Digital radicals on the Swahili coast

The Swahili coast used to be Kenya’s comfort zone: multicultural, cosmopolitan and hospitable, it was both the favoured holiday destination for the upcountry elite as well as an enticing destination for the adventurous entrepreneur or the young-bloods looking to re-invent themselves. In a relatively short period of time it has turned into a security nightmare that now eclipses Kenya’s endemic hotspots of Northern Kenya and Nairobi’s slums. It has been a remarkable, dizzying transformation and one that has direct ramifications for Kenya’s economic ambitions.

Just as Kenya was stereotyped as an island of stability within a turbulent region, the Coast, Kenya’s most peaceful province, offered living proof of Kenya’s potential for multicultural harmony in a nation simmering with ethnic animosity and corruption. The sudden rise of a secessionist movement, the Mombasa Republican Council in 2010, coincided with the accelerating spread of Islamist extremism and shattered the peace. But the problem goes far beyond the public’s growing anxiety around the issue of security.

The potential casualties of the new instability include LAPSSET, a $24bn infrastructure project featuring a new deep-water port in Lamu with transport links extending to Ethiopia and South Sudan. LAPSSET has been touted as the centrepiece of Kenya’s Vision 2030, a comprehensive blueprint for the country’s makeover into an emerging economy. The proposed corridor of roads, railway, and oil pipeline is also designed to open the remote hinterland of northern Kenya to economic activity.

The current crisis has been some time in coming. As multi-party politics were re-introduced in 1992, agitation at the Coast for the registration of a new party, the Islamic Party of Kenya, triggered riots perhaps for the first time since independence. Even so, the State – preoccupied with fighting off the populist opposition and dealing with the local and international blowback from the ethnic clashes it had itself instigated in the Rift Valley – paid scant attention to the political developments at the Coast.

In the eyes of the State’s managers, Coastal people continued to embody the sense of equanimity that often characterises cosmopolitan but no longer powerful societies. This is a backhanded way of noting the deep historical roots of the Coast’s contemporary problems. 

After almost 200 years in power, the beginning of the end for the Sultan of Zanzibar – the head of an Omani empire that had ruled the East African coast for almost 200 years – came during an 1872 meeting held on a British warship; power was passed from Sultan to Queen. While this was a pivotal moment, in reality, it barely registered with most of the Coast’s indigenous inhabitants. Zanzibari rule had been based on a system of indirect rule that effectively left the Coast’s centuries’ old socioeconomic system intact; the laissez faire policies of the British administration sustained the stasis despite the radical economic changes affected by the colonial economy in the interior. 

As independence loomed, leaders across the Swahili coast recognised the disruptive implications of majority rule. But Swahili aspirations to retain control over their own affairs evaporated when Mwambao, the coastal movement for political autonomy, died a peaceful death on the eve of independence. Majimbo (federalism) represented an acceptable alternative but the incoming government of Jomo Kenyatta reneged on the Majimbo constitution and imposed a centralised republican one in its place.

To justify the new dispensation – and their takeover of the region’s assets, primarily beachfront properties and extensive parcels of agricultural land used mostly to resettle upcountry people – the new men in Nairobi scripted a narrative of the Swahili as indolent and backward and, it was implied, therefore undeserving of the land. The relative peace prevailing since 1963 was deceptive. As these stereotypes circulated within the national narrative, coastal land grievances figure within a matrix of factors that include systemic social exclusion, self-interested local leadership, government repression, and social and religious traditions.

For decades Coastals have chosen to eschew conflict in order to preserve their measure of domestic tranquility under adverse conditions. One academic traced the passivity in the face of challenges to the Muslim religious establishment — like the movement to squash Kenya’s constitutionally mandated Kadhi courts — to the tradition of Sunni quietism.

Israeli analyst, Arye Oded, examining the prospects for Islamist radicalism around the same time (2002) observed that “foreign Islamic interventions have hindered as much as helped the cause of Kenya’s Muslims,” and opined that although the potential for Muslim political extremism is higher in Kenya than in Tanzania and Uganda, the inability of Muslims to unite on national and regional levels reduces the likelihood of militant Islamic movements. 

What Oded observes for the region’s Muslims also obtains for Swahili society in general. Swahili identity is complicated and hard to pin down. Defining Swahili society is an easier proposition. The Waswahili are a community of communities, a predominantly but not exclusively Islamic entity sharing a common language and interactive cultural orientation. The structure of Swahili society acts to dampen the kind of mobilisation driving political violence elsewhere in Kenya. 

The political settlement following the violently disputed 2007 elections was a victory of an elitist agenda that favoured the restoration of peace over questions of justice. It was no more than a political stop-gap – an oxymoronic finger in the dike. But on the Coast, the February 2008 political settlement produced an uneasy calm. As has happened in the past, Coastal silence was misread as the cynicism and political apathy of an indolent population.

This misreading served to camouflage creeping developments on the ground that had begun with the Embassy bombings and Kikambala attacks launched by Al Qaeda in 1997 and 2002. Oded’s characterisation of the irascible Sheikh Khalid Balala is a case in point.

