When Islamist gunmen stormed ‘s Westgate shopping mall on a busy Saturday in September, the ensuing carnage also intensified fears that Kenya’s homegrown Islamists were on the rise.
Although the attackers were from Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-inspired al-shabaab rebels, the group’s ability to infiltrate and operate in Kenya, as well as find a stream of willing recruits, has focussed attention on radical Islamists based down the coast in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa.
At the heart of the steamy port hub sits the Musa mosque, seen by Kenyan authorities as the epicentre of a new terrorist threat. Its key figure, Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, better known as Makaburi, does little to hide his firebrand leanings.
“It’s our innocents for your innocents. It was justified. As per the Koran, as per the religion of Islam, Westgate was 100 percent justified,” the Muslim cleric said of the attack that left at least 67 dead, among them women and children cut down by machine gun fire or grenades.
“Are the ones being killed and raped in Somalia not innocent?” Makaburi said in an interview with AFP in his austere Mombasa office, seizing on Al-shabaab’s justification for the mall attack — Kenya’s military presence in southern Somalia.
“The KDF (Kenyan army) is doing the same thing and worse in Somalia than what happened at Westgate. So as per the Islamic religion, they had every right to avenge whatever the KDF is doing in Somalia.”
Makaburi asserted that no real Muslims died in the upmarket, part-Israeli-owned mall.
“How come a Muslim is at a shopping mall instead of being at a mosque?” he said, adding that the “Americans and the Western governments are killing innocent people all over the world everyday, they’re bombing weddings, funerals.”
The real “terrorists”, Makaburi argued, were the military personnel operating drones.
“How come the pilots of the drones are not labelled as terrorists? How come when we Muslims are being killed by the Americans using drones, by the British, by whoever, by the West, it’s nothing, but when you have a single non-Muslim killed by a Muslim, it’s terrorism?”
In August 2012, the Musa mosque’s radical preacher, Aboud Rogo Mohammed, was gunned down, and in October last year his successor, Sheikh Ibrahim Ismail, met the same fate on a road near Mombasa, again sparking riots. Most believe the Kenyan authorities were behind the killings.
Last month the mosque was yet again the scene of violence when armed police launched a massive raid to put an end to what officials said was a “jihadist convention” and a al-shabaab recruitment exercise taking place inside.
Makaburi, who is in his 50s, is currently subject to UN sanctions — a travel ban, assets freeze and targeted arms embargo — for being a “leading facilitator and recruiter of young Kenyan Muslims for violent militant activity in Somalia”, and for having “strong ties with senior Al-Shabaab members.”
“I do not support Al-Shabaab, I do not know Al-Shabaab. I support the implementation of Sharia Law anywhere in the world,” Makaburi insisted in the interview.
“These are just accusations. Where is the proof that I have recruited anybody? Who have I recruited? When, how, where? These are just accusations.”
He also said that “the highest motivator for the youth to go into Somalia to fight Jihad is the Kenyan government doing injustice to the Muslim youth here in Kenya. How do you think the youth feel after they were sitting peacefully in a mosque and they were invaded, shot at, killed, meant to disappear?”
Instead, Makaburi presents himself as a simple man promoting “true Islam”, and not the kind practiced in Saudi Arabia, which he dismisses as “a Christian country ruled by somebody who pretends to be a Muslim”.
In his view the best examples of Islam are found in parts of Fallujah in Iraq, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and Shebab-held areas of Somalia.
“Radical Islam is a creation of people who do not believe in Islam. We don’t have radical Islam, we don’t have moderates, we don’t have extremists. Islam is one religion following the Koran and the Sunnah,” said Makaburi.
But he also seems resigned to his fate as Kenya’s crackdown, which has been stepped up post-Westgate, continues: “My life is in danger. They will eventually kill me. They do that.”