In Majengo, an enclave of garbage-strewn streets and modest homes and businesses in Kenya’s capital city, residents were poor, frustrated and largely ignored by authorities — unless it was time for one of their crackdowns on Muslim neighbourhoods.
MICHELLE SHEPHARD/Toronto Star Ali Edachi Adenga's teenaged son, wanted by Kenyan police and listed in a UN Security Council Report on Somalia, is known as the "Taxi Driver." He used to shuttle Al Shabab recruits from Kenya into Somalia.
Friday, July 13, 2012
It was ripe for change.
So when the Muslim Youth Center, led by the charismatic Ahmed Imam Ali, stepped in, Kenyans welcomed a group that spoke out against the social and economic hardships.
That was 2008. Four years later, the MYC has become the latest player in the battle for Somalia, a struggle between the government and Al Qaeda’s proxy in East Africa, Al Shabab.
The MYC has lost all pretense of being a peaceful social organization since a 2011 UN Security Council report called the group “one of the largest support networks for Al Shabab in Kenya.”
The description of the Twitter account that purports to be the “MYC Press Office” states: “The UN views MYC as a new alarming trend in East Africa inspired and mentored by Al Shabab. We also represent the next generation of terrorist threats too. True!”
Which means that while the Shabab appears to be at its all-time weakest in Somalia, the threat is growing in Kenya.
The fear is evident in the increase in metal detectors and security checks at hotels and businesses, and in the decrease in tourists, who decide to go on safaris and visit beaches elsewhere.
In January, the MYC announced that it had officially joined forces with the Shabab. Imam Ali, the self-proclaimed “Supreme Emir,” now lives in Somalia, where it’s believed he provides the link between the Shabab’s Kenyan members and its Somali leadership. He has declared Kenya a “legal war zone.”
This threat has upped the tension here in the capital, which has been on edge since October, when the country’s troops joined African Union forces inside Somalia and the Shabab warned that Nairobi’s skyscrapers would burn.
The Shabab has always used Kenya for support — moving money, fighters and weapons across the border. The theory was that there was an uneasy truce until the kidnappings of foreigners pushed the Kenyan government to act and it sent its troops into Somalia. The Shabab, for its part, had been reluctant to strike in its own backyard.
Now discussing the potential for a large-scale attack, reminiscent of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy here that killed more than 200 people, security officials all start with the same “it’s not if, but when” adage.
There have already been a series of kidnappings and grenade attacks, although there is some doubt as to whether the Shabab has been behind all of them.
The new fear is that the deadly attack on the two churches at the Kenyan border town of Garissa two weeks ago may be an attempt by the Shabab or MYC members to spark religious warfare.
Unnamed security officials told Kenya’s Standard newspaper that police believe Ali and five other wanted Kenyans are plotting to hit mosques in Garissa, as well as Nairobi and Mombasa, to fuel a war between Kenya’s Muslim and Christian populations.
Matt Bryden, the head of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia, said while the MYC has pushed the group underground since his report was made public, the threat its members pose has increased.
“They are more actively surveying targets and planning operations in Kenya than they were a year ago,” he said in an interview.
“We take the declared merger (with the Shabab) seriously and we’re seeing more joint operations between Somalis and non-Somalis.”
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order that blacklisted three Kenyan businessmen, including Aboud Rogo Mohammed, an Islamic cleric the UN report identified as the MYC’s ideologue.
Rogo has been in and out of jail and is currently free on bail residing in the coastal town of Mombasa, awaiting trial for a grenade attack that killed three last year.
Part of the problem in combating the Shabab in Kenya, is Kenya itself.
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at London’s King’s College, notes that the border between Kenya and Somalia continues to be porous, allowing fighters and supplies to flow freely.
“My understanding is that pretty much anyone can cross the border, going either way, as long as they have enough money to bribe the guards,” he said following a research trip here.
With the African Union and Somali forces closing in on the Shabab strongholds, including Somalia’s port town Kismayo, this traffic is likely to increase.
“I expect that, as they lose control of Kismayo and become more desperate to show they are still relevant, they will lash out by hitting Nairobi, Mombasa or border towns with Somalia,” Meleagrou-Hitchens said.
Human rights groups have also raised alarm about Kenyan “crackdowns” — often sweeping and vicious — on Muslim communities and ethnic Somalis living here, which was what helped make the Muslim Youth Center an attractive option for the oppressed.
This April, armed men reportedly pulled two passengers of a bus in Mombasa. The body of one of the men — Samir Hashim Khan — was found two days later with his nose chopped off, his eyes gouged out and his genitals missing. Khan had faced terrorism charges and the MYC eulogized his death, writing on its website that Kenya had forced the “terror war to the doorstep of every Muslim.”
A Muslim human rights group accused Kenyan police of murdering Khan after failing to build a criminal case. The whereabouts of the other man, Mohammed Kassim Bekhit, remains unknown.
Ali Edachi Adenga said he tried to warn Kenyan officials about the MYC’s growing influence years ago, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.
Adenga had firsthand knowledge: his son, Juma Ayub Otit Were, was a member.
“I tried to tell my government before,” he said over coffee recently in a hotel in the Somali neighbourhood of Eastleigh, which is adjacent to Majengo. “They understand now . . . but it’s too late.”
Adenga explained how his teenage son found the MYC after he lost his job with a local wholesale business. He had been fired after stealing money. Unemployed and having tarnished his family’s reputation, he turned to the MYC for support and quickly rose up its ranks.
By 2009, Were had the job of shuttling Kenyan fighters into Somalia and was known in the organization, and to authorities watching him, as the “Taxi Driver.”
The Taxi Driver was “instrumental in smuggling other MYC members across the border,” the 2011 UN report stated.
Kenya’s security agencies issued an alert for him in March 2011, but he was already gone, inside Somalia, where it is believed he remains today. The Taxi Driver also managed to convince his mother to join him, after she was harassed by authorities about her son’s whereabouts.
According to Adenga, who has remarried, his ex-wife now works as a cook for the Kenyan fighters.
Adenga said he made repeated attempts to get his son to quit the MYC.
“I tried several times,” he said. “He told me, ‘I’m not in the fighting group, I’m just trying to help them get food.’ ”
But Adenga later learned his son’s role.
“It was very planned and organized,” he said. “After recruiting the young men . . . they would go study at a madrassa in eastern Kenya and teach them a few words of Arabic. When my son would come, the group would be ready.”
He said his son would seize all the identification for the group members — mainly Kenyans but some also from Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa — and throw the documents in the ocean as he drove them to Kismayo.
Adenga now considers himself to be on Kenya’s front lines and reports any Shabab activity, saying he is no longer afraid to confront the group. Unable to save his family, he says he is still determined to save his country.
Michelle Shephard/Toronto Star file photo Muslim protestors march against the detention of a radical clerk clash in Nairobi's downtown in January 2010. Kenyan authorities were known for occasional crackdowns against Muslim communities, leading some disenchanted Muslim youth to join pro-Shabab groups.