The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: The Mysterious Life and Death of Sheikh Aboud Rogo

Photo: Capital FM
Aboud Rogo, left, and Mohammed Kubwa in court: Rogo was arrested in January 2012 and charged with possession of illegal firearms, ammunition, hand grenades and detonators.

The 2011 overall winner oft the CNN Journalist of the Year Awards, was Fatuma Noor of The Star. The work which won her this much coveted award, was a three-part series on the dozens of young ethnic Somalis, who were turning their backs on the comforts of Western Europe and North America, and coming back to Somalia via Kenya, to embark on a Jihad in their ancestral land under the banner of Al-Shabaab.

What made this three-part series so different from many previous reports on this perplexing trend was that the writer actually succeeded in attaching herself to a group of such would-be Jihadists, and traveled with them right from Nairobi to Somalia at great risk to her own life. But this was really the only way she could hope to come up with answers to the questions raised by the dangerous "reverse immigration" undertaken by these young men.

Their families had taken incredible risks and suffered untold humiliations, to secure legal entry into the advanced industrialised nations, in order to start life afresh after having given up any hopes of a peaceful settlement in Somalia.

Now, just one generation later, their children, on whose account they had risked so much, and made such great sacrifices were leaving the safe and well-lit streets of Stockholm, Toronto, Minneapolis, and many other Western cities, to seek a martyr's death in the dust and heat of Mogadishu.

The underlying dynamics revealed by Fatuma Noor's narrative suggested that it is a sense of alienation and a search for meaning and purpose which led these young men to turn away from a life which many, even in Kenya, would consider to be the very essence of "having it made". And her account of what those would-be Jihadis had to say - found here on the Star website - http://www.the-star.co.ke/lifestyle/128-lifestyle/29535-my-encounter-with-american-somali-jihadist-in-nairobi- provides a useful reference point for understanding why the recently assassinated Muslim cleric, Aboud Rogo Mohamed, proved to be such a potent force within the Muslim communities of the coast.

Some of those who have written about this famous Muslim cleric, who has now become a Muslim martyr - and a religious leader assassinated in broad daylight always ends up as a martyr - have argued that it was the offer of money, about Sh80,000/- for each recruit, that led many young Kenyans, at the coast as much as upcountry, to register within the ranks of the Al-Shabaab. .

This view overlooks the fact that many of these recruits to the cause of Muslim extremism, who have been apprehended were from well off families; they were children of previlege who could not have been moved to risk their lives for a sum like Sh80,000/-. About six years ago, a young man who had been arrested by the police in Mombasa, on suspicion of associating with known terrorism suspects, detonated a hidden grenade and took his own life as well as the life of the policeman who had arrested him, just as they arrived at the Central Police Station in Mombasa.

This young man was reported to have been earlier sent to the UK for further studies by his wealthy family; and that it was only when he inexplicably gave up on his studies and returned to Kenya, that he embarked on the dark journey that led to his early death.

No doubt the young men who have been rioting all over Mombasa and looting business premises, are mostly from modest homes. But then, the fact that they are still in Kenya, shows that they had yet to accept the ultimate sacrifice demanded of them by Sheikh Rogo, which was to take up arms and enlist in the ranks of Al-Shabaab and seek a martyr's death in Kismayu, the only key city still in the hands of this Al-Queda affiliate.

What gave potency to Aboud Rogo's campaign to encourage more and more young Muslim men to turn their backs on secular success, and seek the grim path of the martyr, was not the promise of a sum which - at the end of the day - amounts to just about $1,000. Rather it was his easy charisma; his encyclopedic knowledge of the Koran; and his gifts as a public speaker.

By addressing himself to disaffected Muslim youth seeking to align themselves with a meaningful "cause" - young men in many ways no different from the kinds of youth who form the "youth wing" of most political parties - he was able to persuade them that there was no greater cause than that of dying on the battlefield for your faith. This is a message he preached openly at the mosque where he was on staff - Masjid Musa in Mombasa.

Whatever else may be untrue or even mythical about Sheikh Rogo, what was established beyond doubt, is that he preached a message of martyrdom to young Muslims. And that such preaching was useful to the Al-Shabaab, seeking to reinforce its ranks with recruits from Kenya's Muslim communities.

