There are a number of explanations about the genesis of jihadi ideas in Kenya.
One is that it could be linked to the emergence of the large and diverse Salafi community. The Salafi are also popularly known as the Wahhabi because of their association with the teachings of 18th century conservative Saudi scholar Muhammad Abd-al-Wahhab. The Salafists first appeared in Kenya in the 1980s under a community of believers known as Ansari Sunnah (the protectors of the tradition of Prophet Muhammad). This heralded the emergence of individuals with extreme religious views among Kenya’s Muslims, who make up 11.2% of the population of 51 million.
Another theory is laid at the door of increasing numbers of Muslims studying in the Middle East particularly Saudi Arabia, exposing them to the Wahhabi way of thinking – the Saudi form of Salafism. The third theory is that the insurgency in Somalia, spearheaded by al-Shabaab brought together Muslims from Somalia, Kenya and other nationalities in a conflict zone. This provided a greater opportunity for Kenyan jihadists to feel part of a global Islamic movement.
But my research traces the intellectual genesis and the ultimate growth of the jihadi ideology back to a prominent Muslim cleric—Sheikh Abdulaziz Rimo.
Rimo was born in 1949 at Diani in Kwale County on the Kenyan coastline. Early in his 20s, Rimo secured an eight-year scholarship to study at the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia in 1972. After completing his studies, he returned to Kenya to propagate the Islamic faith among the Digo Muslim community of Kenya’s south coast. This was an undertaking he frequently referred to as jihad – the religious duty of exerting oneself to realise a noble cause.
It’s my view that Rimo’s efforts ushered in a new way of addressing political issues among Kenyan Muslims. His biggest influence included framing the grievance of Muslims along religious lines. By doing so he promoted the idea that religion could be used to solve political problems.
Like other African students, the reformist imprint of the Medina University scholars left an indelible mark on Rimo. Certainly, the Medina phase was crucial for him in terms of initiating him into the Wahhabi-Salafi teachings. The period shaped him into a Salafi sheikh, which is evident in his sermons. In both words and action the Sheikh denounced Muslims who, in his interpretation, had deviated from the “true” faith.
As a result, he alienated many, particularly those Muslims who held more tolerant views of their religion.
Rimo didn’t confine himself to moral and spiritual issues. In his mosque sermons he also occasionally veered into political matters. And he joined the 1990 pro-reform campaigns, becoming a fiery critic of the leadership of Daniel Arap Moi who ruled Kenya between 1978 and 2002. This led to his imprisonment for six years.
Rimo retreated to a bonded community that came to be known as the Ansari Sunnah. Members of this community were urged to sever ties with institutions that represented the “infidel” state.
The justification for creating the community was to protect its members from the influence of the wider society which was perceived as “un-Islamic”. And it was used to propagate a “purist” brand of Islam among the wider community.
Rimo was clearly the intellectual predecessor to the subsequent group of jihadi clerics in Kenya. Although the Sheikh did not take up arms against the state, his approach contributed to future violent confrontation. With the appearance of al-Shabaab and other jihadi groups in Kenya, Rimo had already laid the ground that was favourable for advancing jihadi ideology.
For example, one of Rimo’s student, Sheikh Aboud Rogo, was unwavering in his vocal push to carve up an Islamic state in Kenya at any cost, including the use of violence if necessary.
Following in the footsteps of Rimo, and using Islam as their political ideology, subsequent jihadi clerics lost no opportunity to express abhorrence for their critics and those they considered infidels and apostates. Their provocative sermons and statements were directed against the state, Christians and anti-jihad Muslim clerics. All were accused of advancing anti-Islamic agenda for allegedly supporting government’s efforts in the war on violent extremism.
The sermons of the prominent jihadi clerics also focused on justifying violent jihadi activities in so-called Muslim areas they considered occupied’ by non-Muslims.
For example, Rogo declared support and validation for the attacks against Christians in various parts of the country. The sheikh depicted the attacks as justified retribution by the supposedly marginalised Kenyan Muslims. He preached intolerance and exclusion in his sermons. According to him, Christian churches had a hidden agenda to undermine Islam.
The jihadi initiative remains a loose political force in Kenya. This is dangerous for a few reasons.
Firstly, the country is experiencing religious radicalisation and ethnic popularisation at a time when some sections of Kenyan society are calling for secession.
Secondly, the dangers of people being attracted to radical solutions are multiplied when a country has a poor human rights record, weak political institutions and huge economic inequalities. All are present in Kenya.
And finally, increasing communications with the rest of the Muslim world implies the waves of “reform” championed by jihadi clerics will continue to be evident in Kenya. Rimo’s impact lives on long after his death, in 2015, at his Kwale birthplace.