MOMBASA, Kenya – Hardline Muslim clerics. Young people who feel marginalized. Suspicions that police are responsible for the killings and forced disappearances of extremists.
These elements created a combustible mixture that exploded into rioting last week after Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a Muslim preacher accused of links to an Islamist insurgent group in neighboring Somalia, was riddled with bullets as he drove his wife to a hospital for a checkup. Observers say these events underscore growing fundamentalism in Mombasa, dividing people in a city established centuries ago by Muslim traders from the Arabian peninsula, now home to many people of Arab descent and Somalis.
No one has been arrested for the Aug. 27 killing that happened in broad daylight but Mohammed's wife, who was wounded in the leg, immediately suspected the police.
"It is you policemen who have killed him, we don't want a post-mortem or any help from you," Khaniya Said Sagar told police officers who came to assist her. Mohammed was the fifth alleged Muslim extremist who has been killed or who has disappeared in the last four months.
The Masjid Musa mosque where Mohammed preached weekly became ground zero of the rioting over two days in which four people, including three members of the security forces, were killed and three churches were damaged. Hundreds of angry young Muslims who took to the streets blamed police for the killing of Mohammed.
"There is growing religious fundamentalism in Mombasa that is reaching to certain heights that were not there (before)," said the Rev. Wilybard Lagho, a Catholic priest who is the chairman of the Coast Inter-Faith Council of clerics, a forum which brings together clerics from several faiths to discuss common concerns. "Extremism divides people as 'we versus them' and that brings tension."
Hassan Omar Hassan, a former deputy head of the government-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, knew Mohammed, and said the cleric became more outspoken and adopted a hardline stance after he emerged from prison. Mohammed had been jailed for the December 2002 killing of 13 people in a bomb attack of an Israeli-owned hotel at the Kenyan coast and the attempted downing of a jetliner packed with Israeli tourists. Mohammed was charged with murder but was acquitted in a trial.
"It was at that point that I started to hear Mohammed, after imprisonment, becoming more and more audacious. It appears when he was imprisoned he overcame the fear of adversity," Hassan said. "He started preaching on international jihad, and subscribed broad ideologies of jihad."
Police said Mohammed had belonged to a terror cell affiliated with al-Shabab that was planning to bomb Kenyan targets over Christmas. Al-Shabab is an Islamist insurgent group in Somalia that has executed people by stoning and chopped off limbs of suspected thieves. Kenyan troops are among the African Union forces backing the Somali government, and are on the verge of attacking al-Shabab's last stronghold, the Somali seaside city of Kismayo.
Mohammed's death exposed and exacerbated a schism between the Muslim faithful in Mombasa, which boasts an architectural mix of mosques and minarets from Arab traders, British colonial-style buildings and more recently built high-rises. The mix of disparate cultural influences is evident in the clothing people wear here, from Arab-style robes, hijab headscarves and burqas to hip-hop style outfits complete with sagging jeans, short skirts and tights.
There are worries that the rise of extremism here will upset the tradition of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims and will hurt this city's important tourism industry.
Youths who were protesting Mohammed's death ignored calls by their local imams, or preachers, to stop the violence, said Hashim Kamau, National Youth Chairman for the Supreme Council of Muslims in Kenya. Kamau said in an interview that he was sent from Nairobi to calm the youths.
Human rights campaigners say it is the Kenyan government's harsh counterterrorism measures that are pushing Muslim youths toward extremism. Last week's riots were a culmination of anger building up against the Nairobi government because of the killings and disappearances of five Muslim figures, they say.
"This is a society that has been victim of the government's counterterrorism measures," Hassan said. "We have Gestapo kinds of raids in this town. We have had a total flotation of the constitution, sheer disrespect and carelessness on the part of the police officers on how they deal with the sensitivities of the Muslim community and profiling."
Many young Muslims are furious about the disappearance or killing of Islamic leaders, which they blame on the police, Hassan said. Mohammed's teachings appealed to the youth, Hassan said, because of their growing sense of frustration about issues like poverty and lack of opportunity.
Sheik Juma Ngao, a local Muslim cleric and the Chairman of the National Muslim Advisory Council of Kenya, said the extremism has been boosted by the conflict in Somalia.
Mohammed tried steer recruits toward al-Shabab, according to a U.N. report. Mohammed was a key ideologue behind the al-Shabab support network in Kenya. The U.N. report describes Mohamed as an extremist who advocated the violent overthrow of the Kenyan state and was an outspoken supporter of al-Shabab.
The rioting here ended a week ago but Kenya's second-largest city and tourism center remains tense. Armed police patrol the streets. Some of Mombasa's Muslims, who make up the majority in this port city of nearly 1 million, say they are still angry about the killing of Mohammed.
"In the course of religion we are not afraid to die because at the end every Muslim will die. Every human being will die. If you die because of religion you are going to paradise, so we are not afraid to die," said Abdulahi Awal, 40, who was prepared to demonstrate after prayers last Friday at Masjid Musa mosque. He said many others felt as he did. But hundreds of heavily armed police officers surrounded the Mosque and forced the group of worshippers to go home before the planned protests gained momentum.
Few have any illusion that the assassination of Mohammed removes the threat of Islamic radicalism in this city. Others are tapping into the anger felt by many here.
Abubaker Shariff Ahmed was a close friend of Mohammed's, and like him, is a hardline Mombasa imam. Police on Monday charged him with inciting the violence that followed Mohammed's death.
"All imams who cooperate with the government should be slaughtered, and any police officer who is seen should be slaughtered," words Ahmed allegedly said at the Masjid Mosque to rally Mohammed's supporters into violence, according to prosecutors.
Like Mohammed, Ahmed was subjected to a travel ban and asset freeze by the U.N. Security Council and the United States for supporting al-Shabab.
He is in police custody awaiting a bail hearing.