Nairobi — Following reports of a string of unjustified arrests in Eastleigh, religious leaders and security analysts are urging Kenyan security forces to refrain from using the Westgate terrorist attack as an excuse to harass and intimidate innocent members of the local Somali and Muslim communities.
Rather, strengthening ties with those communities, fostering good will and working with them to gather intelligence is important, they say, to stabilise the nation and ward off future terror plots.
Yet during and after last month's four-day siege by al-Shabaab at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, security forces reportedly have targeted Muslims and people of Somali origin for detention and questioning.
"I have been a victim not once but twice," said 24-year-old Ali Omar, an ethnic Somali who resides in an area known as Majengo in Nairobi's Eastleigh neighbourhood. "Every time there is an attack, we are all treated as suspects, our houses are ransacked, we are bundled into police vehicles and booked into various police stations where we are grilled and beaten for crimes we know nothing about."
Omar said police rounded up him and two friends as they were walking home from evening prayers on September 22nd, a day after the siege began. The three were locked up for two days without charges, he told Sabahi.
"Such incidences leave us so intimidated that even if we had any information that could have been useful in apprehending the criminals, we would decide to shut up because we are always suspect number one," Omar said.
That same day when police picked up Omar, Fatuma Musa, a mother of five, said officers ransacked her home in Eastleigh and took her 16-year-old son into custody.
"A team of police officers came in at night. They said they were looking for bombs and when they turned the house upside down [they] could not find anything," Musa told Sabahi, adding that police held her son for questioning for a day before releasing him.
Seeking truth, building trust:
Perturbed by such stories, Muslim leaders are calling on security agencies not to use terrorist attacks as excuses to harass innocent people.
Sheikh Khalfan Khamis, chairman of the Council of Muslims Scholars in Kenya, condemned al-Shabaab's attack at Westgate, but said it was wrong for police to punish all Muslims for crimes committed by terrorists.
"The government should seek the truth and expose those criminals behind these heinous crimes and respect the rights of the innocent while doing so," he told Sabahi.
Harassing innocent people over crimes to which they are also victims complicates the fight against terrorism, said Mustafa Ali, secretary general of the African Council of Religious Leaders, an organisation that aims to resolve conflicts and sustain peace in Africa through inter-religious collaboration.
"Any time we have a blast in the city, police in response carry out raids on Eastleigh residents," Ali told Sabahi. "What this does is it complicates intelligence gathering, as those locals who would have wanted to volunteer good information to be used to apprehend suspects shy away."
He said terrorism is both a security and social problem that needs concerted efforts from the communities and security agencies to overcome.
"But when even religious leaders and the communities are profiled as terrorists, it creates mistrust and bad blood between the security agencies and the public. The people opt to sit and look the other way as the situation worsens," he said, advising authorities to adopt community policing strategies to build trust and patriotism.
Eastleigh Business District Association chairman Hassan Gulleid said that following the Westgate attack, residents were in a panic and afraid to co-operate with the security agencies.
"Terrorism is a problem that is inflicting wanton destruction to all of us and it cannot be condoned," he told Sabahi, underscoring the importance of building trust and respect between communities and security forces. "All that is needed is co-operation from every one of us in this society to be able to eliminate it. But this co-operation cannot be forced nor coerced."
Towards that end, the Eastleigh Business District Association has started organising outreach programmes where security agencies are invited to engage with Eastleigh youth through sports activities, thereby establishing positive lines of communication that foster understanding and co-operation.
As a business association, he said, they are also providing a source of livelihood to young people who might otherwise be seduced by al-Shabaab recruiters with promises of money.
Simiyu Werunga, a retired Kenyan army captain who is also the director the African Centre for Security and Strategic Studies, said security agencies should engage with the population and build a strong partnership with Muslim communities.
Using excessive force in select communities only antagonises people and further isolates them, making them more vulnerable to radicalisation, he told Sabahi.
It is an ineffective strategy, he said, not only because it hinders intelligence gathering efforts, but also because it might help al-Shabaab in their recruitment. "This is not how to counter terrorism," he said.
For its part, the Kenyan government rejects criticism that police officers have been harassing Somalis and Muslims in the aftermath of the Westgate attack.
"I am not aware of any cases of harassment of innocent people in Eastleigh," Secretary of Interior and Co-ordination of National Government Joseph Ole Lenku told Sabahi. "As far as I am concerned, our team of police officers carries out [investigations] professionally."
Anyone who has been abused by security forces should report it to the independent police oversight authority, he said.
"What we have been doing is arresting those we suspect to have connection with the attacks, questioning them and releasing those who we deem innocent, and this is the standard the world over," Lenku said.
Authorities are also reaching out to the public to assist in the investigations, he said, urging all citizens to be part of the solution to terrorism by coming forward with any pertinent information about suspicious activities.