Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Islamic Radicalization in Kenya

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Islamic Radicalization in Kenya

Article excerpt

In September 2013, an attack carried out by the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group al-Shabaab on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, drew renewed attention to the extremist threat facing that country. At least four attackers left more than 65 people dead after a multiday rampage. All four of the known assailants were Somalis who had been living in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, known for its large Somali ex-patriot population. Four other Somalis have been charged with helping to plan the operation, two of whom had Kenyan citizenship and identification cards. (1) This attack was only the latest in a string of terrorist incidents stretching back to the late 1990s. It should serve as a stark reminder to the United States that terrorism remains a significant threat to its national interests in Kenya specifically and in the Horn of Africa more generally.

The first major terrorist attack to hit Kenya occurred at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi on August 7, 1998. This attack was carried out with a truck bomb, killing 214 people and injuring more than 5,000. On November 22, 2002, another set of attacks included the detonation of a truck bomb at an Israeli-owned resort and the launching of missiles at an Israeli-chartered aircraft leaving the airport in Mombasa. Sixteen Israelis and Kenyans were killed in the blast at the hotel, though no one was killed in the attack on the plane. Al Qaeda was responsible for each of these attacks. (2)

Since those early attacks, the government of Kenya has become an important strategic partner in the U.S. Government's counterterrorism efforts in the broader Horn of Africa region. In October 2011, the Kenyan Defense Forces launched an offensive against al-Shabaab called Operation Linda Nchi (OLN)--Swahili for "protect the nation"--in Somalia. While OLN enjoyed the approval of most Kenyans, it also prompted criticism from Kenyan Muslim communities.

In 2012, Kenya passed a tough antiterrorism bill called the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2012. Though the passage of this bill was not as controversial as some earlier iterations, it still elicited criticism from Kenyan human rights and Muslim groups. In addition, riots blaming the Kenyan police for the extrajudicial killing of al-Shabaab-linked Muslim Youth Center (MYC) cleric Aboud Rogo (3) and the growing activity of the MYC are indicative of increased Islamic radicalism in Kenya. This presents a substantial risk of terrorism against the Kenyan government, Western targets in Kenya, and neighboring countries in the region.

This article explores the development of radicalization in Kenya in recent decades and the sociocultural and political factors that have undergirded it. Additionally, it highlights four general factors influencing the rising threat of Islamic radicalism in Kenya: institutional weaknesses; increasingly acute grievances by the Muslim minority; the establishment of Wahhabi and other extremist forms of Islam in Kenya, along with attendant jihadi ideology and propaganda; and Kenya's foreign and military policy, particularly as it pertains to Somalia.

Islam in Kenya

Approximately 4.3 million Muslims comprise a little more than 10 percent of the overall Kenyan population and about 30 percent of the coastal population. (4) Large concentrations of Kenyan Muslims live in Coast Province, North East Province, and the capital city of Nairobi, particularly in the neighborhood of Eastleigh. Ethnically, Kenya's Muslims are primarily Swahili or Somali, although there are also sizable Arab and Asian (predominantly Indian and Pakistani) groups. (5)

In addition to ethnic divisions among Kenya's Muslims, there are also key differences in the types of Islam practiced. Scholar Bjorn Moller writes that the Kenyan Muslim community can be categorized as follows:

* a majority of indigenous Kenyan Muslims belong to Sufi orders, especially in rural areas

* reformists, more conservative Islamists, are another primary grouping, mainly in the cities and among Arabs

* a small sect called the Ahmadiya, which was responsible for the first translation of the Koran into Kiswahili, probably numbers no more than a few thousand

* mainstream Sunni Muslims, mainly among Asians

* a small number of Shi'ites, also mainly among Asians. …

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