Academic journal article Africa Security Briefs

Islamist Extremism in East Africa

Academic journal article Africa Security Briefs

Islamist Extremism in East Africa

Article excerpt

u While Islamist extremism in East Africa is often associated with al Shabaab and Somalia, it has been expanding to varying degrees throughout the region.

u Militant Islamist ideology has emerged only relatively recently in East Africa-imported from the Arab world-challenging long-established norms of tolerance.

u Confronting Islamist extremism with heavy-handed or extrajudicial police actions are likely to backfire by inflaming real or perceived socioeconomic cleavages and exclusionist narratives used by violent extremist groups.


The risk of Islamist extremism in East Africa frequently focuses on Somalia and the violent actions of al Shabaab. Yet local adherents to extremist versions of Islam can now be found throughout the region. As a result, tensions both within Muslim communities and between certain Islamist groups and the broader society have been growing in the region in recent years.

These tensions have not emerged suddenly or spontaneously. Rather, they reflect an accumulation of pressure over decades. The genesis of this is largely the externally driven diffusion of Salafist ideology from the Gulf states. Buoyed by the global oil boom and a desire to spread the ultraconservative Wahhabi version of Islam throughout the Muslim world, funding for mosques, madrassas, and Muslim youth and cultural centers began flowing into the region at greater levels in the 1980s and 1990s. Opportunities for East African youth to study in the Arab world steadily expanded. As these youth returned home, they brought with them more rigid and exclusivist interpretations of Islam. The expanding reach of Arab satellite television has reinforced and acculturated these interpretations to a wider audience.

The effect has been the emergence of an increasingly confrontational strain of Islam in East Africa. Salafist teachings, once seen as fringe, became mainstream. The number of Salafist mosques has risen rapidly. In turn, it became increasingly unacceptable to have an open dialogue on the tenets of Islam (see box). Growing intolerance has fostered greater religious polarization.

Over time, these tensions have turned violent. Attacks by militant Islamists against civilians in East Africa (outside of Somalia) rose from just a few in 2010 to roughly 20 per year since then. The vast majority of these have been in Kenya. Most sensational was the days-long 2013 siege of the Westgate shopping complex in Nairobi, where militants caused more than 60 civilian deaths and left hundreds injured. Though al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack, experts agree that the attack required support from multiple local, Kenyan sympathizers. Al Shabaab committed an even deadlier attack the following year when Somali and Kenyan members of the group stormed the campus of Kenya's Garissa University and killed 147 students. Al Shabaab has attempted to maximize the potential divisiveness of these attacks by singling out non-Muslims for execution.

Local, smaller scale attacks have also increased in regularity. Bus stations, bars, shops, churches, and even moderate mosques and imams have been targeted. Some of these attacks have been attributed to the Muslim Youth Center (MYC), a Nairobi-based group that has lauded Islamic militant activities. MYC, which began using the name al Hijra in 2012, has also supported al Shabaab with fundraising and recruitment and was allegedly linked to the Westgate attack. In Mombasa, violent street clashes between followers of militant Islamist clerics and the police have erupted on a number of occasions.

In Tanzania, Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda and his group Jumuiya ya Taasisi za Kiislam ("Community of Muslim Organizations") have been accused of inciting riots and burning churches in Dar es Salaam. Tanzania is also home to the al Shabaab-linked Ansaar Muslim Youth Center.1

The U.S. embassy in Uganda has regularly issued warnings of possible attacks since 2014. One of those alerts coincided with Ugandan forces foiling an imminent attack by a Kampala-based terror cell, arresting 19 people and seizing explosives and suicide vests. …

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