Kenya’s most prominent radical Muslim was gunned down Tuesday night near the coastal city of Mombasa amid escalating violence between government security forces and Muslim youths – raising fears of retaliation and further tension.
Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, an avowed jihadist known popularly as Makaburi, which means graveyard in Swahili, was shot dead at 6:30 p.m. outside a prison where he reported for a scheduled court appearance. Mr. Ahmed is the sixth and highest-profile Muslim cleric to be killed in suspicious circumstances on Kenya’s coast in the past few years. He was under sanctions from the UN Security Council that included a travel ban and an asset freeze for allegedly supporting terrorism.
The killing of Ahmed comes as the government has moved to curb or even preempt terrorism through round-ups and crackdowns. It adds to what seems a circular or "tit-for-tat" reaction in recent weeks between security forces and Muslims and ethnic Somalis.
In the past 48 hours, police have carried out blanket sweeps through the streets of Nairobi and Mombasa, and arrested nearly 1,000 people after door-to-door searches -- and are questioning many of those apprehended about their links to terror groups like Al Shabab, which operates out of Somalia, where Kenya has a significant troop deployment.
That sweep in turn followed blasts of homemade bombs in Nairobi's "Little Mogadishu" neighborhood that killed six people. Those blasts followed an order by the interior minister for all refugees in urban areas to return to their camps, a controversial policy whose purpose appears to be a curb on radicalism -- and a week after a deadly attack on a church in the port of Mombasa.
Ahmed was popular among young radicals and became of a voluble media figure -- well known in Kenya for frequently giving fiery interviews to local and international journalists. That makes his killing all the more brazen.
Kenya has seen a number of violent incidents in Nairobi and on the coast since its troops invaded Somalia in 2011 to rout out Al Shabab and create a buffer zone of territory. Al Shabab last September conducted a bloody attack on the Westgate Mall that left at least 67 dead -- an attack that Ahmed said was "allowable."
Though murders of Kenyan Muslim clerics are not unprecedented, the timing amid continued tit-for-tat attacks between security forces and extremists shows that Kenya’s government is certainly taking a get-tough approach. Rumors are rampant in Nairobi that Kenya’s US-backed anti-terror police unit is behind the killings. Security agencies deny involvement.
Last February, Ahmed told the Monitor that, “I would rather live under sharia,” during an interview in the garage of his apartment building. “Democracy doesn’t work. It’s just oppression.”
Ahmed said he believed Kenyan agents would eventually kill him and that he accepted that fate as part of God or Allah’s plan.
“All my friends were killed out of court,” he said. “I am next.”
Fighting terror was at the top of President Kenyatta’s first State of the Nation address last week. But he is often accused of talking tough without taking action, especially after no serious reforms appeared to take place following the deadly Westgate attack.
Kenya's strategy of mass arrests, shooting suspects, and blaming refugees is popular among the country’s majority, but it has yet to prove successful as a policy to stem insecurity. Ahmed himself contended that such tactics cause further violence.
“If more things are done to Muslims, there will be more chaos,” he said in February.