Portrait of an insurgent: Ngala Chome traces the life and times of al-Shabaab's leader in Kenya.

Author:Chome, Ngala


In January 2012, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, the Somali-based jihadist movement that controlled vast swathes of southern Somalia, released an online video in Kiswahili. Previously, al-Kataib, the movement's propaganda wing, had broadcast solely in English. Those broadcasts mostly targeted an international jihadi audience--the sort sometimes derisively referred to as jihadi tourists. The man behind al-Kataib s slick, fast-paced videos was himself from south London and had done much to give al-Shabaab its growing international profile.

In the January 2012 video, a light-skinned bearded man in his late 30s dressed in a flowing kanzu and wearing the rimless glasses once favoured by Trotsky, speaks fluent Kiswahili inflected with Arabic. He is clearly addressing a Kenyan audience. Articulating key Islamic concepts associated with the Salafist-Jihadist doctrine such as al-walawal-bara (loyalty to Islam and Muslims and disavowal of non-Muslims), he spoke of Kenya as dar-al-harb--the house of war. Its people, he said, were legitimate targets of violent attacks. Three months earlier, in October 2011, the Kenyan Defence Forces had invaded southern Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabaab. Officials had predicted that Operation Linda Nchi would be over in a matter of months.

The man in the video is Sheikh Ahmed Iman Ali, a Kenyan of mixed Meru and Kamba origin, two predominantly Christian ethnic communities. Iman had previously been leader of the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC) in Nairobi's Majengo neighbourhood, an old slum settlement historically dominated by Muslims. Commonly known as the Pumwani Muslim Youth (PM Y), the Muslim Youth Centre was officially registered in 2008. The MYC had immediately become the Kenyan affiliate of al-Shabaab and was now closely linked to Jaysh Ayman, a unit of jaysh Al-'Usr, al-Shabaab's military wing.

According to the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, the MYC and Jaysh Ayman are currently responsible for the deaths of hundreds of mostly upcountry Kenyans living in the Northeast and the Coast of Kenya.

Ahmed Iman Ali had distinguished himself as one of the most successful recruiters of Kenyan nationals into al-Shabaab. He was especially skilled at converting Christian-born youth from southern Kenya and immediately setting them on the path of "militant jihadism".

Iman's arrival marked a sea-change for al-Shabaab's recruitment strategy. Until then, the movement had recruited mostly among young Somalis resident in Somalia. The Western jihadis constituted an important faction, the numbers of which were bolstered by al-Shabaab's move in late 2011, to affiliate with al-Qaeda. However, Sheikh Iman Ali's elevation was itself tacit acknowledgement that Kenya, and in particular Christian-dominated...

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