Kenyan Government Struggles to Fight Mombasa Terrorism

06/25/2015 04:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

This week the Kenyan government is hosting a summit on countering violent extremism in Nairobi, a regional conference that follows up on a February White House Summit. In a coastal city of Mombasa, people have experienced violent extremism firsthand with a series of attacks on churches.

The attacks of the past few years have left Mombasa in a tense calm. The city's Christian community dreads future assaults, while Muslim leaders fear a continuing backlash from the authorities, who they say are quick to pin collective blame on the entire Muslim community for the violence.

In January a pastor was shot dead in the Majengo area of the city during a church service, and the city's main Christian centers have increased security. At Mombasa's Anglican cathedral all bags are searched and scanned, while at the Catholic Holy Ghost Cathedral churchgoers must check their bags at the entrance to the compound. As the security guard explains, "No bags, no exceptions."

An Anglican pastor based in a suburb told me he had a security consultant advise him on the best church entrances and exits for his parishioners, and that the congregation keeps an eye out for strangers. "We have armed police around the church for every service, and all day on Sundays," he said.

Kenya's terrorism threat is real - since 2012 at least 600 people have been killed by Somali-based al-Shabab and other groups. But the security force's response has too often been unprofessional, says an experienced Mombasa photojournalist. "There are cases of the police targeting and shooting the wrong person through mistaken identity, and reports of suspects being able to bribe their way out of custody," he said.

Muslim leaders complain of widespread harassment, and that the police are too ready to link the whole community to al-Shabab. "Every time people see one of these massacres - no sane person celebrates that," said Khelef Khalifa, Chair of the Mombasa-based NGO Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri). "But the government can't succeed in fighting terrorists if it alienates Muslims."

He says the police harass Muslims, that they are are "90 percent more likely" to arrest Muslim men, who they then target for bribes. "The last two years have been hell for the Muslim community," said Khalifa. Within days of April's terrorist massacre of 148 people at Garissa University, about 350 miles north of Mombasa, the government included Muhuri and another Mombasa-based NGO, Haki Africa, on a list of 85 entities suspected of links to al Shabab and froze their banks accounts. Both groups have been openly critical of the Kenyan security forces, and both have strong international reputations as reliable and prestigious NGOs.

While a court last week lifted the groups' designations as "suspected to be associated with" al Shabab, the bank accounts remain frozen.

Muhuri says it was not invited to this week's conference in Nairobi, which organizers say will include over 300 participating NGOs. U.S. Undersecretary Secretary of State Sarah Sewall, who is leading the U.S. delegation to the conference, rightly addressed the omission in her opening remarks, saying "The United States is disappointed that some of the Kenyan civil society groups so central to the discussion about security and terrorism such as Muhuri and Haki Africa, which President Obama welcomed at the February White House summit - are not able to participate in our discussion today. Governments are stronger in their fight against extremism when they make all citizens feel included, protected and respected."

Muhuri Executive Director Hassan Abdi Abille said "This government will never win the war on terrorism because of a lack of public participation. If the elite like us isn't allowed to participate how will the common people?"