For years, Kenya has been dealing with the problem of Islamic extremism. The country’s high unemployment rate and prevalence of drug use have left young men purposeless, resentful, and vulnerable to extremism. Experts say that after Somalia, Kenya is one of the biggest sources of fighters for the terror group known as Al-Shabaab, which — along with other extremist groups — has been carrying out deadly attacks for nearly 20 years.
Increasingly, the Kenyan government has been taking steps to root out extremists on its own soil, but the crackdown has been marked by disappearances and extrajudicial killings, which has only inflamed the simmering resentments of young men in the coastal city of Mombasa.
In 2014, Kenyan police raided a mosque in Mombasa that was believed to have ties to Al-Shabaab, and 250 people were arrested. Police said they recovered a small cache of grenades and other weapons. Many Muslims now see themselves engaged in a struggle with overzealous local cops, eroding their city’s true character of storied Islamic history and distinct Swahili culture.
One young Muslim man in Mombasa, Ahmed (his real name is being withheld due to security concerns), defended the mosque and characterized the police raids as religious persecution by a predominantly Christian government and police force. But he also defended some troubling teachings of that mosque.
“Whatever was being preached there, these guys were just trying to say that you should defend your religion in case somebody is talking ill about your religion in any way, whether in fighting or what. And what the religion teaches, when you die while trying to defend your religion, you go to paradise. So that was one of the beliefs that those guys were trying to say,” he said, though he distanced himself from Al-Shabaab.
Ahmed’s brother is in hiding, his family says, fearful of being taken by police. Many young men from this neighborhood have disappeared, allegedly dragged from their homes by police in the middle of the night and never seen again. It’s probable that some of these young men were only guilty of being young and Muslim and idle; for others, it’s very likely that they were involved in terrorism.
“They were deceived that they were going to get good jobs, that they were going to be paid good money, that’s how they were recruited,” said Mombasa County Commissioner Evans Achoki about the young men who went to train with Al-Shabaab.
“Some were recruited through indoctrination. Some were recruited through the social media. Some wanted to be in solidarity with their friends. But the most important thing is that most of them when they got there they realized that what they were promised is not what they got there.”
Achoki piloted an amnesty program aimed at reintegrating Al-Shabaab defectors into Kenyan society through a deradicalization curriculum. The program, which provides job skills training and materials for fishing, motorcycle taxis, and other trades, is currently being introduced in Mombasa county. But convincing former militants to turn themselves in to police is not easy, considering that these are the same police who are known for extrajudicial killings of suspected terrorists. Achoki acknowledged these killings might be an issue, but wouldn’t confirm the scope of the problem. He maintained that the government is making progress in earning the community’s trust.
Farida Rashid Safe, a chairwoman of the Kenyan Muslim Woman’s Alliance, scoffed at the notion of any gains in trust. She said police just want to punish Al-Shabaab defectors. Instead, she advocates a soft deradicalization approach that targets what she sees as the main culprits behind jihadist recruitment: drug addiction and joblessness. The alliance provides a space for rehabilitation and economic empowerment for men and women alike, but it does not put much emphasis on religion. Farida doesn’t see the extremism plaguing her city as having much to do with Islam at all.
“Radicalization, it’s not Islamic,” she said, pointing again to poverty and the lack of opportunity for young people.
“This young generation, they think, why our people are always poor, poor, poor? And they’re living in their own land as squatters. In Quran interpretation, they just interpret it in another way, not in a right, correct way.”