A man who preaches such a message will always have many enemies: first and foremost, among the Muslim families who find that their teenage sons have suddenly vanished from home, abandoning the academic opportunities that devoted parents had worked long and hard to create for him, to seek a martyr's death in Somalia.

Reliable numbers are impossible to come by in a recruitment process which is, by its nature, so clandestine. But anecdotal evidence hints at many a young Muslim boy with a brilliant record of academic success behind him, and golden prospects ahead - as an engineer, a doctor, maybe a university professor - suddenly turning his back on all those glittering possibilities and abandoning a comfortable home to make the risky journey to Mogadishu.

The families of such young men would no doubt blame the famous "radical Muslim cleric" and others like him, for the fate that had befallen them, with the loss of their son, whom they would most likely never see again. To any such family, reports of the Kenya Defence Forces fighting in Somali having dropped a large bomb which killed "dozens of al-Shabaab fighters" would not be just another news item. They would have to wonder if their son was one of those alleged "al-Shabaab fighters".

Even more scary would be news of Kenyan recruits to al-Shabaab being ritually beheaded for "acts of betrayal" or for being "agents of the enemy" because they had happened to have an unauthorised mobile phone. Many a mother in Mombasa, whose son had unaccountably vanished, must have faced sleepless nights upon hearing such news.

Perhaps the greatest mystery about this Muslim cleric's life, is why and how he was able to get away with his toxic messages for so long. In a country where a cabinet minister has recently been hauled before the courts to answer charges of incitement for a political campaign speech which carried only the most veiled threats against unnamed political opponents, how is it possible that Aboud Rogo who openly proclaimed 'fatwas' against legitimate authority; who praised attacks on churches as an appropriate response to alleged oppression of Muslims; and who engaged in the most open defiance of the accepted norms of religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence; how is it possible that he was left to continue propagating a message of hate and violence for years on end?

It is such considerations which led to the suspicions that there was more to Aboud Rogo than met the eye. The allegations made were that he had somehow been "turned" by Kenyan or foreign intelligence agents during one of his long periods of incarceration - back in the days before the new constitution took force, and made it so much easier to get bail. And that he was working with these intelligence agencies to provide valuable information on the al-Shabaab and any other terrorist organisations in the area.

From such a perspective, it could be argued that Aboud Rogo was a Kenyan patriot, whose continued association with the terrorist cells was merely a means of helping the Kenyan Defense Forces in their efforts to wipe out al-Shabaab. The truth will most probably never be known; and in any case, that is really too far-fetched a scenario. It is far more likely that Sheikh Rogo was left alone to preach his virulent message of hate, as a means of "setting him up"so that his associates would suspect him of having hidden protectors within government.

The tragedy of Aboud Rogo's life is that, had he followed a different path and worked within the political process, he might have played a great role in the politics of Coast province. But instead he took a road that led to the UN Security Council imposing a travel ban and asset freeze on him, and also identifying him as the "main ideological leader" of Kenya's al-Hijra group, also known as the Muslim Youth Centre, which was viewed as a close ally of al-Shabaab.

And this path ended in his being killed in a hail of assassin's bullets, in broad daylight, and in front of his family. As for the rioting in Mombasa, its non-religious nature can best be summarized by a caption in a photo which was featured in The Standard, of a church building with smoked-out windows. The caption was, 'Rioting youths burned the PCEA Church in Kisauni, Mombasa and stole 700 chairs yesterday.

When you consider how many people and how much effort would be needed to "steal 700 chairs" and then consider how remote from the methods of militant Islam that theft was, it is clear enough that these are more random acts of hooliganism than a protest over a religious martyr.

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InFocus

Kenya: Details of Muslim Cleric’s Murder Emerge

Aboud Rogo, left, and Mohammed Kubwa in court: Rogo was arrested in January 2012 and charged with possession of illegal firearms, ammunition, hand grenades and detonators.

New information on the murder of controversial Muslim leader Aboud Rogo has surfaced in ongoing investigations, with some sources claiming that the cleric was killed by anti-terror ... Read more »