Samar Al-Bulushi

Soon after last Saturday’s gruesome bus attack in northeastern Kenya—an ambush that left 28 people dead—al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab issued a statement claiming responsibility. Following a series of raids and mosque closures by the Kenyan police in the coastal city of Mombasa, Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rageh declared that,  “That attack is payback for the actions of their fellow Christian soldiers in Kenya that killed many innocent Muslim at prayers in a mosque in Mombasa over the past week.”

In the flurry of reports about rising insecurity in the region, what actually transpired in Mombasa the previous week has become yesterday’s news. And while al-Shabaab’s spokesman insists that the attack in Mandera should be understood as part of a growing conflict between Christianity and Islam in East Africa, the reality on the ground is, of course, far more complex.

I awoke last Monday morning to the sound of rain on the streets. Turning to my phone, I opened two text messages. One contained a picture of a deserted road in the Majengo neighborhood of Mombasa. The second text read, “Masjids Musa and Sakina under attack.”

As the hours passed, more messages came in. Beginning at 3:00am, up to six hundred Kenyan police and general service unit officers took over Majengo. After discovering only around twenty people in the mosques, they moved from house to house in search of armed militants. Youth who fit the profile of being young/male/Muslim were pulled from their beds, from the streets, and from speeding matatus (minibuses) and thrust into the backs of police trucks. Within a matter of hours, over 250 people were arrested and one was killed—a nineteen-year-old student named Ali.  As family members panicked on behalf of their loved ones, phone calls and texts quickly streamed in to local politicans and human rights groups.

Immediately following an emergency meeting that morning, Mombasa’s elected officials and human rights activists marched into police headquarters. Authorization and funding for the deployment of such a large force had been approved by Nairobi several days prior, they learned. The police stated that they were acting on information that local mosques were harboring suspected terrorists. But many questions remained, and the leaders wanted answers. Since the police had sufficient intelligence on specific individuals known to be involved in illicit activities, why not target those individuals for arrest? Why rely on collective punishment and risk further alienation of an already marginalized Muslim minority population?

The Kenyan government has long been an ally of the West in the “war on terror.” Well before the siege of Nairobi’s upscale Westgate mall in September 2013, policymakers identified the porous borders between Kenya and Somalia and the political disenchantment of the country’s Muslim minority as contributing factors to Islamic radicalization and terrorism. Yet the government’s counter-terror tactics have only exacerbated anger and frustration. Kenya’s anti-terrorism police unit (ATPU) has been widely associated with disappearances and extra-judicial killings in both Mombasa and Nairobi. The silence of the international community in relation to these forms of state violence does little to convince many Kenyans of the existence and relevance of the so-called “rule of law.”

Indeed, it is precisely the violent and degrading experiences at the hands of the police that have lead many youth in Mombasa to take matters into their own hands.  In addition to drugs and petty crime, some contemplate arming themselves and even joining Al-Shabaab. Some have already traveled to Somalia, while others, for various reasons, have abandoned the idea.

But if the events of recent weeks are any indication, this particular operation seems to have been less about terrorism and more about the national government’s security organs wanting to demonstrate their authority in an area of Mombasa that is largely controlled by thugs and petty criminals. The findings of a forthcoming population-based study on crime trends jointly conducted by the Mombasa County Government and the NGO Haki Africa confirm that petty crime is on the rise, while trust in the police is at an all-time low; residents in “hot spot” areas like Majengo are more likely to rely on each other for protection than they are the police.

This context makes it easier to understand why many of the people I have spoken to are adamant that the bulk of the weapons seized in the course of the mosque raids were planted by the police; as one person insisted: “don’t you think these ‘terrorists’ would have used the weapons against the police if in fact they were in their possession in the first place?”  

For all the national debate about the incompetencies of Kenya’s intelligence and security actors in the face of actual violent attacks (Westgate 2013, Mpeketoni 2014, and now Mandera), the police are not lacking in audacity. While Mombasa’s top politicians met with the police commander on Monday, news came in that police were beating the twin brother of nineteen-year-old Ali, even as the family sought to make arrangements for Ali’s burial. And the raids continued: two more mosques, and 109 more arrests early Wednesday morning. At least three people, Christian and Muslim, died in reprisal killings.

Later on Wednesday, dozens of family members waited anxiously outside the courtroom at the Mombasa Law Courts, where the judge was expected to issue a ruling on the fate of those still in custody. The crowd was barred from entering, presumably because the room was full. Because of my affiliation with a local rights organization, I was permitted to enter. Glancing around the room, I quickly realized that it was filled to capacity not with members of the public, but with the defendants themselves, roughly fifty in number, some as young as twelve-years-old. They sat silently, dazed and sullen. By this point most had probably been locked up for well over forty-eight hours.

Once court was in sesssion, the judge read aloud the names of the defendants. As each one of them stood, I sensed fragments of dignity restored as they confirmed their identities. Among the Ahmeds, Mohameds, and Salims were Jacob, George, and Eric. Despite the media’s tacit acceptance of government claims that the suspects were Muslim radicals, not all were Muslim.  And whether all these young men were ‘radical’ or not, as one person later commented, the national government simply needed to sufficiently scare the Kenyan public and its elected leaders to legitimize the country’s burgenoning defense budget.

The session came to an end once the judge granted additional time for the prosecution to pursue further investigations. Outside the court house, the families gathered under the shade of a tree for a report back from local leaders. They explained what decisions had been made and pleaded for their patience. But patience is hard to come by; what began as murmurs and whispers soon became loud expressions of frustration and despair. The bulk of the crowd began to disperse, making their way home filled with the same anxiety and uncertainty that they had come with.

As the police raids and the Mandera bus attack demonstrate, both the national government and Al-Shabaab knowingly feed the flames of religious conflict to serve their respective agendas; in the meantime, Kenya’s historically harmonious Christian and Muslim communities are left with the painstaking task of mending wounds and attempting to carry on with their lives.

Feature image via Reuters.

Samar Al-Bulushi is a PhD candidate at Yale University, currently based in Mombasa.