Early this month more than 100 young Muslims in this port city gathered at the Musa Mosque for what was billed as a regional Islamic conference. The meeting had been banned by police, who say the mosque has ties to the Somali militant group Al Shabab. But the organizers went ahead anyway.
By early afternoon on Feb. 2, Musa was full of people, including dozens of neighborhood children drawn by a free lunch.
What followed next is unclear: Police say they tried to arrest mosque leaders and came under gunfire. Muslim activists say the police stormed the mosque unprovoked.
However it started, police stormed the religious structure with boots on and began firing tear gas and live bullets at youth, some of whom fought back with knives. After a melee that captured national attention, police arrested 129 people, including 21 minors, some only 12 years old. Dozens were injured, and rioting continued for days as wounded succumbed to injuries. By Feb. 6, seven Muslims and one police officer lay dead.
This is hardly the first skirmish. With Kenyan forces invading Somalia in 2011 to curb radical Al Shabab militants, coastal cities have seen their share of tension between young Muslims and police.
Yet in September the assault by an Al Shabab team on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, with 67 dead, rocked Kenya – and launched a whole new level of anti-terrorism activity by the Kenyan government of Uhuru Kenyatta, and with the apparent support of the Kenyan population.
Nairobi’s new zeal is now also bringing concern over heavy-handed police tactics, including firing on civilians, mass arrests, and alleged extrajudicial killings of prayer leaders deemed too radical – has gone so far as to possibly be counterproductive. The latest violence at Musa has both Western analysts and concerned Muslim parents asking if the anti terror crackdowns are preventing attacks or pushing youth towards extremism.
“What we saw post-Westgate is that the terrorism units in Kenya are becoming more proactive in what they do and it’s bordering on repression,” says Ryan Cummings, a defense analyst based in South Africa with the international risk management firm, Red24.
For Nairobi, the hub of East Africa, the stakes are high. At one level, the unrest has hurt the coast’s tourism-based economy. The rise of a homegrown terror network could harm Western business and political interests. Some Kenyans fear their nation becoming a pool for the recruitment of domestic and international extremists.
To be sure, Kenya’s security forces are under great pressure to deal with a resurgence of terror. In the months since Westgate, there’s been a deadly bombing on a Nairobi public bus, a blast at Nairobi’s international airport, and numerous grenade attacks have maimed civilians around Mombasa, including in a popular beach resort town.
Kenya’s regular police have floundered during these incidents. The nation’s top cop first blamed the airport explosion on a falling light bulb. In the Westgate episode, military forces ended up looting shops.
Henry Ondiek, Mombasa’s head of criminal investigations, does defend police actions at the Musa mosque on the grounds that radicals “were planning to kill people.” As evidence, police displayed black flags emblazoned with AK-47s and Arabic writing, weapons, and piles of CDs said to be recruitment materials, all supposedly confiscated at the meeting.
Mr. Ondiek also told the Monitor that police surrounded the mosque after letting them congregate there in the hopes that arrests would lead to greater intelligence.
“The objective was to arrest,” he said. “Our strategy is to let them in to surround them…it worked well.”
Yet in recent months, the main task of terror prevention has largely fallen to Kenya’s Anti-Terror Police Unit, or ATPU, an acronym that has come to be hated in the Muslim community.
Backed and aided by the US, the ATPU has broken up numerous cells, gathered impressive intelligence, and is a “well-equipped, organized anti-terrorism unit,” says Mr. Cummings.
Yet the ATPU is also accused of assassinating coastal Muslims. In 2012, Sheikh Aboud Rogo, a charismatic Musa Mosque preacher tied to Al Shabab, was gunned down in front of his family.
In October 2013, Rogo’s successor was similarly killed; three other Muslim leaders on the coast have died under suspicious circumstances, all since December.
Official investigations into these incidents either haven’t happened or been inconclusive. There are further allegations of torture and disappearances of Muslims, including an electrician last seen in police custody outside Musa on Feb. 2.
“The excesses of the counter-terrorism police are pushing Muslims to the extremes,” says Al-Amin Kimathi, director of the Muslim Human Rights Forum in Mombasa. “It’s making those ones already angry more angry, and sucking in many others.”
Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, a Rogo associate from the Musa mosque banned from traveling outside Kenya by the UN Security Council for allegedly supporting terrorism, says he meets more youth wanting to take up arms because of the ATPU. “Who is radicalizing the youth? Me or the government?” he asked the Monitor in the garage of his apartment building. “They have nowhere else to turn except to the Al-Shabab because the way they are being treated by a Christian government.”
The majority of coast Muslims reject Ahmed’s extremist views, like his belief that killing civilians is “allowable” to defend Islam. But they also increasingly say they can’t trust police.
Mombasa resident Amina Salim, in her 20s, says she wanted to join the police service, until her brother was arrested at Musa. “They can arrest some innocent youths without even interrogating?” she asks. “I don’t want to become that.”
Cummings at Red24 says that by losing the “hearts and minds” of the wider Islamic community, police may lose cooperation and flows of vital intelligence information.
Still, Kenya’s president and majority Christian population support the crackdowns. “Once the police arrest some of their members they become more aggressive, but I think it’s the right thing to do,” says Anne Sammy, who attends Majengo’s Salvation Army Church, which has been attacked repeatedly by rioting youth from Musa Mosque. “As long as they are free they are doing those [violent] things.”
However, some voices are calling for alternatives methods of approach. “If we go by what has been happening elsewhere, in Somalia…the leaders are eliminated but [it] has not stopped violent extremism,” says Emmanuel Kisiangani, senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies. “Military operation will not solve the problem by itself.”
The root of the problem, Mr. Kisiangani says, is marginalized youth in places like Majengo, the run-down neighborhood in Mombasa where the Musa Mosque is located. Extremism is an easy sell in such places, he says, to youth who feel discriminated against by the Nairobi government.
“There’s lack of education and lack of proper communication with these [young] people,” says Salim Ghalgan, who runs a hospital and youth education program behind Musa Mosque for Majengo’s youth. “In the skirmishes, [the] majority of the youth were there for food…They don’t realize they will become victims."