Kenya: combatting radical Islam

Before Kenya can succeed in stemming the radicalisation of its Muslim minority, the US will have to change its Somali policy
John Onyando
20 January 2010
The protest in Nairobi on 15 January by a handful of Muslim youth, in which four people were killed, revealed a profound radicalisation and inter-faith resentment among Nairobi’s Muslims. Kenya must address this if it is going to avoid Nigeria-style violence in the future. It should work closely with the United States, which apart from being an important player in Somalia is involved in interconnected regional initiatives.

The protests shook the foundations of tolerance in Kenya as nothing has before. It prompted some civilians to cheer the police, which is generally reviled for its many crimes against the people. Vigilantes even joined the battle on their side. But on the other hand it led to an armed protester – believed to have smuggled a gun into the protest – shooting at a policeman. The authorities have denied reports of the officer’s death, but have confirmed the sacking of a Muslim officer who defied orders to charge into the protesters.

These riots reopen interfaith differences at a time when Kenyans – in the middle of a constitutional review – least need them. Consequently, the government has announced a comprehensive and urgent investigation. To its credit it has persuaded its Muslim allies to condemn the killings and the demonstration’s organisers, whose leader has now been arrested. That the protesters were fighting over a foreigner, Sheik Abdullah Al-Faisal, who is being held on terrorism charges, fuelled much of the public rage.

Failure to engage

One symptom of Kenya’s chronic failure in the fight against extremism is its refusal to engage with the groups that actually speak for Muslims. Days before the protest Muslim groups had voiced genuine concerns over Al-Faisal’s illegal confinement and hysterical statements by Immigration Minister Otieno Kajwang about the man being a terror suspect. The government ignored them, and unleashed the police when they protested.

Another symptom is the delusion that Kenya can have two sets of laws, one for Muslims and one for the rest. Repression does Kenya no good. By killing Muslims it plays into the hands of extremists. Instead of meting out force on innocents, Kenya would do better to deploy her many strategic strengths in the fight against extremism.

The first step should be to tackle problems in the police force, whose penchant for bribes exposes the country to terrorism risks by allowing dubious people across the borders. Thanks to cooperation with America, Kenya has good counterterrorism systems. It should be able to prevent events like Al-Faisal’s entry by enforcing strict border patrol, airline security, and immigration screening or simply by sharing intelligence with other agencies.

Authorities who have publicised Faisal’s terrorist orientation have little to say on how he entered Kenya overland from Tanzania unnoticed at the Lunga Lunga border point. They tell us that the database with the watch list on it was being replaced at the time. This excuse will not wash. If that were true, the officers would have examined the records of the few hundred travellers they had allowed in immediately once the system was reinstalled. Instead, it took the Americans to alert Kenya of Al-Faisal’s presence, by which time he was already in a mosque preaching!

 Even then, Kenya did not use the information prudently. Rather than deport the man – Faisal broke no law and can’t be charged – ministers ran amok, publicising the man’s terror credentials and his extremist orientation. Their botched attempt at deportation flouted international norms. The Tanzanians rejected the cleric at Lunga Lunga border point on grounds that Kenya did not notify them in time. The Nigerians, with their own problems following the Christmas Day bombing frenzy, were in no position to take in another terrorist.

So Kenya has had to host Faisal for ten days, during which time it has been accusing Britain and the US, who are supposedly better placed to handle his case, of forsaking the country at its hour of need. In actual fact, Kenya exaggerated the risk Al-Faisal posed here, generating a furore that it has failed to manage.

None of this is to deny that Faisal is a dangerous man. Britain claims that his preaching inspired one of the 7/7 London bombers, and even Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab. He may have contacts with Al Qaeda in Somalia, which the US says is rapidly expanding into an ambitious regional network.

Changes in the Kenyan economy are recasting the role of the Coastal regions, which the International Organisation of Migration has found to be fertile grounds for extremist elements. While Kenya attracts badly-needed foreign investment, it must take care to establish the backgrounds of foreign investors, some of whom have criminal ties. Al-Faisal himself was legally allowed to enter Kenya. Ongoing swoops on Somali neighbourhoods smack of racial profiling. It is difficult to understand why a government that routinely welcomes dubious businessmen and tourists should harass refugees fleeing a grave humanitarian crisis imposed upon them by a needless war.

Kenya should distinguish itself from the repressive policing of Ethiopia, as such tactics strengthen the hand of extremists. With each new protest against genuine grievances, and each draconian response by the police, it becomes harder to argue that Kenya is not repressing Muslims. This is the propaganda that Al Shabaab needs. Live television transmission of the protest incited a bigger albeit peaceful demo in Mombasa. Scenes of police firing tear gas into Nairobi’s main mosque are outright insensitive, but also fuels the radicalisation that helps extremists.

Changing US policy

To check Al Shabaab, Kenya needs to persuade America to calibrate its policy in a way that makes the prospect of unifying the Somalis realistic. The Somali crisis is a political problem, with Al Shabaab one of the key players. While Kenya cannot change America’s policy or interests, no country is better placed than Kenya, which is most at most risk from the radicalisation of Somali youth, to persuade the US to find a solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of all Somalis.

As a senator and presidential candidate, President Obama had fabulous ideas about Somalia which need testing in light of the negative results of Bush-era military-led policy, which was escalated last year. Al Shabaab is growing primarily because the spectre of American intervention arouses anger and damages further the pitiable reputation of the Transitional Federal Government.

The continuation of the failed military policy may be partly due to the new presidency's limited choices and his reliance on the policies he has inherited. It might also be that, without a strategic understanding of the evolving crisis, the US is uncertain and paralysed about how to proceed. Why else would it rehabilitate Sheik Sharif, a former Islamic Courts leader it deposed in 2006?

 America’s strong national interest in Somalia would be better met by investing in a realistic roadmap for peace, something President Obama must crucially be in need of, and which Kenya should take a key role in formulating. What the international community needs is a Somalia policy that takes into account the internal dynamics in the Horn of Africa as a whole.

In the meantime, no one wants Kenya to roll back on democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law, so the US should make a real investment in reforming the Kenyan police. This is an absolute pre-requisite to returning to the rule of law. For the inability of the state to provide essential protections is the main cause of the vigilantism which reached a dangerous level on Friday. Corruption within the force and its ephemeral organizations impedes its capacity to fight organised crimes. America is the best placed country to help Kenya address this important issue.

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