NAIROBI, Kenya — When the United States tried to
capture a powerful militant in Somalia last weekend,
it did not go after the leader of the Shabab
extremist group, but a Kenyan national whose ties
were as much in his native country as in the Horn of
Outside of Somalia itself, Kenya sends more fighters
to the Shabab than does any other country, analysts
say. Young Kenyan men have ridden buses to the
border in large numbers for years, local Muslim
leaders say, drawn by payments of up to $1,000 to
cross into Somalia and fight for the group.
But ever since the Kenyan military stormed into
southern Somalia two years ago, many Kenyan
fighters have been coming back home, local leaders
and experts say, creating a larger, increasingly
sophisticated network of trained jihadists in a
country where people from around the globe gather
in crowded, lightly protected public places.
“The growing number of militants in Kenya,” said J.
Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the
Atlantic Council in Washington, “is a serious concern
— or ought to be — for both U.S. policy makers and
their Kenyan counterparts.”
Unlike Somalia, which has been isolated by decades
of chaos, Kenya is home to thousands of American
expatriates working for multinational companies,
the United States Embassy, the United Nations and
nonprofit groups. Beyond that, tens of thousands of
American tourists come here for safaris and beach
vacations every year, prompting the United States
to issue a travel warning after the deadly siege on
the Westgate mall in Nairobi last month because of
“potential terrorist threats aimed at U.S., Western
and Kenyan interests in Kenya.”
To much of the world, the attack on the mall, in
which Islamist radicals killed more than 60 men,
women and children, underscored the growing
international threat of the Shabab, a group that
once seemed more focused on imposing Islamic law
in Somalia than with staging major attacks across
international boundaries.
But the siege has also illustrated the growing
radicalism of Kenya’s own neglected, disaffected
Muslim population. At least one member of the
small group of attackers at the Westgate mall was
Kenyan, according to Kenyan officials, and several
witnesses have described hearing the combatants
speaking Swahili, one of Kenya’s national languages,
sometimes flawlessly.
Kenya’s slums have long provided a fertile recruiting
ground for Muslim extremists, but analysts say that
the Shabab have been finding recruits from across
the country, not just in traditionally Muslim areas
like Mombasa or Somali enclaves and refugee
camps. The heavy-handed response by the Kenyan
police seems to have driven more young men to
embrace radicalism.
Deadly riots broke out last week in the coastal city
of Mombasa after a popular Muslim cleric was shot
dead in what many believe was an attack by
security services.
“A day after the killings,” said Abubaker Shariff
Ahmed, a fundamentalist cleric in Mombasa, “a
group of boys came to me and they said, ‘Sheik, find
us a way to communicate with Al Shabab. We want
to help, but we don’t have weapons.’ ”
Mr. Ahmed, a middle-aged man in a white cap and
hennaed goatee, was one of three Kenyan
supporters of the Shabab listed by the United States
Treasury Department last year, accused of acting as
a “recruiter and facilitator” for the group. In an
interview on a rooftop here, Mr. Ahmed denied the
charges, saying that when youth from the area ask
him for help joining the Shabab he tells them not to
But were it not for the bail money that friends
posted because of pending charges against him, Mr.
Ahmed said, he would be in Somalia for jihad
Until recently, the Shabab’s Kenyan affiliate, Al
Hijra, was “a group that appeared to be fumbling
and amateurish, operationally,” said Matt Bryden, a
former head of the United Nations Monitoring Group
on Somalia and Eritrea. But “a core of committed
fighters has emerged and they have been learning.”
Fighters who have trained in Somalia are filtering
back into Kenya, he said, bringing new discipline,
dedication and expertise.
“There have also been indications that over the last
six months or so they’ve been scaling down grenade
throwing and small stuff, partly to get some relief
from law enforcement, but also because they
realized this wasn’t getting them anywhere,” said
Mr. Bryden, now a director at the Sahan Research
and Development Organization, an independent
group based in Nairobi. “They decided to aim for
something that would do more damage and be more
A Kenyan intelligence report last year said that a
Kenyan explosives expert had trained 20 Kenyan
militants in Somalia, including in Baraawe, the port
town where Navy SEALs staged an unsuccessful raid
on Saturday to capture Abdikadir Mohamed
Abdikadir, a Kenyan citizen who uses the nom de
guerre Ikrimah and is accused of plotting attacks in
both Kenya and Somalia.
The Kenyan militants are increasingly sophisticated
and dangerous, with safe houses and weapons
stores at their disposal, according to the intelligence
report. Aware that they are being watched, the
report said, militants here have cut down on mobile-
phone contact and begun using unsent draft e-mails
in accounts for which they share passwords to
communicate without detection.
“Al Shabab has started investing more in building
out its own network in Kenya,” said Katherine
Zimmerman, senior analyst at the Critical Threats
Project of the American Enterprise Institute. “There
is an Al Shabab network that extends down through
Kenya and into Tanzania.”
Abdi Aynte, executive director of the Heritage
Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu, Somalia,
said that with porous borders and corrupt police
officers, it was relatively easy to cross into Kenya
with a bribe at the border.
“There is no inhibiting force at all to prevent you
from going into Somalia or from Somalia into
Kenya,” he said.
Other Shabab recruits have come from as far as
Britain, Burundi, Chad, Uganda and the United
States, potentially expanding the group’s ability to
take advantage of local passports, accents and
communities to operate. Many analysts said that it
would be difficult for the Shabab, which claimed
responsibility for the Westgate attack, to plan and
execute a complex attack like the one at the mall
without the assistance or participation of local
Abdul Haji, a Kenyan businessman who rushed to
the Westgate mall to try to rescue his brother, said
he found himself locking eyes with one of the
assailants, less than 100 feet away. He said the man
did not look Somali and spoke to him in flawless,
native Swahili, saying, “Kuja, kuja,” or “Come,
come,” gesturing for him.
The government’s tensions with segments of
Kenya’s Muslim population has been building for
years. When Kenya’s one-party system ended in the
early 1990s, the government refused to register the
Islamic Party of Kenya. After the arrest of several
Muslim religious leaders, riots broke out and top
party members were arrested.
The police focus on Kenyan Muslims intensified after
the bombing of the American Embassies in Kenya
and Tanzania in 1998, and it deepened after a
deadly attack on Israeli tourists at a hotel in
Mombasa in 2002.
Last year, the killing of an influential cleric, Sheik
Aboud Rogo Mohammed, who had been accused by
the United States of drumming up money and
fighters for the Shabab, led to days of riots. Many
Muslims accused the police of being behind the
Just last week, another fundamentalist cleric, Sheik
Ibrahim Ismail, was shot and killed along with three
of his followers in similar circumstances.
“We knew they were going to kill him one day,” Mr.
Ahmed said. “I am going to be killed one day.”

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