Kenyan authorities in the coastal city of Mombasa arrested two individuals on March 17 as they drove a vehicle laden with explosives into the city. Authorities believed that the two men were part of a larger cell of 11 who were planning a campaign of terror that would have culminated in the deployment of a “massive” VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) against “shopping malls, beaches or tourist hotels” (Capital FM [Nairobi], March 17; Standard [Nairobi], March 17; March 20). A day later, Ugandan authorities announced they had heightened their security in response to a threat from al-Shabaab aimed at fuel plants in the country (Africa Report, March 19).
The VBIED was built into the car, with ball bearings and other shrapnel welded into its sides and a mobile phone detonator wired to the device (Standard [Nairobi], March 20). The men were also caught with an AK-47, 270 rounds of ammunition, six grenades and five detonators (Capital FM [Nairobi], March 18). The suspects, Abdiaziz Abdillahi Abdi and Isaak Noor Ibrahim, were both born in 1988, with Abdiaziz allegedly “a cattle trader and renowned navigator of old caravan trade routes based in Garissa town,” while Noor was described as “a long distance truck driver or conductor who often travelled to South Sudan through Uganda” (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). Their ethnicity was unclear with conflicting reports in the press, though the names suggest a Somali heritage, with Abdiaziz in particular being identified as a member of the Degodia, a sub-clan of the Hawiye of Somalia (Standard [Nairobi], March 23).
Later leaked reports indicated that another possible target was the Mombasa International Airport (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). On January 16, a bomb went off at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Initially dismissed as a light bulb blowing up, authorities later admitted an IED had caused the explosion in a bin in the airport and reported capturing a car with further explosives onboard after a shootout near the airport. One man was killed in the gunfire and four others were subsequently charged in connection to the plot. One of those charged, Ilyas Yusuf Warsame, was identified by his lawyers as being accredited as a third secretary at the Somali Embassy in Nairobi (AP, February 4).
Authorities claimed to have been tracking a larger cell of individuals targeting Mombasa for around a month prior to the arrests with international assistance. One senior intelligence officer told the Kenyan press that five of the group had gone to Nairobi and the rest to Mombasa. The group allegedly included “foreign fighters” described as members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by the Kenyan press (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). Official accounts around the plot were somewhat undermined by a report that Kenyan police had initially kept the VBIED parked outside their headquarters after seizing the vehicle without realizing it had a live device wired up within it (Daily Telegraph [London], March 19).
There is little independent corroboration of the international connection to the plot, though one name to appear repeatedly in the press was Fuad Abubakar Manswab, a Nairobi-born man connected by authorities to a number of plots in the past. Most notably, Manswab was arrested and charged alongside Briton Germaine Grant in Mombasa in December 2011. The two were accused of being involved in a bombing campaign in the city that was directed by Ikrima al-Muhajir, a Somalia-based al-Shabaab leader with close ties to al-Qaeda (for Ikrima, see Militant Leadership Monitor, November 2013). Manswab jumped bail in that case and a year later was almost killed in a shootout with Kenyan authorities in the Majengo neighborhood of Mombasa. Two others were killed in the confrontation with authorities and a cache of weapons uncovered, though Manswab managed to escape by jumping out a window with bullet wounds in his shoulder (Star [Nairobi], June 12, 2013). The group was alleged by prosecutors to have been plotting to free other al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab prisoners being held in Mombasa, as well as launching a series of assassinations of security officials and grenade attacks on bars (Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 30, 2012). Manswab was later reported to have joined al-Shabaab in Somalia (Star [Nairobi], June 12, 2013).
This targeting of Mombasa comes as a popular radical preacher was mysteriously gunned down in the street. Shaykh Abubakar Shariff Ahmed (a.k.a. Makaburi) was gunned down alongside another man as he left a courtroom within the Shimo la Tewa maximum security prison (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 1). Long reported by official and media sources to be close to al-Shabaab, Makaburi was on U.S. and UN sanctions lists for his connections via funding and support to terrorist networks in East Africa.  He had also been connected to the transit of over 100 British nationals to join al-Shabaab, including the elusive Samantha Lewthwaite and Germaine Grant (Daily Mail, April 2). Close to slain radical clerics Shaykh Aboud Rogo and Shaykh Ibrahim Ismael, Makaburi was the leader of the radical Masjid Shuhada (Martyrs Mosque), previously known as the Masjid Musa. Similar to events in the wake of the deaths of the other two clerics, rioting broke out in Mombasa, though local authorities repeatedly called for calm and the violence was markedly less than in the wake of the deaths of the other clerics (Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation, April 2).
Following Makaburi’s death, another controversial cleric known as Shaykh Amir (a.k.a. Mahboob) took control of the mosque and called for “total war against non-Muslims” to a packed house (The People [Nairobi], April 8). Sectarian violence was already visible in Mombasa prior to Makaburi’s death, when gunmen tied to the Masjid Shuhada by the Kenyan press were accused of opening fire on a mass in the Joy in Jesus church in the Likoni district, killing seven (Star [Nairobi], March 23). The attackers attempted to go on to target another local church, but dropped the necessary ammunition before they got there (Daily Nation [Nairobi], March 23). The attack on the church was believed to be a reaction to a police raid on the Masjid Musa in early February in which two youths from the mosque and a policeman were killed. Among the 129 people arrested in the raid, police claimed to have arrested an individual alleged to be close to the late al-Qaeda in East Africa leader, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. (Daily Nation [Nairobi] February 4).
At present, tensions remain high in the city and the government seemed to have responded to the recent spike in trouble with mass arrests and the threatened deportation of foreign nationals. A day prior to Makaburi’s shooting, some 657 people were arrested in sweeps in Eastleigh, a mostly Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, as part of the government’s response to grenade attacks on restaurants in the city that killed six (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 1). A week after Makaburi’s death, some 4,000 Somalis were reportedly being held in Nairobi’s Kasarani stadium as authorities sifted through who was a Kenyan and who was not (Standard, [Nairobi], April 8). Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku stated that 3,000 had been detained, with 82 deported to Mogadishu (AFP, April 10). On April 12-13, Mombasa police rounded up 60 foreign suspects as part of an ongoing operation (KTN TV [Nairobi], April 13).
This focus on foreigners, however, may be a distraction from the larger problem of radicalization in Kenya, epitomized by the goings on around the mosques in Mombasa where there is evidence of connections to Somalia through Somali youth attending the mosque and connections through preachers like Makaburi, but it is not as clear that it is a solely foreign problem. The connection between the mosque and the community around it in Mombasa and foreign elements (including a trio of Algerian, Belgian and French nationals deported to Belgium on charges of being part of a Belgian-based network sending people to fight in Syria and Somalia) and reports of possible plotting in Uganda all highlight how these problems in Mombasa could have an international dimension (AFP, March 23; Africa Report, March 19).
Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press).
1. https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1630.aspx; https://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10748.doc.htm.