Balala was a Mombasa street preacher who rocketed to fame and notoriety through his links with mainstream opposition actors during the fight for political pluralism. He personified more than substantiated the real issues driving the Coast’s growing discontent. The attention devoted to figures like Balala and the external influences personified by Al Qaeda operatives like Mohammed Faizul both obscured and enhanced the progression from the radical-lite of the early 2000s to a more potent variant of the radicalisation taking place in the shadows.

The two-decades-old tensions between reform-minded figures identified with Kenya’s Kadhi, Abdallah Farsi, in Mombasa and the more charismatic Sharifite religious establishment for years dominated the debate among Kenya’s ulema, or council of scholars.

Saudi Arabia’s support for mosques, madrassah schools, and the religious education of Coastal imams dates back to the early 1970s. But Wahhabi doctrines enjoyed little traction on the Coast and this applied to the maalim trained to disseminate them as well.

The distaste among the Swahili for the Saudis and their version of Islam cannot be overstated. Workers returning from Saudi Arabia provided graphic reports on the arrogance and perfidy of their Saudi hosts.

The early 1990s influx of Somali refugees tipped the balance in Nairobi, where Wahhabi practices took root. Wahhabi supporters gained control of a number of mosques in the city’s Eastleigh neighborhood, albeit by mainly ousting financially corrupt management committees. The refugees also provided an audience for a new cabal of jihad-inspired imams that became active in Mombasa. 

The most influential was Aboud Rogo, a cleric and one of the estimated fifty Coastals who fought with the Afghani mujihadeen. Rogo, said to have had direct links to Al Qaeda, used his position in Old Town’s Mlango wa Papa mosque to openly recruit for al-Shabaab. Outraged, the community ejected him for this in 2008 or thereabouts. Rogo and his network of like-minded preachers and followers became more influential after shifting to Majengo’s Musa mosque.

Locals renamed this area of Majengo Gaza after a spate of police crackdowns following the increase of al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya. The scale of these attacks spiked after Kenya Defense Forces occupied areas of southern Somalia in 2013, setting the stage for the extra-judicial assassinations of Rogo and his associate, Ahmed Sharif ‘Makaburi’ in 2012 and 2014 respectively. They are still very much alive in cyberspace.

East Africans continue to trust and practise their own Islam, but the minority attracted to the jihadi adventure illuminate some difficult-to-anticipate variables — like the reaction of some youth to the passivity and quietism of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations.

Many elders were not unsympathetic to the liberation theologies advocated by the likes of Syed Khutub, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Osama bin Laden. Muslims were naturally interested in these discourses and narratives of resistance, but not as viable methods for solving the problems local communities faced.

The radicalism of their digitalised sons and daughters is a different animal. It has less to do with religious ideology than it does with the question of how young people, particularly in economically marginalised regions, cope with Kenya’s failed governance systems, and how they deal with the locked-in uncertainties of the global economy. Radicalisation on the Coast owes more to developments in Somalia and Kenya than Saudi and Salafi influences.

Its most unexpected impact is its attraction for the myriad and diverse non-Muslim youth from outside the Coast and abroad. The local Swahili who have crossed the Somali border are more reluctant radicals in comparison. Heirs to an independent Islamic tradition resistant to outside influences, they are driven to cross the line in part by the state’s dirty war tactics, from the extra-judicial killings in Mombasa to the harder to investigate abuses currently unfolding in Lamu County further north.

The diverse and eclectic drivers of the new radicalism do not fit into the black-and-white scenarios favoured by security analysts. The role of securocrats in the deep state cooperating with a Western counter-terrorism agenda in fuelling radicalisation in their attempts to fight it, is often discounted.

We all end up paying for the poverty of long-term strategic thinking. The brief episode of peace in 2006 under the Islamic Courts Union is still remembered as the “golden era” in war-ravaged Somalia. Only three of the sixteen courts operating in Mogadishu were linked to proponents of radical Islam. The invasion that ended the ICU doomed the moderate Islamists to sterile cooperation with Somalia’s dysfunctional transitional governments. Al-Shabaab, a minor player with fifty armed fighters in 2005, morphed into a multinational operation that is still active today despite the best efforts of the region’s militaries to stamp it out.

Back in Kenya, the Mombasa Republican Council galvanised a broad spectrum of Coastal support across religious, ethnic and racial lines. The MRC was not particularly radical. Its meme, Pwani si Kenya (the Coast is not Kenya), challenged the legal status and legitimacy of the Kenya state.

Banned as an armed gang, the government arrested its leaders and manufactured a media-assisted campaign to link the MRC with al-Shabaab.

Ignoring a 2013 Supreme Court ruling un-banning it, the government’s security apparatus proceeded to arrest the MRC leadership on spurious charges that drove the movement underground. Ironically, the suppression of the MRC opened the way for an aggressive new recruitment push by al-Shabaab agents. A series of bloody attacks including the massacre of civilians at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, Lamu’s Mpeketoni settlement, and the university in Garissa followed in the wake of the State’s clampdown.

The State’s response to the resurgent jihadi violence has been predictable and polarising. Kenya thus unfortunately takes its place on the list of case studies demonstrating that jihad and securitisation are now a global blood sport generating mutually beneficial feedbacks for the players on each side.

For most Muslims caught in the middle of this game, there are no good guys, only bullies and underdogs.