Kenya crackdown on militants troubles Muslims

Reuters

* Officers say their methods are stamping out militancy

* Muslims who speak out against militants fear reprisals

* Police deny accusations of extrajudicial killings

* Rioters after Islamist death burned church

By Drazen Jorgic

MOMBASA, Kenya, Oct 30 (Reuters) - A Kenyan police crackdownon Islamists is fuelling Muslim resentment and moderatepreachers say it undermines their efforts to counter recruitingby al Qaeda militants with links across the border in Somalia.

Smashing Islamist recruitment networks among its Muslimminority has become a priority for Kenya, however, as it triesto end attacks by Somali militants bent on punishing it forsending troops over the frontier to fight al Shabaab rebels.

The cost of failure was laid bare in September when alShabaab gunmen, one of whom police say is a Kenyan from the portof Mombasa, raided the Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyancapital Nairobi. At least 67 people were killed.

Police say their tough approach, taken before Westgate butstepped up since, has limited the flow of would-be jihadists inand out of Somalia, citing a drop in the number of suspectedmilitants they have tracked and arrested in the past year.

But Islamists, former militant sympathisers, independentsecurity experts and diplomats, some of whom acknowledgeshort-term benefits from the police actions, say sweepingdetentions and perceptions police are carrying outextra-judicial killings have fuelled Muslim resentment in themostly Christian nation.

Police deny accusations of running anti-Muslim hit squads.

Moderate imams, particularly along the coast where mostKenyan Muslims live, have been attacked by Islamist radicals andsome say they have been cowed into silence as a result.

Police tactics "are benefiting al Shabaab more than they arebenefiting the government", said Akullah Khamis, a 33-year-oldMuslim in Mombasa, Kenya's second city. He works with youngpeople and non-governmental agencies and says he himself fendedoff a bid by al Shabaab to enlist his support three years ago.

Kenya's battle against militancy is seen as vital to thestability of east Africa's biggest economy, the gateway forregional trade and with a long coastline that has become atransit route for would-be jihadists trained in Somalia.

The United States, Britain and Israel, which fret about thereach of Africa's al Qaeda-aligned Islamists, have trained andequipped Kenya's anti-terror police and intelligence forces.

Mombasa county police commander Robert Kitur dismissedsuggestions the force was being heavy handed or targeting thewider Muslim community: "We have never been brutal," he toldReuters. "People shouldn't generalise this is about Muslims."

"These are not Muslims, these are hooligans. We are going todeal with these people ruthlessly. We are just applying forcewhen it is necessary."

VENTING ANGER

However, one man accused by Western governments of aidingthe militants believes widespread arrests, along with raids onmosques and the deaths of people during clashes with police, arehelping al Shabaab recruiters.

"This being done to Muslims opens the eyes of the youth toal Shabaab being right," Abubakar Shariff, accused by the U.N.Security Council and the United States of raising funds andrecruiting for al Shabaab, told Reuters at his Mombasa home.

Shariff, whose assets have been frozen by Western powers,denies the charges against him.

There is also new friction between majority Christians andMuslims, something that historically has been rare. Muslims, whomake up about a tenth of Kenya's 40 million people, alsocomplain of economic disadvantage in their coastal heartlandcompared to more prosperous central areas around the capital.

On Oct. 4, Muslim youths burned a Mombasa church afterIslamist cleric Sheikh Ibrahim Omar died in a drive-by shooting- an attack some Muslims blamed on police. His mentor, SheikhAboud Rogo, was shot dead last year in similar circumstances.

Police deny wrongdoing and say they are investigating.

Two Christian pastors have been killed in recent weeks andone group of clergy has asked the government to issue rifles toprotect their churches.

Joseph Sigei, police commander in the port of Lamu, near theSomali border, said the flow of suspected militants across thefrontier has fallen sharply due to police tactics - only aquarter as many suspects had been detained trying to cross thefrontier this year compared to last, he said.

Al Shabaab's losses in Somalia, where Kenyan and otherAfrican troops had driven them out of many cities and towns, hadhelped turn rebels into informants, Mombasa commander Kitursaid, describing part of the police approach.

"(They) helped us with vital information about who, whereand when radicalisation was happening," Kitur said.

But regional intelligence and diplomatic sources sayrecruitment and radicalisation of Muslims goes on, albeit morediscreetly in the light of the police crackdown on Islamists.

One Western diplomat said a small group of "well-organisedviolent extremists" was able to drive their message home becauseof the weakness of mainstream Kenyan Muslim leadership.

"There is not a good counter-narrative coming from themoderates and moderate leaders," said the diplomat.

"BURN IN HELL"

For their part, moderate voices say their work has beenundermined because the police make so many ordinary Muslims feelpersecuted, fuelling suspicion of the authorities.

"Those of us who have stood up to speak against these thingsare viewed as traitors," said Hassan Suleiman Mohammed, an imamwhom young Muslims threatened to kill as they fought policeduring riots on Mombasa's palm-lined avenues on Oct. 4.

Mohammed suspects that radicals who incited youths to rollover his car and jeer him in his mosque during Friday prayersalso distributed a CD that named him and dozens of fellow imams"condemned to burn in hell" for opposing armed jihad.

Many Muslim leaders who support the government - if notpolice tactics - tread a fine line for fear of reprisals from alShabaab and castigation by their communities, said BryanKahumbura, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"It is especially difficult to aggressively speak outagainst al-Shabaab down at the coast," he said of moderateMuslims. "So many people feel the government can't guaranteetheir own personal security and safety."

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