Branded by Kenyan authorities as an epicentre for the indoctrination and recruitment of Islamic militants, the Musa mosque in Mombasa has become a primary target of the country’s escalating war on terror.
But this war is also causing controversy, amid allegations of state-sponsored assassinations, heavy-handed raids and fears that these tactics could be helping and not hindering radical Islam.
In August 2012, the mosque’s radical Imam, Aboud Rogo Mohammed, was gunned down, and in October last year his successor, Sheikh Ibrahim Ismail, met the same fate on a road near the steamy port city, again sparking riots.
For their followers, the two men — long accused of supporting Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels — were simply murdered by Kenyan authorities, an opinion that appears to be largely shared by many independent observers, despite government denials.
Last month the mosque was yet again the scene of another deadly incident, when armed police launched a massive raid on the mosque to put an end to what officials said was a “jihadist convention” and Shebab recruitment exercise taking place inside its white and green walls.
Well over 100 people were arrested in the raid, with dozens then charged with being members of Shebab, which is fighting Kenyan forces in southern Somalia and which claimed responsibility for last year’s carnage at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall.
Several people were killed in the raid, and at least one of those arrested has since been reported missing.
- ‘Spate of executions’ -
“The invasion of Musa mosque was illegal. Nothing illegal was happening in that mosque. There was no recruitment,” Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, one of the mosque’s leaders, told Agence France Presse.
Ahmed is known more commonly by his nickname “Makaburi”, or “grave” in Swahili.
“The mosque was filled with undercover policemen, anyway nobody will go and recruit people in an open mosque, where anybody can walk in. Nobody will go and teach people how to use guns in an open mosque, it doesn’t make sense,” he insisted.
“It was not a jihadi convention. It was a convention dealing with issues concerning jihad, putting things right on issues about jihad, all the issues discussed there about jihad are in the Koran, in the Sunna, and they are not illegal to talk about, in a mosque or anywhere else in Kenya.”
Makaburi denies any links with Shebab, although he was placed on a 2012 UN sanctions list naming him as a “leading facilitator and recruiter of young Kenyan Muslims for violent militant activity in Somalia”.
However, he does support “the implementation of Sharia Law anywhere in the world”, does not hide his admiration for Al-Qaeda founder and late leader Osama bin Laden, and accuses Christian-majority Kenya’s “un-Islamic” leaders of “extrajudicial killings” that target those who preach “true Islam”.
But support for the Musa mosque among Mombasa’s Muslim community is not total, according to Sheikh Ngao M. Ngao Juma, the chairman of the Kenya Muslims National Advisory Council, or Kemnac.
“These clerics are doing business. It’s business, human trafficking, slavery. They’re trying to brainwash the youths using Koranic verses,” he said.
“The jihad they are teaching is contrary to the meaning of jihad in the Koran. The meaning of jihad is distorted.”
- ‘Lost legitimacy’ -
But he said the heavy-handed crackdown could backfire.
“Our advice to the government is that you shall not use guns, the use of a gun shall not solve that problem. You cannot fight an ideology with the gun. You can win this war only through discussion, awareness,” he said.
“The youth need guidance and counselling but those preachers are criminals, they must be arrested and prosecuted.”
According to Hassan Omar Hassan, an opposition senator from the area and former rights activist, radical Islam is a real threat for Mombasa and Kenya as a whole — but he says the current strategy of singling out the Musa mosque is not working.
“The vilification of it by the government has literally turned it into a shrine of radicalization. It started as a very innocent kind of a problem with a radical preacher, but has escalated into a spate of executions,” he said.
“The government has literally put the entire Muslim community in this country against itself. It has lost a lot of legitimacy.”
He said the Kenyan government “refuses to dig deeper than the surface” and look at the roots of radical Islam, including “unemployment, undereducation, issues of representation in government, basic rights, citizenship rights.”
“For a long time we have legitimized police violence on people on account of national security,” he said.
“Anything extra-constitutional or extra-legal will continue to feed into the narrative about government oppression and the humiliation of the particularly Muslim or coastal communities.”