Sabahi (Washington, DC)

Somalia: The Many Faces of Al-Shabaab in Kenya

Photo: Fidelis Mbah/IRIN
Al Shabaab milititants (file photo).

Garissa — The Somali community in Kenya has taken a lot of the blame for al-Shabaab attacks, but security analysts and officials warn that scapegoating Somalis increases the danger of future attacks as militants of other ethnicities may be conducting terrorist activities unnoticed.

Aden Duale, a member of parliament representing Dujis, said Kenyans first suspect people from the Somali community whenever a terrorist attack is carried out in Kenya.

"The attacks often draw negative stereotypes and association against the Somali community, yet it is not written on anyone's forehead that they are members [of the group]. To target the Somali community is profiling and xenophobia," he told Sabahi.

In recent months, Kenyan security forces have responded to terrorist attacks by cracking down on refugees, including mass arrests of ethnic Somalis. Last week, the Kenyan government announced that all refugees in Kenya must return to camps, as registration and services will cease in the cities.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Thursday (December 20th) called on Kenya to avoid blaming refugees for recent violent incidents in the country.

Kenyans play prominent roles in terrorism

"Al-Shabaab membership transcends beyond the Somali community," said retired Kenya Defence Forces Major Bashir Hajji Abdullahi, who works as a security consultant.

Al-Shabaab has strategically recruited non-Somalis to reduce the chances of their members from being caught, he said, adding that Somalis are growing increasingly reluctant to join the group due to war fatigue.

According to Boniface Mwaniki, head of Kenya's Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, 1,900 suspects have been arrested in connection with terror attacks in the country since June -- 1,200 in Nairobi, 400 in Mombasa and 300 in Garissa.

"We have in custody and are monitoring people from the Kikuyu, Bajuni, Luo, Luhyia and even Akamba ethnic groups," he told Sabahi.

Authorities say Elgiva Bwire, a Kenyan from the Luhya ethnic group, which is predominant in Western Province, is a prime example of a non-Somali al-Shabaab fighter.

Bwire, whose alias is Mohamed Seif, pled guilty before a Nairobi Court in October 2011 to his membership in al-Shabaab and his involvement in a grenade attack that killed one person and injured 18 at Nairobi's OTC bus terminal that month.

Ahmad Iman Ali, the supreme emir for the al-Shabaab-affiliated Muslim Youth Centre (MYC), represents another prominent non-Somali militant.

Ali, also known as Abdul Fatah of Kismayo, is from the Meru ethnic group in Kenya's Eastern Province and has been operating in Somalia since 2009, according to a July 2011 United Nations report. The report identified the MYC as al-Shabaab's recruitment, fundraising and training arm in Kenya.

Al-Shabaab's foreigner fighters

Garissa County Commissioner Mohamed Maalim said hundreds of non-Somalis have been clandestinely enlisted to fight alongside al-Shabaab in Somalia since 2006.

In fact, al-Kataib Foundation, al-Shabaab's media centre, recently stepped up recruitment efforts by releasing a series of videos urging foreign jihadists to join the fight in Somalia.

Maalim said that in 2011, security forces intercepted more than 30 foreigners on their way to or from Somalia, adding that many more continued traveling back and forth undetected. "A number are still in custody and are helping with investigations, while others were released and placed under surveillance," he told Sabahi.

Maalim said that in the past two years, police have arrested or detained people suspected of having ties to al-Shabaab who have Moroccan, Iranian, Saudi Arabian and British passports. "The threat we face comes not only from outside our borders, but also from within and from people one would be reluctant to [suspect]," he said.

High-profile cases include the arrest in December 2011 of British citizen Jermaine Grant, who was charged with possessing explosives and planning an attack in Mombasa. His trial is pending.

British citizen Samantha Lewthwaite, the fugitive widow of Germaine Lindsay, a perpetrator in the July 7, 2005 London attacks, is also believed to be in hiding in Somalia, according to police. In September, Lewthwaite posted online that she was intending to participate in suicide attacks, lauding al-Shabaab's activities.

More recently, Kenyan police arrested Swiss national Magd Najjar in May and charged him with being a member of al-Shabaab and entering the country illegally. Najjar denied the charges and is awaiting trial.

Adan Mohamed Salah, head of the Anti-Terrorism Police unit in Baidoa, said al-Shabaab has used incentives to attract foreigners. "Besides claiming that Somalia is under attack from non-believers, it has also promised financial rewards to those who join in their wars," he told Sabahi.

He said enlisted foreigners undergo tests to prove they are not spies. "The tests include executing people who al-Shabaab frequently sentence through their laws. The execution is either by shooting or using a knife or stoning," he said.

Citizen co-operation necessary to stop al-Shabaab

Most of the arrests were made thanks to information provided by vigilant citizens. Other al-Shabaab fighters were apprehended on the dry scrubland of the North Eastern and Coast Provinces where they had been left stranded by their own leaders, the Garissa County Commissioner said.

"It is gradually dawning on Kenyans that a person from Nyanza, Central or even Rift Valley Province can be involved with the Islamist group," Maalim said. "Al-Shabaab has many faces and the government is on high alert to that fact."

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