Unidentified gunmen shot dead Muslim cleric Sheikh Idris Mohammed in Kenya, an assassination that President Uhuru Kenyatta said dealt a setback in the fight against “religious extremism” in the country.
The preacher was killed near a mosque in the Likoni suburb of the port city of Mombasa at about 5 a.m. today, the local county police commander, Robert Kitur, said by mobile phone.
Authorities are hunting for suspects they believe wanted to stop Mohammed from being re-instated as head of the Sakina mosque in Mombasa after he was ousted from the post by young “extremists,” Kitur said, calling it an “isolated incident.”
Muslim youth stormed the Sakina mosque in November and chased off Mohammed, who was also chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, for having what they describe as political links, the Nairobi-based Standard newspaper reported.
“Sheikh Idris was at the forefront in the fight against the radicalization of youth and therefore his death is a big blow to the country’s efforts to stop religious extremism,” Kenyatta said in an e-mailed statement today. Those behind the attack will be found and face justice, Kenyatta said.
The U.S. and U.K. government condemned the killing and called for calm. Authorities must fulfill their promise to fully investigate the death, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec said in an e-mailed statement.
Mohammed’s death is the latest in a series of killings of Muslim preachers at the Kenyan coast. In April, gunmen murdered Sheikh Abubaker Shariff, known as Makaburi, who was on an United Nations list of individuals subject to travel bans, asset freezes and targeted embargoes for recruiting young Kenyans for violent activity in neighboring Somalia.
At least four people died after riots broke out in October when Muslim preacher and recruiter for al-Qaeda-linked Somalia militia al-Shabaab, Sheikh Ibrahim Amor, was assassinated near Mombasa. A year earlier, Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed was murdered in similar circumstances, sparking days of riots. Rogo faced sanctions by the U.S. and UN for fundraising and recruiting for al-Shabaab.
Groups including Mombasa-based Muslims for Human Rights have accused Kenyan authorities of carrying out extrajudicial killings and other rights violations on the coast.
Kenya has faced increasing attacks by Islamic militants since sending its troops into Somalia in October 2011 to fight al-Shabaab insurgents who are trying to overthrow the government there and impose a strict version of Shariah, or Islamic law.
Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the Sept. 21 attack on the Westgate mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in which at least 67 civilians and members of security forces died.
Muslim youths in Kenya often feel politically marginalized and perceived as “terrorists,” while many of them live in poverty, all factors driving them to join “extremist groups,” Anneli Botha, a researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said in a report last year.
“Joining extremist groups for such youths is, therefore, a virtually accepted or expected option,” according to the report. “They are already viewed as terrorists, whether they are or not, so in their mind it makes no difference if they actually become terrorists.”