Radical Muslims and a repressive regime: How the government fuels radicalisation

Terrorism wrapped in the cloth, defined by the emblems of Islam and fuelled by Muslims is the inescapable reality in Kenya. The Muslim community has, in the process, paid dearly for the actions of this evil force. But what we need to admit and address is that this terror has Kenyan DNA.

Muslim youths, who were detained by police from Sunday's raid at the Masjid Musa mosque, disembark from a vehicle as they arrive at a court in Shanzu, a small town along the north coast of Mombasa, February 3, 2014. Kenyan police stormed the Masjid Mussa mosque in the city's run-down Majengo neighbourhood on Sunday after a tip that Muslim youths were being radicalised by Islamists who support al Shabaab, a Somalia militant group allied with al Qaeda. REUTERS/Joseph Okanga (KENYA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST RELIGION POLITICS CRIME LAW)


Ahmednasir Abdullahi
Radicalisation of Muslim youth in Kenya has been popularised in Kenya’s security and political discourse by the rankest security organs to refer to the superficial and casual handling of a very complex political, social and security phenomenon. The term “Muslim Radicalisation” is thus used by Kenyan security organs in a context that refers to a situation where innocent and law-abiding citizens, mostly Muslim youth, are converted to Islamic radicalism and terrorism, to kill and destroy all in their wake.
True, some Muslims, in complete deviation from the true teachings of Islam, have engaged in terrorist activities in the name of the religion. But for us to understand, contain and defeat Muslim radicalisation and terrorism in Kenya, we need to address the root causes of the problem with a view to finding a holistic solution.
It must be appreciated that Muslim Terrorism in Kenya is a relatively new phenomenon, hardly a decade old. It came to prominence when the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) as part of African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) entered Somalia and captured the port city of Kismayu.
Lately, Muslim radicalisation has assumed a low level insurgency especially in Lamu, Mandera and Garissa, and unless addressed, has the potential to snowball into a full-scale secessionist movement in both Northern and Coastal Kenya.
Unfortunately, Kenya’s anti-terror strategy is informed by an inept strategy and incompetent forces that are premised on a false thesis that fuels the fire, rather than extinguish its flames. We all know that Kenya’s top security offices are the exclusive preserve of the communities that form the government the day. These offices then address “national” security challenges from ethnic-centric perspectives and rarely look at prevailing challenges from a national perspective. At lower levels, a reverse process comes into play that compromises cohesive and nationalistic input from the lower cadre security officers.
Radicalisation is neither a phenomenon that arises in the abstract, nor an invasion of a foreign force. To the contrary, it is a socio-political phenomenon that arises as a result of a community’s response to what it sees as oppression, killing and marginalisation and other challenges posed by a more dominant political force, hegemonically monopolises the political, economic and social spheres of a country. This explains home-grown radicalisation of Muslim youths in the Kenyan context.
What is not in dispute is that Muslim radicals, whether foreigners or Kenyans, have killed hundreds of innocent Kenyans, damaged property and made Kenyans lose life and limb. Recent major attacks include Westgate, Garissa University and the bus and quarry incidents in Mandera in which scores were killed.
This submission attempts to address the new phenomenon of Muslim radicalisation that causes certain Muslims turn on their country and kill fellow citizens, and goes against the popular analyses – what we can describe as “escapism” and “popular narrative” –that seeks to contextualise the terror attack in Kenya as part of the broader global narrative on Islamic terror. To the contrary, Islamic terror in Kenya is basically home-grown phenomenon that seeks to camouflage itself with more popular Islamic garb, causes and has both local roots and local solutions.
While Islamic radicalisation in Kenya is attributable to a number of factors, it goes without saying that the main incubator – and this could be a deliberate strategy to create instability in Muslim inhabited parts of the country – has been the government of Kenya. A classic example is how the State has used the provincial administration in Mombasa as a political tool to leverage and even destabilise the County Governments of Hassan Joho in Mombasa and Issa Timmamy’s Lamu County. But, of course, the causes are as varied as they are many.
Extra-judicial killings
Kenya has an official policy to kill Muslim clerics and any Muslim suspected by security forces of having links with Muslim terrorists. In the last five years, more than 100 Muslim clerics have been killed in both the coast and northern parts of the country. In addition, security organs of the state have killed between 300 and 500 Muslim individuals. Among those extra-judicially killed by government include Sheik Aboud Rogo and Sheik Samir Khan.
This policy is, of course, not publically or officially announced and acknowledged but it is well known to both Muslim leaders and even a number of foreign countries that give military aid to Kenya. The chain of command within the security forces process the killings of a given individual once the target is identified and the green light to eliminate given, according to internal procedures that regulate killings of Muslim clerics and their associates. Rogue officers acting outside the official channels sometimes execute the killings as part of contract missions.
Extra-judicial killing is a powerful tool at the disposal of any government. This abuse of human rights was historically the hallmark of unaccountable military regimes, especially in Latin America and Africa in the 1970s and 80s. It’s effectiveness in the fight against home-grown terror is highly disputed. What is, however, not in doubt is that it is quite counter-productive.
Ideological rationalisation
In the Kenyan context, extrajudicial killings have created both a communal awareness amongst the Muslim community of their vulnerability as a religious minority targeted by their government. In addition, it also provides a siege mentality that identifies the Muslims as being different from the rest of the community.
More importantly, these killings provide the ideological rationalisation to fight back the government, and make for excellent recruitment incentive. Once the youth see that their government targets their religious leaders for killings, the religious justification to counter it is easily rationalised and justified.
The government has now perfected the process. Originally, the death squads were a mixture of Kenyans from various ethnic backgrounds. But in the last few months, the government has created a special unit exclusively comprising Muslims, one group operating in the coast and the other in northern Kenya. The death squad in Northern Kenya is exclusively made of Somalis and that at the Coast of people from local tribes.
If the government is desirous of addressing Muslim radicalisation and cutting off their oxygen, it must stop extrajudicial killings. Targeting a section of a country’s population simply because of their religious beliefs is plain unacceptable and counterproductive.
Islamic radicalisation cannot be fought and defeated by killing Muslim clerics who lead prayers in mosques. This is a fight for the heart and souls of a community. The government must engage the Muslim community, not by killing them but by addressing their complaints and grievances.
Mass disappearances
