Yet again, another of my warnings outlined in my book The Post-American Presidency went unheeded, but has come true.
Jihad Comes to Kenya Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens Foreign Affairs January 10, 2013
Kenya's GSU police officers patrol the scene of a grenade attack in Mombasa. (Joseph Okanga / Courtesy Reuters)
In late October 2011, Elgiva Bwire Oliacha, a member of the militant group al Shabaab, killed six and injured dozens more in central Nairobi. The attack was significant not only because it was part of a sudden upswing in jihadist terrorism in Kenya but also because Oliacha is a native Muslim Kenyan. Until recently, experts assumed that al Shabaab's recruitment in Kenya was limited to the country's Somali minority, which numbers roughly a million people. But Oliacha's assault and others like it have forced a reassessment of the nature of militancy in Kenya.
Although jihadists have long been active in Kenya -- one of al Qaeda's first major strikes, in 1998, targeted the U.S. embassy in Nairobi -- for years native Muslim Kenyans almost never took part in terrorist attacks. Kenya, which is dominated by a large Christian majority, has a history of religious tolerance, and its Muslim population is no exception. In fact, native Kenyans were usually on the other side of terrorism: The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a peacekeeping alliance of East African militaries that was created in 2007 to help prop up Somalia's transitional government and fight al Shabaab, has had a significant Kenyan contingent.
But tensions between the Christian majority and the Muslim minority are building. There are many reasons for this, but they include the growth of confrontational Salafi groups and the economic and political marginalization of Muslims. Those problems have been exacerbated by attacks on churches that are specifically designed to provoke communal anxiety. Last November, Christian Kenyan youths rioted in response to a grenade explosion in the Nairobi slum of Eastleigh, attacking Muslims and their businesses. Al Shabaab immediately took to Twitter to capitalize on the sectarianism, claiming that Muslims in Kenya "must construe these attacks as a clear declaration of war against them and defend their properties and their honour." The escalation of these tensions over the past few years is certainly one reason why there are now an estimated 500 Kenyan Muslims currently in al Shabaab's ranks in Somalia.
In mid-2012, I met with six Kenyan ex-al Shabaab members to learn about their experiences. One of them, "Hassan," was recruited in 2008 by Kenya's Muslim Youth Center, an al Shabaab outpost in Nairobi's Muslim-majority slum of Majengo. Although religious, the 16-year-old was not ideologically committed to jihad. Instead, Hassan found a comforting companionship in the MYC's charismatic leader Ahmed Iman Ali and his followers. Promises of money -- 40,000 Kenyan shillings ($470) a month -- also helped. "I needed money for high school and planned to do it for a bit, save money, and then go to college and also help my grandmother who I lived with," he told me.
Hassan underwent three months of indoctrination in another nearby jihadist mosque in Majengo before traveling blindfolded by car to Somalia with a group of friends. He recalls hearing the driver negotiating with suspicious Kenyan border guards, who eventually accepted a 50,000-shilling bribe ($590) to wave them through. Once in Somalia, Hassan was quickly put to work raiding local villages. He was forced to maim, kill, and steal, helping both to fund al Shabaab and establish it as a force with which to be reckoned.