campaign of violence in the country.  The first incident targeting civilians in Kenya post-invasion occurred on October 24, 2011, when militants tossed a grenade into the Mwaura pub on Mfangano Street in Nairobi, wounding 12 people.[12] Later that day, another grenade attack targeted a bus terminal in Nairobi, killing one person.[13] On November 5, assailants threw two grenades at the East Africa Pentecostal Church in Garissa, killing two people.[14]

Attacks on churches escalated in 2012. In one recent incident, on September 30, 2012, militants threw a grenade into a church Sunday school service at the St. Polycarp’s Anglican Church in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi, killing one child.[15] Then, on October 17, 2012, a grenade attack targeted officers from the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) who were cracking down on terrorist activity in the coastal city of Mombasa, killing one officer.[16]

Although al-Shabab is suspected of involvement in the series of grenade attacks in Kenya in 2011-2012, the group clearly has support from extremists living in Kenya.[17] Indeed, the Muslim Youth Center, a Nairobi-based religious extremist group, celebrated some of the attacks on its Twitter account and warned, “Public warnings via social media are over like we said. May Allah keep the mujahedeen strong.”[18]

Radicalization in Kenya
Kenya is home to approximately 4.3 million Muslims, or about 9-10% of the country’s population, and they predominately live in North Eastern and Coast provinces.[19] Many Muslims in Kenya also live in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi. Eastleigh, often called “Little Mogadishu,” is mostly home to Somali refugees who, over the years, have fled the violence and instability in their home country.[20]

Certain territories in Kenya are susceptible to extremist or separatist ideology. Since Kenya’s independence in 1963, it has faced a number of secessionist challenges. From 1963 to 1968, ethnic Somalis in North Eastern Province attempted to secede and become part of “Greater Somalia” in the Shifta War.[21] The war, as well as subsequent violence such as the Wagalla Massacre in 1984, was brutally suppressed, creating resentment among Somalis living in Kenya. After the Shifta War, the Kenyan government declared a state of emergency in North Eastern Province that lasted for almost three decades, further alienating Somalis living in Kenya.

As a product of these repeated conflicts, northeastern Kenya—as well as parts of Coast Province—lack basic services such as paved roads, schools and hospitals. These regions suffer from poverty, high youth unemployment, rapid population growth and general insecurity. Resentment toward the government is high, and extremists are able to exploit these factors; chronic youth unemployment, for example, makes al-Shabab’s promise of limited income attractive.[22]

During the 1970s, Saudi Arabian-funded missionaries traveled to Kenya to proselytize and convert Kenyan Muslims to Salafism. As a result of these missionary activities, the International Crisis Group argued that “the [Muslim] community [in Kenya] grew more insular, puritanical and conservative; sectarian animosities escalated, and traditional support for moderation and coexistence waned.”[23]

During the 1990s, Muslims in Kenya were exposed to religious radicalism from al-Qa`ida, as well as from the Somali militant group al-Itihad al-Islami (AIAI). AIAI’s goal was to establish an Islamic government in Somalia and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. It attempted to recruit Kenyan Somali youth in Mandera and Garissa districts in Kenya’s North Eastern Province as well as in Eastleigh.[24] It also raised funds through mosques to support its activities in Somalia. In 1996, Ethiopia launched a series of cross-border raids against AIAI, basically defeating the group—yet AIAI’s leaders, Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Hassan Turki, would later play key leadership roles in the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and al-Shabab.[25] Parts of AIAI’s former support network is likely now supporting al-Shabab, as well as domestic jihadists in Kenya.

The emergence of the ICU and then al-Shabab in 2006 contributed to radicalization in Kenya. Although it was not until 2011 that Kenya began to suffer frequent small-scale terrorist attacks related to developments in Somalia, al-Shabab has been building a formidable and secretive support network in the country since 2007.[26]

Pumwani Riyadha Mosque
Today, there are a number of extremist support facilities in troubled areas of Kenya. Al-Shabab’s primary source of support in Kenya appears to revolve around the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque, located near Eastleigh in Nairobi. Until recently, individuals at the mosque handed out jihadist pamphlets and articles authored by Anwar al-`Awlaqi, the Yemeni-American member of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by a U.S. drone in September 2011.[27] The cleric’s speeches were translated into Kiswahili and other local languages, as well as Luganda, a widely spoken language in Uganda.[28] Clerics at the mosque also reportedly delivered sermons with religiously inflammatory content.[29]

