Al-Qaida Terror Returns to Kenya
by Irfan Al-Alawi
The East African country of Kenya, with 44 million people, today has a Christian majority of 83% and a Muslim minority of 11%. In 1998, Kenya and its neighbor Tanzania became the first countries where al-Qaida staged massive atrocities. The attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, and Dar es Salaam, Nairobi's counterpart in Tanzania, were almost simultaneous, but the assault in Nairobi had more victims. In Kenya, 212 were killed and about 4,000 injured; in Tanzania 11 died and 85 were wounded.
Everything that made the first decade of the 21st century an epoch of terror, as well as defenses against it, began in Nairobi: the horrors of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington; the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004; the London metro bombings of July 7, 2005; the ferocious raid on Mumbai, India, of 2008, and many additional incidents of willful carnage.
Now the cruel violence of radical Islam has returned to Nairobi. From September 21 to September 24, when the terrorists were officially declared to have been defeated, an international brigade recruited by the Somali radicals of Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaida affiliate, besieged Nairobi's five-story, 80-shop, upscale Westgate mall. Kenyans are proud of the prosperity they have earned as symbolized by the mall, but to the radical Islamists, it epitomizes corruption and greed.
The killers roamed the complex; they attacked shops and shot customers, although they allegedly spared those who said they were Muslim. At least 61 innocents were slain and some 175 injured -- from around the world, and including Muslims. Kenyan authorities reacted with confusion, and a standoff was followed by chaotic skirmishing and unclear reports from the scene.
To foreign observers, the most striking aspect of the latest Nairobi crime was the claim by Al-Shabaab that the terror squad included three Americans, a Canadian, and citizens of Britain and Finland, as well as Somalia and Kenya. Who were these people? Were they Somali immigrants to the West, along with local recruits? We have already seen Britain turned into a major recruiting ground for jihadist foot-soldiers. A smaller number of Americans have become notorious in similar fashion.
Unarguably, the shape of radical Islamist aggression has changed since 2001. The very title of "Al-Shabaab" [The Youth] indicates that the veterans of the Taliban, as well as of terror wars in Egypt and Algeria during the 1970s and 1980s, have fostered a new generation of extremists. Unlike the earlier al-Qaida pattern, "The Youth" are not drawn primarily from Saudi Arabia or any other major Muslim country, but from a failed state, Somalia, as well as from Muslim minority communities.
Does this latest upsurge in nihilism and sadism by Islamist fanatics presage a new stage of revived vigor among jihadists? Or is it an indicator of exhaustion and decline, a last sputtering of the ultra-Wahhabi flame?
Above all, however, it is time to state plainly that the responsibility for defending peace and social order in Kenya rests with the local Muslims, who know and can best combat the penetration of their country by the mass murderers. The ordinary shoppers who lost their lives at the Westgate mall were overwhelmingly Kenyan, not foreign.
Kenyan Islam was originally moderate, contemplative, and traditional, with a significant place in the history of spiritual Sufism. The Ba'Alawi Sufis, who originated on the southern coast of Arabia and spread through East Africa, the Indian Ocean, and southeast Asia, served as ambassadors for Islam by establishing schools and medical clinics as well as mosques.
An individual who represented the best of this tradition was Sayyid Habib Umar bin Ahmad bin Abu Bakr ibn Sumayt, son of the chief Qadi, or religious judge, on the island of Zanzibar. In 1936, the Sultan of Zanzibar appointed Habib Umar to the post of Qadi of the island of Pemba, and in 1938 Habib Umar became one of the Qadis of Zanzibar, as his father, Habib Ahmed B. Abu Bakr bin Sumayt, had been. In 1942, Habib Umar was appointed Chief Qadi of the main island. He fulfilled his duties in an exemplary manner for two decades, repeatedly bringing conflicting parties together while seldom needing to issue a religious judgment. He reorganized the local religious endowments (awqaf) to eliminate waste and abuse of assets. Their proceeds were spent correctly; old mosques were refurbished and new ones built, with a salaried imam appointed to each, and without the influence of foreign financing.
Another Sufi from the area, Sayyid Habib Umar Abdallah bin Shaykh Abi Bakar bin Salim (Mwinyi Baraka), attended Oxford University, where he wrote a thesis on Islamic philosophy. Habib Umar toured the world, including Britain and the USA. Habib Umar Abdallah, born in Zanzibar in 1918 and died in 1988, was regarded in the 1950s and 1960s as one of the greatest Muslim scholars in Zanzibar, and became known as "Mwinyi Baraka," or "the Master of Blessings." Habib Umar Abdallah had been educated at government and Koranic schools, attended Makerere College in Uganda, and, studying Arabic and Islamic Law, matriculated at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London in 1951.
In 1961 he went to study at Oriel College in Oxford for a B.A. in Islamic studies. His dissertation focused on four centers of Islamic learning: Zanzibar, Syria, the Hadramawt in today's Yemen, and Nigeria.
Another Ba'Alawi Sufi, Sayyid Al-Habib Ahmad Mashhur bin Taha Al-Haddad, was one of the most powerful Muslim figures in East Africa, where he is praised as the local "Renewer of Islam." He lived in the 1930s in Uganda and Mombasa, Kenya's main seaport, where he engaged in commerce and led study circles in mosques as well as in his home.
Al-Habib Ahmad Mashhur challenged the Wahhabis in East Africa, especially in Kenya and Uganda; he condemned their ideologies whether they preached from mosques the radicals built, or published literature intended to lead young Muslims away from moderate belief and action. He refuted the Wahhabi misinterpretation of the Koran, which expressed the distorted views of the sect.
Behind these young cubs, who served the divine protector of the faithful, stood lions worthy of the African soil. In 1906, a mainstream Sunni mosque was built by Sayyid Abdullah Shah, a descendant of Prophet Muhammad; it was entitled the Jamia Mosque, and was established in Nairobi with a library of classical Muslim texts and anti-Wahhabi polemics. Mashhur was truly a lion in opposing Arab Wahhabi infiltrators, and their South Asian Deobandi imitators -- later inspirers of the Taliban -- in East Africa.
Such moderate, traditional, conventional, and metaphysical Muslim leaders must stand as a bulwark against further bloody terrorism in Kenya, the rest of East Africa and throughout the world. That is their duty -- and the only meaningful response to radical Islamist terror.