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In Mombasa, Islamic radicalism on rise

- Associated Press - Thursday, September 13, 2012

MOMBASA, Kenya — Hard-line Muslim clerics. Young people who feel marginalized. Suspicions that police are responsible for the killings and forced disappearances of extremists.

Those elements created a combustible mixture that exploded into rioting Aug. 27, after Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a Muslim preacher accused of links to an Islamist terrorist group in neighboring Somalia, was riddled with bullets as he drove his wife to a hospital for a checkup.

Observers say the events underscore growing fundamentalism in Mombasa, dividing people in a city established centuries ago by Muslim traders from the Arabian Peninsula. Kenya's second-largest city is now home to many people of Arab descent and Somalis.

No one has been arrested in the killing that happened in broad daylight but Mr. Mohammed's wife, who was wounded in the leg, immediately suspected the police.

"It is you policemen who have killed him. We don't want a post-mortem or any help from you," Khaniya Said Sagar told police officers who came to assist her.

Mr. Mohammed was the fifth suspected Muslim extremist who has been killed or who has disappeared in the past four months.

The Masjid Musa mosque where Mr. Mohammed preached weekly became ground zero of the rioting over two days. Four people, including three members of the security forces, were killed, and three churches were damaged. Hundreds of angry young Muslims who took to the streets blamed police for the killing of Mr. Mohammed.

"There is growing religious fundamentalism in Mombasa that is reaching to certain heights that were not there [before]," said the Rev. Wilybard Lagho, a Catholic priest who is chairman of the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, a forum that brings together clerics from several faiths to discuss common concerns. "Extremism divides people as 'we versus them' and that brings tension."

Schism exposed in Mombasa

Hassan Omar Hassan, a former deputy head of the government-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, said Mr. Mohammed became more outspoken and adopted a hardline stance after he emerged from prison, where he was held before a trial in 2002 on terrorism charges. He was later found not guilty of killing of 13 people in a bomb attack at an Israeli-owned hotel on the Kenyan coast and attempting to destroy a jetliner packed with Israeli tourists.

"It was at that point that I started to hear Mohammed, after imprisonment, becoming more and more audacious. It appears when he was imprisoned, he overcame the fear of adversity," Mr. Hassan said. "He started preaching on international jihad band subscribed to broad ideologies of jihad."

Police said Mr. Mohammed had belonged to a terror cell affiliated with al-Shabab that was planning to bomb Kenyan targets over Christmas. Al-Shabab is an Islamist insurgent group in Somalia that has executed people by stoning. The group has also chopped off limbs of suspected thieves. Kenyan troops are among the African Union forces backing the Somali government and are on the verge of attacking al-Shabab's last stronghold, the Somali seaside city of Kismayo.

Mr. Mohammed's death exposed and exacerbated a schism between the Muslim faithful in Mombasa, which boasts an architectural mix of mosques and minarets from Arab traders, British colonial-style buildings and modern high-rises. The mix of disparate cultural influences is evident in the clothing people wear here, from Arab-style robes, hijab head scarves and burqas to hip-hop style outfits complete with sagging jeans, short skirts and tights.

There are worries that the rise of extremism will upset the tradition of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims and will hurt this city's important tourism industry.

Youths who were protesting Mr. Mohammed's death ignored calls by their local imams, or preachers, to stop the violence, said Hashim Kamau, national youth chairman for the Supreme Council of Muslims in Kenya. Mr. Kamau said in an interview that he was sent from Nairobi to calm the youths.

'Gestapo kinds of raids'

Human rights campaigners say it is the Kenyan government's harsh counterterrorism measures that are pushing Muslim youths toward extremism. The August riots were a culmination of anger building up against the Nairobi government because of the killings and disappearances of five "Muslim figures, they say.

"This is a society that has been the victim of the government's counterterrorism measures," Mr. Hassan said. "We have Gestapo kinds of raids in this town. We have had a total flotation of the constitution, sheer disrespect and carelessness on the part of the police officers on how they deal with the sensitivities of the Muslim community and profiling."

Many young Muslims are furious about the disappearance or killing of Islamic leaders, which they blame on the police, Mr. Hassan said. Mr. Mohammed's teachings appealed to the youth because of their growing sense of frustration with issues, including poverty and lack of opportunity.

Sheik Juma Ngao, a local Muslim cleric and chairman of the National Muslim Advisory Council of Kenya, said the extremism has been boosted by the conflict in Somalia.

Mr. Mohammed was a key ideologue behind the al-Shabab support network in Kenya, according to a U.N. report, and tried to steer recruits toward the Somalia-based terrorist group. The U.N. report describes him as an extremist who advocated the violent overthrow of the Kenyan state and an outspoken supporter of al-Shabab.

Some of Mombasa's Muslims, who make up the majority in the port city of nearly 1 million, say they are still angered by the killing of Mr. Mohammed.

"In the course of religion, we are not afraid to die because at the end every Muslim will die. Every human being will die. If you die because of religion, you are going to paradise, so we are not afraid to die," said Abdulahi Awal, 40, who was prepared to demonstrate after recent Friday prayers at Masjid Musa mosque.

He said many others feel as he does, but hundreds of heavily armed police officers surrounded the mosque and forced the group of worshippers to go home before the planned protests gained momentum.

Few have any illusion that the assassination of Mr. Mohammed removes the threat of Islamic radicalism in this city. Others are tapping into the anger felt by many here.

Police last week charged Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, a close friend of Mr. Mohammed's and also a hardline Mombasa imam, with inciting the violence that followed Mr. Mohammed's death.

"All imams who cooperate with the government should be slaughtered, and any police officer who is seen should be slaughtered," Mr. Ahmed said at the Masjid mosque to rally Mr. Mohammed's supporters into violence, according to prosecutors.

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