This phenomenon is closely related to extra-judicial killings. The difference here is that large numbers of Muslims are not accounted for following their arrest by security organs of the State. Like the early 1990s, the writ of habeas corpus is now back in full swing in the courts.
Mass disappearance of Muslim males at the hands of security organs of the country has become a common occurrence in the past few years; in fact the strategy of mass disappearances is the other side of the extra-judicial killings coin.
Many families at the coast and in Northern Kenya cannot account for their loved ones. In both regions it is estimated that slightly over 700 persons are missing after being arrested by Kenyan security agents.
In this regard the rule of law and the constitutional safeguards of the individual have been completely suspended as they relate the members of the Muslim community. This State-inspired lawlessness is what is fuelling the fires of Muslim terrorism.
The policies of Generals Gichangi and Karangi
About five years ago, General Michael Gichangi, the former Director-General of Kenya’s National Intelligence Service, came with the novel idea of recruiting 2000 soldiers for the Somali government. These recruits were sourced from the counties of Mandera and Garissa. After military training in Manyani and Isiolo, the 2000 were let loose, with the official narrative being that they were youth from Somalia, trained by the Kenyan government for her neighbour.
According to security experts in the region, Gichangi’s, and by extension Government of Kenya’s, original design was to use this militia as a destabilising force in Northern Kenya and with the intention of recreating to the Shifta War scenario of the 1960s. The idea of recruiting Kenyan Somalis as an army for Somalia was just a clever subterfuge.
It is thus not entirely surprising that the counties of Mandera and Garissa bore the full brunt of the force created by the Kenya Government. Majority of the attacks in northern Kenya are believed to be carried out by the forces recruited and trained under General Gichangi’s watch.
Denationalisation of Muslims
The exact percentage of the Muslim population in Kenya is contested. It ranges anything from 15 to 30 per cent of Kenya’s population depending on who gives the figures. It is, however, not in doubt that the Muslim community as a political minority is largely marginalised in the political, governmental and economic spheres.
It must also be appreciated that from a historic point of view, two regions are dominant – Northern and Coastal Kenya, both of which have historically agitated to secede from the rest of the country at some point. In other words, Muslims in Kenya are historically secessionist.
A demographic explosion now compounds this historic agitation for secession, coupled with the insecurity in the two regions. Government is alarmed by the surging population numbers both in northern Kenya and at the Coast.
It is however the former region that gives those in control of the levers of power sleepless nights, which is why the office of the President has challenged the figures for the last national census and contended in court that the population of Somalis in Kenya has been grossly exaggerated.
In line with the official policy of the government to suppress the numbers of the Muslim Community, Kenya is now implementing a policy of denationalising Muslims both at the Coast and in northern Kenya. To this end, the Office of the President and the Immigration Department have created a secret task force that targets to declare one million Kenyan Somalis as illegal aliens, and their nationality classified as a forgery.
Apart from this, the government has stopped issuing nationality documentation – whether passport or identity cards – to Muslims in Northern Kenya and the Coast.  According to recent studies on this matter, 65 per cent of Somalis between the ages of 18 to 35 have no identity cards or passports.  In the Coast region the figure of Muslims without the two documents is about 75 per cent.
A government with such fascist policies towards it citizenry invites trouble.  Many school leavers who cannot find jobs or go for higher education because of the lack of identity cards have instead joined Al-Shabaab and have started waging war against their country.  The availability of such a large population for recruitment is priceless for terrorist organisations.
Military expansion
In the civilian and military spheres of Kenya, General Karangi is a polarising figure.  To some he is seen as a war hero and the face of Kenya’s fight against Al-Shabaab and other terrorist organisations. To many other Kenyans, Karangi is an unapologetic tribalist who killed professionalism in the army and created a tribal patronage where promotion and upward mobility in the defence forces is determined by ones’ lineage.
President Uhuru Kenyatta gave General Karangi a blank cheque in Kenya’s security sector.  He was the Alfa and Omega.  And the reason is rather simple. During his tenure as chief of the defence force, Karangi, with the tacit approval of President Uhuru, extended his mandate over the civilian jurisdiction and allowed the military even to undertake arrest and interrogation of civilians. In addition, in a case has been made by civil societies that the expansion of the military mandate under Karangi has the potential to lead to gross erosion of civil rights and cause abuse of human rights. The repression of ethnic minorities in the name of fighting terrorism is a mandate that Uhuru entrusted Karangi with. Gross abuses of human rights were committed by the Kenyan army during his tenure. Corruption and theft of public resources define the general’s legacy.
The pending amendment of the Kenya Defence Forces Act that seeks to create as office called the “National Security Adviser” obviously has Karangi in mind. The office is designed to monopolise the security mandate under one office that is not accountable to anyone but itself. Parliament will not vet this appointment. Even during his tenure, General Karangi is alleged to have taken over from the office of the Attorney-General the drafting of legislations touching on the security sector, and is the secret author of the obnoxious security legislation. He was also ensured opaqueness and total lack of accountability in the army budget, leading to the theft of billions.
Discrimination and marginalisation
Again, government has developed a policy of deliberate discrimination and marginalisation of Muslims from the two regions. Whether it is the security organs or in the public service, one sees only discrimination and marginalisation.
Economic war and sabotage is a technique the government uses time and again against the Muslim community as shown in the shutdown of Eastleigh and the whimsical closing of the hawalas. These two poignant examples capture the lengths to which government is willing to go in its vile agenda.
Since the Westgate attack, the military high command, on the instructions of the government, retired almost all Muslims above the rank of Colonel in the Defence Force. The object was to curtail the promotion and ascendancy of the concerned officers to the next rank.
Terrorism wrapped in the cloth, defined by the emblems of Islam and fuelled by Muslims is the inescapable reality in Kenya. As a country, we have lost many innocent Kenyans to Muslim terrorists. The Muslim community has, in the process, paid dearly for the actions of this evil force. But what we need to admit and address is that this terror now has a Kenyan DNA.  Majority of these terrorists are now Kenyans and their recruiting hinterlands are in Kenya.  Whereas they may use the franchise of Al-Shabaab, the reality is that Kenyan Muslims are now at the forefront in unleashing these terrorist attacks against fellow Kenyans.
It is not out of ideological affinity or love that Kenyan Muslims have turned to terror.  A good number of these actors are the sole creation of the Kenyan government, regarding who it has lost control.^
Paper presented at Law Society of Kenya Annual Conference last month



