While I can’t remember Muslims and Christians hugging in the streets of Kampala or the markets of Nairobi during my summer stays in both cities starting in 2005; I do not remember much at all in the way of open confrontation. Granted it was an uneasy truce but even though Muslims and Christians did not embrace one another openly they seemed comfortable enough to live aside of one another in relative harmony until a few years ago. I was comfortable greeting my Muslim neighbors with “As- salaam alaykum” when in the marketplace even memorized the entire Adan after having been woken up each morning while it was still dark outside to hear each muezzin’s unique version of his call to prayer over the loud speaker. I loved it so much I began singing it in Arabic along with the muezzin every morning and felt that the words were a wonderful way to start the day. So I was not prepared for the violence that began to escalate right about the time of the July 2010 FIFA World Cup Finals.
Africa has always been a place of diverse religious beliefs from the old religion of the ancestors, Rastafarians, to the more organized faiths such as Sunni and Shia Islam as well as a range of Christian denominations. Toleration seemed the order of the day as everyone went about freely worshipping God in their own way. But then an extremist Islamic terrorist group replaced the dictator, Major General Mohammed Siad Barre in Somalia in 1991 while the American forces invaded Somalia in the Battle of Mogadishu in October,1993. It’s official name is Harakat al- Shabaab al- Mujahideen, The Movement of Striving Youth and yet it is now referred to as al- Shabaab, “the youth.” Actually the organization did begin as a youth group allied to the Islamic Courts Union Government in 2006 that pledged to bring a fundamentalist Islamic state back to Somalia. And this would not be hard for any Islamist group to do. According to a report from Pew Research Center in 2006, 98.6 % of all Somalis are Muslims and most Sunni Muslims.
It was not long before al- Shabaab earned notoriety for its ideology attracting experienced war- savvy veterans from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It was also no secret that it had begun to receive financial and administrative support from al- Qaeda. At one time al- Shabaab controlled the capital city of Mogadishu as well as the port of Kismayo until African Union forces drove them out in 2011 and 2012 respectively. They pretty much stayed within their own boundaries until their first large scale terrorist attack in Kampala at the Kyadondo Rugby Club in July of 2010. Suicide bombers out on the field that night killed several people and wounded many others as they watched the World’s Cup final game. Later on al-Shabaab took credit for the attack stating that it was in retaliation for the Ugandan forces participation in the African Union currently fighting in Somalia.
And then the attacks on churches commenced. On July 3, 2012 seven masked gunmen first threw grenades then opened fire in two churches in Garissa, Kenya not far from the Somalia border killing seventeen and wounding fifty. By Easter time 2012 Muslim extremists calling themselves, “Muslim Renewal” vowed to attack Christian churches throughout Tanzania causing fear to grow throughout the Christian communities there. On February 17th a Father Musli was gunned down right outside of St Teresa’s Catholic Church in Zanzibar, an island in the Indian Ocean belonging to Tanzania. A Pastor Kachili was murdered in the Geita region of Lake Victoria after he intervened in a dispute between Muslims and Christians over the right to butcher livestock. In the words of Muslim Renewal, “Many more will die. We will burn homes and churches… we are not finished….prepare for disaster.” And in Tanzania, on May 10, 2013 a bomb was thrown into the newly- built St. Joseph’s Catholic Church where the Vatican envoy and the Archbishop of Tanzania were in the midst of celebrating mass during the consecration of the new church. Two people died as a result of the blast and sixty innocent parishioners were injured. Tanzania has a Muslim population of 13, 450,000 that is 29.9% of its total population.
According to Lila Gilbert author of Saturday People, Sunday People,” her new book that discusses the reason 850,000 Jews were made to flee Muslim countries in the mid- twentieth century. The title of her book comes from an old Islamic saying, “First the Saturday people then the Sunday people,” meaning, “First we will kill the Jews, then we kill the Christians”. Friends of mine in Kenya believe that Islamic terrorist groups have deliberately targeted churches in an attempt to scare Christians away from attending church. Next Wednesday is Christmas Day, one of the most important Christian holydays of the year; one can only hope that another Muslim attack does not mar the celebrations in East Africa on that day but what an ideal time to send a message off to the entire world?
