Feeding grievances: The killing of Makaburi

The recent assassination of an imam in Mombasa fans the flames of existing grievances among Kenya’s Muslims.

Abubakar Shariff was assassinated on April 1, 2013 [AP]

We are sitting in a car, being driven towards a ferry that will take us from the stunning beaches and warm waters of Mombasa, to the dense forests of Likoni. Our driver, Abubakar Shariff, also known as Makaburi, shifts between preaching to my non-Muslim colleague about the certainties of Islam in an Ahmed Deedat style, to bemoaning the state of the Ummah and the attacks against Muslims worldwide.

Friends in Nairobi suggested Sharif as the best person to help negotiate the Muslim populated areas of Mombasa, for our investigations into US and UK complicity in rendition throughout the region in March 2007.

As a host, Shariff was warm and kind, making sure to take care of our every need as we explored a Mombasa that was on edge after mass demonstrations had taken place over the arrest of a four-year-old girl, Hafsah Swaleh Ali, by the infamous Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit.  In a climate of fear and anxiety that hung over these Muslim populated areas, having a guide like Shariff proved invaluable to the “mzungu” (white) people who had arrived to interview them about the detention and rendition of their loved ones.

Al Jazeera Correspondent – Not Yet Kenyan

We had arrived in Mombasa on a Friday, and so Abubakar Shariff requested that we split for the Friday prayer. My colleague spent time with a family of one of the detainees, while I joined the other Muslims for Friday prayers.  

It was clear that the mosque was no ordinary one. The khateeb delivered his sermon in Arabic, speaking specifically about the calamities that had befallen the Kenyan Muslims, but in particular the little girl Hafsah. What was striking about the sermon, however, was the way in which he seamlessly connected the grievances he felt at home, to those abroad.

In this small village mosque in Mombasa, I heard referenced the War on Terror, Guantanamo Bay, abuse, torture and the names of many of those who had been taken into the CIA’s programme of secret and unlawful detention. It was obvious that trauma outside of these village communities, had been appropriated in order to situate their own grievance.

In 2007, Shariff’s opinions on a range of matters were generally conservative and quite strong in some cases. We still remember with some humour a long discussion we had about polygyny versus adultery resulting in some raised voices, though with a modicum of respect. Seven years on, the persona of Makaburi seemed to have been elevated from community activist to public ideologue. He had been particularly scathing of the Kenyan government’s approach to Muslims, but more so, had taken positions that were considered to be bordering on incitement.

Speaking with colleagues and friends in Kenya, one of the main points of emphasis has been on the fact that Shariff posed no immediate threat to anyone, neither was he operationally involved with any groups. According to other sources, groups such as al-Shabbab had specifically distanced themselves from any comments he publicly made.

Fanning the flames

The April 2014 killing of Makaburi followed the killing of other high profile figures including that of Aboud Drogo and Ibrahim Ismail. The series of killings seem to indicate that there is a programme of extrajudicial assassinations taking place against targets within Muslim communities in Kenya, one which betrays a more deadly counterterrorism strategy.

These killings do not exist in a vacuum. The assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki by the US government in Yemen initiated a general policy that even where an individual does not present a current or imminent threat to national/international security, they can be assassinated for their thoughts and opinions.

Ultimately, in this globalised world of knowledge, Shariff was aware himself of the way that counterterrorism policy is being carried out, and so was aware that his strong opinions might result in his death. In an interview with Reuters, he remarked, “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.”

The Kenyan authorities have presented themselves as being somewhat disingenuous in their denial of Shariff’s assassination. It would seem that very few would have as much to “benefit” from his killing as they. In reality, his death means very little in terms of bringing about peace and stability to this region.

Seven years ago the preoccupation of the Mombasa Muslims was very much on how domestic and foreign policy alienated them as Muslims and seemed to target them specifically. The killing of Makaburi has done nothing to change that perception; rather, it only serves to feed the grievances that have fuelled this conflict from the very beginning.

Asim Qureshi has a legal background specialising in International and Islamic Law. He is currently employed as the Research Director at Cageprisoners where he has led investigations around the world.