MOMBASA, Kenya – As dusk fell and Kenya's Muslims broke their daily fast Monday in the final week of the holy month of Ramadan, a main topic of conversation was Usama bin Laden and his network's role in international terrorism.
It's a debate that has raged among the country's Muslim minority since the Sept. 11 attacks — returning to the fore again since last week's twin attacks on Israeli targets near this centuries-old port on the Indian Ocean.
Some in Kenya support bin Laden — even carrying background images of him on the screens of their cell phones — while others despise him or fear his growing influence.
"We are very happy about the bombing of the Israelis," said Ali Islam, a 51-year-old primary school teacher, referring to the suicide car bombing Thursday of a hotel frequented by Israelis, and a missile attack that narrowly missed a chartered Israeli jetliner taking off from Mombasa with 271 people on board.
Police say at least 15 people were killed in the bombing of the Paradise Hotel — 10 Kenyans, three Israelis and two or three bombers.
A statement attributed to Al Qaeda and posted on an Islamic Web site claimed responsibility Monday for the two attacks. In Washington, U.S. counterterrorism officials said they considered the claim credible.
"From 1947, Israel has occupied Arab land ... and America has supported this and at the same time has grown rich off Arabs ... We are fighting under Usama bin Laden because this is not a way for Muslim people to survive," said Islam, standing outside the dingy blue-and-white Noor mosque in the congested Bondeni neighborhood.
At the Mbaruk mosque in the upscale Kibokoni neighborhood, Ahmed Abdullah Ahmed, a 49-year-old real estate agent, his 12-year-old son and some friends sat by a fountain breaking their fast with dates and sweet thick coffee.
"My children sit all day and watch TV, and they see Palestinian people being killed by Jews, Afghans killed by Americans, and they have no context. They don't understand it. They only see killing, and they become extreme," Ahmed said.
"It's our job to teach them love," he added, before walking away with his son, the tails of their floor-length cotton shirts or "kanzus" floating behind them.
Sheikh Ali Shee, chairman of Kenya's Council of Imams, says his generation of Muslims faces the challenge of younger people drifting toward more extremist elements.
"Al Qaeda is the hero for the young people. ... It's very difficult," he said. "We have to solve the problem of injustice."
Muslims make up 5 percent to 10 percent of Kenya's population of 30 million. From Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south, Africa's Indian Ocean coast is dotted with cities and towns founded more than 1,000 years ago by Muslim traders.
Kenya's coast was part of the sultanate of Oman until 1963, when it was joined to the newly independent former British colony.
"I'm a Kenyan, and then I am a Muslim," said Maulana Hussein, a 54-year-old salesman of electrical equipment, dressed in a crisp white Oxford cloth button-down shirt, gray slacks and wingtip shoes.
"These people keep attacking Kenyans. I don't care if [the attackers] are Muslims, they should be driven off this world," he said, referring to last week's suicide attack and the Aug. 7, 1998, bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, in which 219 people, all but 12 of them Kenyans, were killed and another 5,000 injured.
Bin Laden has been indicted by a U.S. district court for masterminding that attack and a nearly simultaneous one on the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Tanzania that killed 12 and injured 80.
"Our religion is not a reason to kill people ... If they say the Americans and Israelis are killers, what do we gain by turning into the same thing?" Hussein said.
Monday's claim of responsibility referred to the Al Qaeda attack on the embassy in Kenya, and a simultaneous bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania, which killed 12 people.
"At the same place where the 'Jewish Crusader coalition' was hit four years ago ... here the fighters ... came back once again to strike heavily against that evil coalition," the statement said. "But this time, it was against Jews ..."
Kenyan police say they have no solid suspects in last week's attacks. A previously unknown group calling itself the Army of Palestine also claimed responsibility soon after the attacks.
Israeli and U.S. officials have suggested the attacks were carried out by a Somali Islamic group, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, said to have ties to bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and which Washington placed on a list of international terrorist organizations after the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Tom Hart said there was no doubt bin Laden has supporters in Kenya, but the backing is not widespread because most Kenyan Muslims are "very law-abiding and peaceful citizens."
"Muslims in Kenya are part of the worldwide community of Muslims, so of course we are concerned about the possible attractiveness of these kind of messages [from bin Laden] for young people or others," Hart said.
"We're trying to reach out, trying to provide more scholarships to the Muslim community and mini-information centers in Lamu and Mombasa," both cities with large Muslim populations, he said.
Lamu, located on a small island off Kenya's Indian Ocean coast, has a reputation as a center of Islamic learning and was the home of a revered 19th-century Islamic scholar said to be a descendant of Muhammad.