In the clearest case of domestic radicalization, the Muslim Youth Center (MYC) was formed at the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque in 2008.[30] The MYC, also known as the Pumwani Muslim Youth, was established by Shaykh Ahmad Iman Ali purportedly to express the grievances of impoverished Muslim youth.[31] In practice, however, the MYC has recruited hundreds of Muslims in Kenya to fight with al-Shabab in Somalia.[32] It has promised to sustain attacks for the “al-Shabab brothers” until Kenya withdraws troops from Somalia.[33]

Before evidence emerged of the MYC’s role in radicalization and militancy, Ahmad Iman Ali was a respected shaykh in Nairobi. He was secretary for the mosque’s planning committee, where he handled construction at the mosque complex.[34] Ahmad Iman Ali was also raising money and finding recruits for al-Shabab’s fight in Somalia.[35] In 2009, Ahmad Iman Ali overtly entered militancy and moved to Somalia, where he would become the leader of al-Shabab’s Kenyan recruits.[36]

Since Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, authorities and analysts suspect that militant MYC members are responsible for much of the violence at home. In 2011, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Eritrea and Somalia cited in its report that the MYC is spearheading recruitment, fundraising, training and support of jihad in Kenya.[37] Since at least 2010, Ahmad Iman Ali has called for jihad in Kenya, instructing MYC fighters in Somalia to “hit back and cause blasts [in Kenya] similar to the Kampala bombings.”[38] His mention of the Kampala bombings refers to al-Shabab’s suicide attacks targeting civilians watching the World Cup in the Ugandan capital in July 2010. That attack killed 74 people.

Jihadist speeches and literature as well as the activities of the MYC at the  Pumwani Riyadha Mosque have contributed to the formation of a radicalized, secretive group of Kenyan jihadists in Nairobi, Mombasa, Garissa, Mandera and other cities.[39] This Kenya-based group looks to al-Shabab as a source of emulation, while supporting its jihad by sending money and recruits to Somalia—as well as attacking civilian targets in Kenya.[40] According to Kenyan Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere, hundreds of Kenyan youth who trained with al-Shabab in Somalia have returned home to Kenya.[41]

Some analysts suggest that recruitment now not only includes the Somali community in Kenya, but also other Muslims living in the Kenyan and Tanzanian coastal regions.[42] According to the International Crisis Group, “There is growing evidence to suggest that attacks in North Eastern Province are joint operations of Kenyan Swahili and Somali jihadis. Swahili members are easily able to evade security by posing as locals and counting on outdated profiling by Kenyan security officers that all al-Shabaab members are Somali-looking.”[43]

In recent months, due to increased government oversight, these mosques are reportedly no longer delivering extremist rhetoric.[44] The International Crisis Group, however, conducted interviews in the area in 2012 and found that jihadist radicalization “may have gone underground,” possibly to people’s homes or in madrasas.

After the al-Qa`ida terrorist attacks in Kenya in 1998 and 2002, the government improved its ability to fight terrorism and related threats.[45] It increased its capabilities to identify, arrest and detain suspects through an Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) that was established in 2002. Yet al-Shabab’s advances in Somalia during the last few years have challenged Kenya’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks at home. Kenya’s border with Somalia is long and cannot be secured effectively, and it is easy to smuggle across weapons or men. Moreover, al-Shabab can rely on radicalized Muslims in Kenya to support its fight in Somalia, and put pressure on the Kenyan government by attacking civilian targets in Kenya.

As al-Shabab continues to weaken in Somalia, the Kenyan government must also focus on finding suitable approaches to deradicalize the small number of Muslims who have been lured into extremism and are waging jihad in Kenya. The formation and activities of groups such as the MYC show that certain segments of Kenya’s Muslim population are at risk of radicalization and recruitment into extremist groups. Even if al-Shabab is defeated in Somalia, Kenya’s role in that defeat has now made it a target for Islamist militants seeking revenge.

Fredrick Nzes is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He writes regularly on politics, religion and terrorism.

[1] “Police: Militant-Trained Kenyan Youth a Threat,” Associated Press, May 4, 2012.

[2] “The World Factbook,” U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, October 4, 2012.

