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Tensions Run High After High-Profile Islamist Is Gunned Down in Kenya

As Kenya cracks down on Islamic militancy after recent bomb attacks, the controversial cleric Makaburi was shot dead in Mombasa.

by Olivia Becker
Apr 3 2014, 4:00pm

Photo via Reuters

The prominent Islamic Kenyan cleric Abubakar Shariff Ahmed was shot dead in Mombasa late Tuesday by “unknown assailants,” according to Kenyan police.

Ahmed, who was better known as Makaburi, was a high-profile figure, wanted by both the US and the United Nations for his alleged ties to Somali-based militants Al-Shabaab and his role in the Kenyan Islamist group Al-Hijra. In October 2013 he told Reuters that he was expecting to be killed.

The UN described Makaburi as a "leading facilitator and recruiter of young Kenyan Muslims for violent militant activity in Somalia," and he had been placed on both US and UN sanctions lists as a result. Makaburi vehemently denied any charges against him.

'I know I will be killed. I'm ready to die for it. If they want to or if they don't, they will give me martyrdom.'

Makaburi’s killing comes at the same time as a renewed crackdown by the Kenyan government on Islamic militancy — in particular Al-Shabaab — throughout the country. Kenyan forces arrested over 650 people after deadly bomb blasts in Nairobi on Monday. The inspector general of police said that of the hundreds arrested, 200 were questioned for alleged links to terrorist groups.

Three explosions took place on Monday evening in Eastleigh, a Nairobi neighborhood also known as “little Mogadishu” because of its large Somali population. The rush-hour attacks targeted a clinic and two small restaurants, and six people were killed.

Makaburi was a highly controversial figure for his unabashed support for jihad. Photo via Reuters.

Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said in a statement: "This act of cowardice perpetrated against innocent and peace-loving Kenyans who were going about their normal activities is barbaric. So far 657 suspects have been apprehended."

Gunmen opened fire in a church in Mombasa on March 23rd, killing another six people and wounding 20.

As part of their security sweep, the Kenyan government ordered all refugees living in urban areas — most of them Somali — back to their designated refugee camps on March 25th. This move was an attempt to crack down on militants who the government claim are using the refugee camps as bases to carry out strikes inside Kenya.

Makaburi was one of the most controversial figures in Kenya for his unabashed support of jihad, and vocal criticism of the Kenyan and international troop presence in neighboring Somalia. Makaburi had previously said that the Westgate Mall attacks carried out by Al-Shabaab last year were “100 percent justified” as retaliation for Kenyan intervention in Somalia.

Makaburi was aware of his wanted status and last October told Reuters: "I know I will be killed. I'm ready to die for it. If they want to or if they don't, they will give me martyrdom."

VICE News spoke with Makaburi in September 2013 for a forthcoming documentary on jihad in Kenya. “America believes in taking up arms, the West believes in taking up arms. People’s lives are being taken innocently, extrajudicial killings [happen] all over the world,” Makaburi told VICE News. “Are they just supposed to sit, let their lands be invaded, their women being raped and killed, their children being bombed?”

Al-Shabaab is confiscating phones that come equipped with a "spy" camera. Read more here.

Although he maintained his right to use violence through religion and as a means of defense, he denied that any of this constituted terrorism.

When VICE News asked if the Westgate attack could be considered terrorism, Makaburi responded: “It isn’t, because in the Islamic Sharia we have revenge. The Kenyan army is doing the same thing to people in Somalia. They are killing innocent civilians in Somalia. And the Somalis, like I said, have every right to defend themselves. And the Koran says an eye for an eye.”

In an interview with the BBC, Makaburi said: "There's no such thing as a moderate Muslim. The prophets did not teach us moderation in Islam — Islam is Islam.”

Reuters reported that dozens of his supporters gathered close to the scene of his death and demanded that police turn over his body. Officers fired in the air to disperse the crowd.

It remains unclear what immediate impact his death will have on stability in Mombasa, but things did not go well the last time a similar incident occurred. When Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a prominent Al-Shabaab leader and close ally of Makaburi, was killed two years ago, Kenyan Muslims rioted in Mombasa for the following two days. Angry Al Shabaab sympathizers destroyed buildings, torched cars, and killed at least one person in the ensuing unrest.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928