And al- Shabaab has forged a stronghold in the country of Kenya as well. Muslim cleric Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, of Mombasa who goes by the name, “Makaburi” has been identified by the UN Security Council as a leading facilitator and recruiter of young Kenyan males into al- Shabaab. In 2012, the Council banned him from leaving Kenya and froze all of his assets. He had been known to have told young men “go to Somalia and fight for al- Qaeda and kill US citizens”. He believes that the words of the Qur’an justify his actions and all of the violence. “There is no such thing as a moderate Muslim. The prophet did not teach us moderation in Islam- Islam is Islam.” Makaburi admits. “It’s not right for the United States or any other country to interfere with how another country wants to rule itself.” Makaburi has been accused of recruiting young boys as “jihadis” willing to make the trip from Mombasa to the island of Lamu then set sail in a small boat to the coast of Somalia. According to one disheartened recruit, “He told us that if we fought money would be given to our families and we would gain a place in Paradise as a reward for our commitment.”
His success at retaining these young men could directly relate to the massive unemployment problem in Kenya at the moment especially for its young people. According to a 2012 report from the World Bank, Africa’s youth are and will continue to face severe unemployment prospects. In Kenya, the current youth unemployment rate is 40% and many of those who are employed find themselves underemployed in low-paying jobs in which they do not get to use their education and degrees. What’s more as of July 2013, 80% of Kenyans are less than 35 years of age and 75% are under 30 years of age meaning there will be an entire glut of young people looking for work at the same time. It seems as if Sheikh Makaburi knows something of these young boys’ frustration and uses their lack of meaningful activity to his best advantage. According to one recruit, Makaburi announced, “instead of sitting around in the slums doing nothing, it’s better to go to Somalia and fight for your religion so you’ll go straight to heaven.”
Mombasa, a large resort city off the east coast of Kenya, with an equally large Muslim population and has been the center of violent riots lately in response to the killing of two Muslim clerics Aboud Rogo Mohammed in 2012 and Ibrahim Rogo Omar only two weeks after the Westgate Mall shootings. Both uprisings broke out in Muslim districts of Mombasa and the Salvation Army Church was set on fire this time around.
And then the Westgate Mall shootings occurred on September 21, 2012. Terrorists (4 gunmen in all) claiming they were members of al- Shabaab entered the mall equipped with grenades and AK-47 assault rifles and shot anyone in the mall who could not satisfactorily prove to them that they were Muslim asking them to cite verses from the Qur’an or the name of Mohammed’s mother in Arabic in order to stay alive. Those who could not were summarily executed regardless of age. And in true “Millennium” style one of the terrorists used his Twitter account to send short messages out to the world describing their actions. When the armed troops finally made it to the glass doors of the entrance twenty dead bodies blocked their path into the main lobby. What US news reports did not include was that Westgate Mall is located in the Westlands, a wealthy suburb of Nairobi and the site of many of the foreign embassies including the United States Embassy. Was al-Shabaab sending a subtle message to the United States diplomatic mission in Kenya reminding the embassy that it could come much closer to Americans in Kenya if it so desired?
And what about the two British tourists who were attacked on December 12th, 2013, seven days ago as they were on their way to a safari in Amboseli National Park? According to all reports a man tried to throw a live grenade into their Toyota Land Cruiser as the car slowed down on one of the major roads out of Mombasa. Fortunately for them, the man threw the grenade at a closed window making it bounce back into the street. But on December 14th, only four days ago passengers riding into Nairobi on a matatu (mini-bus) were not so lucky. Four people were killed and others wounded after a bomb placed inside the matatu suddenly exploded. Today is December 19th, the fifty year anniversary of Kenya’s independence from Great Britain. I have spent the entire day wondering if al-Shabaab will make its anger felt in Kenya today as national celebrations take place.
What I do know is that from all accounts al- Shabaab’s ranks grow stronger and that it holds a real grudge against the United States for invading its country in 1993 and repeatedly interfering in its country’s leadership. Remember for centuries, Somali males have earned reputations as fierce warriors and great hunters all over Africa along with very long memories. I am surprised that the American people have not been warned about the continuation of terrorist attacks all over East Africa especially on churches. The Westgate Mall incident was highly publicized; why not these other violent raids? After studying the total picture it seems like every attack al-Shabaab has made has been part of a deliberate course of action and none of these incidents could be considered emotional strikes or the results of spontaneous outbursts. These men may be young and they might be inexperienced but they seem to have gained the attention of other more powerful terrorist organizations like al- Qaeda real fast. I would not be shocked to learn that these same young men are in the midst of acting on plans that lead them to methodically stage terrorist attacks in locations around Europe as well as the United States. Hopefully, the great nations of the world will sit up shortly and pay closer attention to the escalating progression of Islamic terrorist attacks in East Africa so they’ll be ready to foil further attempts long before they begin to experience the consequences of their inaction inside their own borders.
Huria a Kenya!!!
Kat Nickerson Kingston, RI December 19th, 2013