Kenya’s police have adopted drastic measures in the fight against militant Islam. The arrest of more than 100 Muslims who had gathered at a mosque in the city of Mombasa provoked widespread criticism.
A crowd of furious women surges towards the doors of the court building in the center of Mombasa, Kenya's second-largest city. "To enter the mosque in a state of drunkenness and kick small children, that is no way to arrest Muslims," one of them shouts. Another is looking for her son. She has had no news of him for the past 24 hours. "We have a right to know where our children are," calls out a third. "Have you murdered them?"
That was the scene on Monday (03.02.2014), one day after the Kenyan police forcibly ended a Muslim gathering in the Musa Mosque in the port city. Clashes took place and at least three people were killed, including a policeman. More than 100 young Muslims were taken into police custody.
Breeding ground for terrorism?
The Musa Mosque has the reputation of being a meeting point for radical Muslims. Rumor has it that it serves Islamist groups as a place where young Muslims are brainwashed into agreeing to carry out terrorist acts. Islamist preacher Aboud Rogo, who preached in the mosque, was murdered in August 2012. His successor, Ibrahim Ismail died in October 2013 when the car he was travelling in was fired on. Both were considered to be radical. Aboud Rogo's name was on international sanctions lists because of his ties to the Somali al-Shabab militia.
A Muslim group had used social media to issue an invitation to a meeting in the mosque on Sunday. Katrin Seidel from the German Heinrich Böll Foundation in Kenya says there was nothing special about the meeting. There had been numerous similar gatherings in past weeks and months. "They were not at all secret and it was clear that many young people from the region would take part," Seidel told DW. But it is precisely these young people who seem to have attracted the attention of the authorities. It is widely believed that those who go to the mosque are trained to become terrorists. On Sunday, participants reportedly raised an al-Shabab flag.
Spiral of violence
Fear of terror lies deep in Kenya. It is just three months since Islamists laid siege to the Westgate shopping mall in the capital Nairobi. More than 60 people died. It was the worst instance of Islamist terror on Kenyan soil since Kenyan troops marched into Somalia in late 2011 to fight against al-Shabab. In late January security forces issued a new terror alert for Kenya.
The police offensive against the mosque met with strong criticism from moderate Muslims. "They are different Muslims who pray here," one man at the mosque told DW. "“The police should target those whom they know to be terrorists." In an interview with DW, the chairman of the Muslim Human Rights Forum, Al-Amin Kimathi expressed concern at recent events. "That is an action which will only worsen the present state of insecurity, instead of bringing calm, as the police seem to think," he said.
Kimathi said the arrests had angered the entire Muslim community in Kenya. "It is clear that there is terrorism," he said, but the great majority of Muslims did not allow themselves to be caught up in it. The fact that Islamists succeeded in attracting youngsters had to do with their specific situation, Kimathi said. "They lack a basis for living. Many young people have no work." Under such conditions, Kimathi fears that aggressive behavior by the police could strengthen terrorist tendencies.
Katrin Seidel from the Heinrich Böll Foundation also sees youth unemployment as a major reason for young Muslims to join radical groups. Islam and Christianity have a long history of peaceful coexistence in Kenya, she says. She does not see any concrete justification for the police action on Sunday.
Proof of strength?
Seidel suspects, however, that the new police reform played a role during the clashes at the Musa Mosque. During the Westgate attack in September, the unclear division of responsibility between various police units and the military led to chaos in which a Kenyan policeman was killed.
Following this, the reform process took on fresh momentum. Many officials were fired. "The police are under pressure to demonstrate strength. The action on Sunday was an attempt to clearly define their role in defending national security," Seidel told DW.
The police took their time before making a statement on events at the mosque. It was only on Tuesday afternoon (04.02.2014) that Mombasa's chief of police Nelson Marwa addressed the press and made it plain that he had little interest in mediation. "Closing the mosque may not be the solution but that will remain our final option," he said.