[3] In 1980, for example, Islamic terrorists detonated a bomb at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, killing 15 people. An Arab group claimed responsibility for the bombing, saying that it was in revenge for Kenya allowing Israeli troops to refuel in Nairobi during the raid on Uganda’s Entebbe Airport in 1976. For details, see “Kenya Hunts for Suspect in Fatal Hotel Bombing,” UPI, January 3, 1981.

[4] “Embassy Bombing Death Toll Revised,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1998.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Kenya Terror Strikes Target Israelis,” BBC, November 28, 2002.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Xan Rice and Kim Willsher, “French Woman Kidnapped by Somali Militants Dies,” Guardian, October 19, 2011.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Xan Rice, “Two Aid Workers Kidnapped From Kenyan Refugee Camp,” Guardian, October 13, 2011.

[11] Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia, however, was planned for years, reportedly part of a covert strategy to safeguard Kenya’s borders and economic interests. For details on this, see Jeffrey Gettleman, “Kenyan Motives in Somalia Predate Recent Abductions,” New York Times, October 26, 2011.

[12] Dominic Wabala, “Grenade Rocks Nairobi Bar,” The Star, October 25, 2011; “Two Grenade Blasts Rattle Nairobi; 1 Dead,” Associated Press, October 25, 2011.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Grenade Attack on Church in Garissa Kills Two,” BBC, November 6, 2011.

[15] “Boy Killed in Grenade Attack on Kenya Church,” RTTNews, October 1, 2012.

[16] Eugene Okumu, “One Police Officer Dies and Several Injured in Grenade Attack,” The Star, October 17, 2012.

[17] See, for example, “Kenya Jails Islamist Insurgent for 59 Years,” Agence France-Presse, September 20, 2012.

[18] This was posted on the Twitter account @MYC_Press on September 30, 2012. For an in-depth analysis of the Muslim Youth Center, see Christopher Anzalone, “Kenya’s Muslim Youth Center and Al-Shabab’s East African Recruitment,” CTC Sentinel 5:10 (2012).

[19] “Kenyan Somali Islamist Radicalisation,” International Crisis Group, January 25, 2012.

[20] Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, “Tension Runs High in Kenya’s Little Mogadishu,” National Public Radio, November 19, 2011.

[21] John Ringquist, “Bandit or Patriot: The Kenyan Shifta War 1963-1968,” Baltic Security and Defence Review 13:1 (2011).

[22] “Militants Lure Youths with Goodies,” The Standard,  September 10, 2011.

[23] “Kenyan Somali Islamist Radicalisation.”

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Hizbul Islam Group Withdraws Allegiance, Says ‘Al Shabab is Weakened,’” GaroweOnline, September 25, 2012; Anonymous, “A Diagnosis of Somalia’s Failing Transitional Government,” CTC Sentinel 2:7 (2009).

[26] Ibrahim Oruko, “Radical Islam Spills into Kenya,” The Star, February 2, 2012; “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 1916 (2010),” United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, July 2011.

[27] “Kenyan Somali Islamist Radicalisation.”

[28] Personal interview, anonymous subject matter expert who has visited the mosque, Nairobi, Kenya, October 2012.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Kenyan Somali Islamist Radicalisation.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 1916 (2010).”

[33] Bosire Boniface, “Muslim Youth Centre Aims to Create Religious Strife in Kenya, Analysts Say,” Sabahi, August 22, 2012.

[34] Nyambega Gisesa, “A Portrait of a Jihadist Born and Bred in Nairobi,” Africa News Online, January 30, 2012.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.; Barnard Momayi, “Factions Support Ridyadha Mosque Report,” CapitalFM News, August 7, 2011; Abdi Dahir, “Terror Suspects Hunt Shoots Down Business in Eastleigh,” Daily Nation, November 15, 2011.

[37] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 1916 (2010).”

[38] Ibid.

[39] Authorities have arrested a number of Kenyan citizens for their role in these attacks. See, for example, Lordrick Mayabi, “Grenade Man Pleads Guilty, Admits Role in Attacks,” CapitalFM News, October 26, 2011; “Police: Militant-Trained Kenyan Youth a Threat.”

[40] Ibid.

[41] “Police: Militant-Trained Kenyan Youth a Threat.”

[42] “Raid, Grenades, Gunfire: Three Dead in Kenyan Tourist City,” CNN, October 17, 2012.

[43] “Kenyan Somali Islamist Radicalisation.”

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

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