Imam’s assassination deepens Kenya’s climate of fear

“If you’re not with them they threaten to kill you”. Sheikh Idris Mohamed, a leading anti-jihadi imam in Kenya’s second city of Mombasa, was not afraid to speak out.

Two and a half weeks ago, I met him when he gave an interview to the Financial Times in his dishevelled home to talk about the radicalisation of Mombasa. It turned out to be one of his last. On Tuesday, Sheikh Mohamed was killed in a drive-by shooting on leaving his home for morning prayers. He died on his way to hospital.

The sexagenarian preacher, who was the chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, was one of the most outspoken critics of radical Islam in the country. Last year he was ousted by young worshippers from his mosque in Mombasa, where he had given sermons for more than 30 years. The young congregation later renamed it Mujahideen – those who fight jihad – Mosque.

During the interview last month, Sheikh Mohamed said he was ousted because he had refused to preach jihad and believed that the youth were “doing wrong by Islam”. After that, he moved to a new home in Likoni, a portside neighbourhood in Mombasa.

The house was within sight of his old mosque – both were part of the same pale green complex owned by the city’s Muslim Association. However, the imam had found somewhere else to pray, away from loudspeakers calling for jihad during prayers.

Wearing a long robe and a heavy white beard, Sheikh Mohamed nodded in the direction of the mosque and said he thought he could be killed at any time : only Allah protected him, he shrugged, smiling. “If you’re not with them they threaten to kill you,” he said.

Observers said on Tuesday that the imam was about to undergo “reconciliation talks” with radical youth – something that may have triggered an attack to forestall such an effort. “It could be that the people trying to radicalise are worried they’re losing support,” said an official who works on counter-radicalisation in Kenya.

Tributes poured in, including from Mombasa governor Hassan Joho and opposition stalwart and former prime minister Raila Odinga, who said he was on his way to attend the imam’s burial.

Many moderate Muslims along Kenya’s coast remain bleak about the prospects of countering the appeal of radicalisation among Mombasa’s jobless youth and wresting back control of the mosques. UN experts, Kenyan authorities and foreign diplomats have for years believed two mosques in Mombasa are recruiting grounds for al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked Somali militancy that has also pledged to carry out reprisals on Kenya for its 2011 invasion of Somalia.

Several bombs have exploded in Mombasa this year. Wary of the growing threat of large-scale terror attacks, western governments last month warned against travel to parts of the city, with a devastating impact on tourism. Diplomats also fear a “tit-for-tat” escalation of terror attacks, in part in reaction to a heavy-handed response by the Kenyan security forces. In the past three years, three radical clerics who preached at a radical mosque have been killed in roadside assassinations. Their followers accuse shadowy security agents of carrying out the attacks, allegations denied by police.

Mwambi Mwasaru, executive director of Muhuri, a Muslim human rights group based in Mombasa, said the shooting of Sheikh Mohamed was “falling into a clear pattern of assassinations” in the coastal city. “This is also fueling the problem of insecurity – people continue to live in fear,” he said.