  1. This is a serious and a well documented treatise that Ahmednasir Abdullahi has articulated so eloquently in this paper. Obviously, a number of key problems ..not so much the solutions proffered by him will find general currency within the political class or what l would call the tribal supremos and “the defenders and protectors of the throne”. Kenya is one unitary state and all Kenyans are entitled to access economic development, equal opportunities to access government appointments to key jobs (provided they are qualified and not because they are politically correct). Not so much because they are tax payers, but because they are citizens of this country and NOT where they come from, their ethnic or tribal or religious orientation.

    Indeed Ahmednasir has identified the root cause and fundamental cross cutting issues that are at the heart of radicalization in our society. Indeed these are not necessarily religio-politico orientation but more or so the skewed access to economic resources handled by the Government of the day that is at the heart of the matter. Indeed religious and tribal radicalism is the manifestation of the consequences of economic marginalization. One can understand why it is hard for the political class and in particular those in power to appreciate small matters that if missed or ignored are bound to spread and fan political and religion conflicts. Indeed to stem the ever rising religious or even political radicalization, serious matters of ethnic/tribal profiling, skewed access to economic development, marginalization of communities perceived to be politically incorrect, poverty, etc are at the core of political instability. The choice is for us the ordinary Kenyans not to allow the selfish clamour by the politburo to divide us along tribe, religion or economic block for their own selfish interests.


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