Why radicals find fertile ground in moderate Kenya

President Bush met with Kenyan President Moi to discuss security issues.

Last week's hotel bombing in Mombasa, like the Al Qaeda attack against the US Embassy in Nairobi four years ago, caught the government here off guard. Kenya has been known known for a moderate brand of Islam, and its small Muslim population lives peacefully in the community.

But now it seems that some of the same outside influences that have spread radical Islam to other parts of the world - the Internet, a rallying to the Palestinian cause, and outsiders fomenting anti-Western sentiment - have shown how easily a moderate Muslim community can be swept up in radical acts.

"Kenyans do not have the wherewithal, nor the character, to start up their own homegrown international terror organization," says Moustapha Hassouna, a professor of security studies at the University of Nairobi. "But Muslims here are becoming more 'radical' or political in their outlook - and I can see their sympathies being used by outside terror interests."

President George W. Bush says he believes that Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network was involved in the Israeli hotel bombing that killed 13 people, and the simultaneous missile attacks that nearly downed an Israeli charter jet carrying 261 passengers. An Al Qaeda claim of responsibility posted on the Internet is seen as credible.

Thursday, Mr. Bush met with Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi at the White House. They discussed security in the region even as US and Kenyan troops were conducting joint military exercises, named "Operation Edged Mallett," off Kenya's coast.

Kids quoting UN resolutions

These days, Kenyan imams in the mosques preach about injustices done to their brothers in Afghanistan. Most every Muslim teenager on the street is able to recite a litany of Israeli wrongs against Palestinians, and can "prove" that the international media is run by Jews. "CNN is owned by Ted Turner, a Jew," states one misinformed lanky Islamic student in a long white robe. "You might deny. But we know." They argue against the Bush administration's stance on Iraq, easily quoting UN resolutions, past US statements, and oil statistics.

"We, as Muslims, have to support each other's agendas," says Haji Kimani, leaning on a biscuit kiosk outside a mosque in the predominantly Muslim Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh. He is waiting for nightfall, when those fasting for Ramadan are allowed to eat again. "We eat together, fast together, and fight together." There is no such thing as a Muslim terrorist, he says. "We are just fighting for our rights against those who would harm us."

These sorts of sentiments are relatively new. Arab merchants and slave traders brought Islam to the coasts of East Africa over 1,000 years ago, setting up schools and mosques, and converting about 10 percent of the total Kenyan population. But for centuries, the Muslims were a quiet community here, keeping to themselves, getting along with their neighbors, staying away from politics.

The turning point

The main turning point, according to Mr. Hassouna, came - as it did elsewhere - at the end of the cold war.

"That is when the divide in the world changed, and turned into a confrontation between the liberal democracies of the West and political Islam," he says. Today, with the help of Internet and satellite TV, along with the arrival of imams from the Gulf and the increase of Kenyan migrant workers traveling around the globe, Muslims here better know, and often empathize with, the needs, hardships, and philosophies of their coreligionists worldwide.

"They are all aware of the new divide, and what side of it they are on," says Hassouna.

"We were asleep, and then we awoke," says Mr. Kimani, who has, in the past year, joined a protest march against the war in Afghanistan, written two letters to the local paper demanding that diplomatic ties be cut with Israel, and made a contribution to a fund for children in Iraq. He is unemployed, he says, and his five children lack school fees and usually go without dinner.

Desperation and poverty, say observers, play a part in the radicalization process. The road to transforming the "us against them" mentality into a willingness to do battle with "them" is not a very long one, some say, especially in a country where more than 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

"If a bomber came to my house and asked to stay, I would say, 'A salaam aleikum' [peace be on you], my brother," says another Eastleigh resident, Salim Angoma. "Especially if it might help us out, financially speaking."

"Osama bin Laden is hardly a pauper, the Sept. 11 hijackers were generally middle-class, and it is often and properly observed that poverty is not what drives Al Qaeda's main players," says Jonathan Stevenson, senior fellow for counterterrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "But the radicalized poor in a given locale could still be hospitable to Al Qaeda and therefore operationally useful." As Kenya's economic woes persist, says Mr. Stevenson, "its Muslim population probably will become more susceptible to radicalization."

Most experts say that the final factor in Kenya's Muslim radicalization is influence from neighbors, primarily Somalia.

A lawless neighbor

A harsh country lacking both government and law, Somalia is awash with weapons and, some say, Al Qaeda training camps. A local Somali Muslim group - Al Ittihad al-Islamiya - which was involved in a series of terror attacks in Ethiopia in the late 1980s, is on the US list of terror groups, and has been watched closely since Sept. 11. This week, they have been mentioned in connection with the bombing.

Somalis, with their vast regional diaspora, have good communications and transport routes, and are said to be East Africa's best black-market merchants, not only in cars and spare parts, but also in drugs, ivory, and arms. There are more than 250,000 Somali refugees in Kenya alone, many in refugee camps along the border. "Somalis are everywhere," says Hassouna. "If they wanted to set up a network, they could."

Sudan, a country in which bin Laden lived for four years, and which is today ruled by the National Islamic Front (NIF), is thought to be another exporter of radicalism in the region.

"The NIF provided arms and logistics support to fundamentalist groups in Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as groups outside the region, and facilitated their ability to penetrate vulnerable segments of the Islamic communities in several Horn of Africa countries," says Theodoros Dagne, a specialist on African affairs at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. "Al Qaeda was [conceived] and born in the Sudan," he says.

Evening has arrived in Eastleigh, and the Muezzin is calling the faithful to prayer. "It was not I who bombed the hotel," says Angoma. "I don't want to die, and I don't even have explosives or a car."

"But," he says, as he walks away, "maybe another time."

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