Kenyan Christians fear former brethren are attacking churches

Some Christians converting to Islam in Kenya have been recruited by Al Shabab, a militant Islamist group with ties to Al Qaeda.

Joseph Okanga/Reuters
Kenya's General Service Unit (GSU) police officers patrol the scene of a raid in the Likoni area of the coastal port city of Mombasa October 17. Kenyan police shot dead three suspected supporters of the Somali militant group Al Shabab on Wednesday during the raid in Kenya's turbulent coastal region in which a police officer also died.

Kenyan church leaders and analysts are expressing concern that recent Muslim converts from Christian rural regions are the new breed of jihadists targeting churches, public places, and police in the country.

In the latest incident, a grenade attack injured at least 10 officers from the paramilitary General Service Unit in the port city of Mombasa. The unit has been cracking down on terror groups in the coastal region.

Al Shabab, a militant Islamist group with ties to Al Qaeda, is no longer relying on its traditional base of Somali or Swahili Muslims. Instead, the group is recruiting a new multi-ethnic band of recruits, many of whom are former Christians, making it more difficult to identify would be attackers. 

“It is the recent coverts who [are] being used to bomb churches. It is not members of the Somali, Boran, or Swahili communities, which have many Muslims, but the other tribes which have been known to follow Christianity, like the Luo, Kikuyu, or Luhya,” says Rev. Wellington Mutiso, the head of Evangelical Alliance of Kenya.  

The group is targeting poor, unemployed youth from the Protestant and Catholic church regions, making the churches very concerned, according to the Rev. David Gathanju, the head of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA). Editor's note: An earlier version of the article misspelled Gathanju and Kikuyu.

“We are now meeting frequently to discuss ways of handling the trend. We feel those who are attacking us are 'our own' who have recently converted. That’s why it is difficult for the security to identify them among,” says Reverend Gathanju. 

Giggling convert

The leaders' concerns gained credence on Monday when Musharaf Abdalla, a Christian convert, admitted before the Nairobi chief magistrate Kiarie Waweru that he was a member of Al Shabab and had handled explosive vests and devices. Giggling, he asked the court to jail him quickly, only to revise his guilty plea to not guilty yesterday. 

Mr. Abdalla is believed to hail from western Kenya, where he was known as Alex Shikinda. He became the latest Kenyan convert to openly admit being a member of Al Shabab and to handling explosives on behalf of the extremist group.

A year ago, Elgiva Bwire Oliacha, who hails from western Kenya and goes by the alias Mohammed Seif, was sentenced to life in prison after he pleaded guilty to grenade attacks in Nairobi, a plea he had also attempted to revise.

Mr. Oliacha’s mother later told journalists her son was brought up a strong Roman Catholic. Oliacha had said he converted to Islam in 2005 and travelled to Somalia where he underwent intense Islamic religious teachings and training on explosive and firearms use. He returned in 2011 and carried out attacks after Kenya sent soldiers into Somalia

“If they killed some of our members in Somalia, I had to kill some civilians here. It was tit for tat,” he told investigators.

What draws conversions

Religious scholars are seeking to explain the development, which has shocked the churches and presented a new challenge for security organs.

Godffery Ngumi, a senior lecturer at the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Kenyatta University, says that a recent convert to any religion most often has limited knowledge about their new religion.

“They are easy to recruit into fundamentalism because they want to prove a point. They are also easily misused,” explains Dr. Ngumi, adding that because they leave their earlier religion, they tend to sever ties "by being very unfriendly.”

The new faith may provide answers that recruits find more compelling to difficult questions of identity and acceptance, according the Fred Nyabera, a Nairobi religious expert who is involved in peace building and conflict resolution.

“Having felt discriminated, they now feel recognized and accepted. They are also getting material resources and promises of better life,” says Mr. Nyabera.

Analysts say the problem originates with the chronic poverty that faces many young, well-educated, and talented Kenyans. Emmanuel Kisiangani, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Nairobi, says that poor Kenyan youth are being lured into Al Shabab because of the promise of an income.

“In a state of deprivation, people will easily embrace extremism as it is happening in Afghanistan. They are also likely to be easily brainwashed,” he says.

Enabling Kenyan youth to deal with poverty, “uprootedness,” and youth disfranchisement could help keep them from turning to extremism, says Nyabera. He says if Christian churches practiced what they preached a bit more, that would also help.

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