Kenya braces for attack as Somalia's war continues
Published on Friday July 13, 2012
Shephard National Security Reporter
NAIROBI-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.
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
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,
ping-attacks> 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
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
"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
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
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
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
Follow Michelle Shephard on Twitter: _at_shephardm
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Received on Fri Jul 13 2012 - 10:12:41 EDT