Kenya deports radical Muslim cleric

NAIROBI, Kenya — A radical Muslim cleric jailed in Britain for inciting racial hatred and soliciting murder was deported by Kenya Thursday.

The action is part of the Kenyan government's effort to prevent Al Qaeda or other extremist Muslim groups from operating in this country.

Kenya’s Anti-Terrorist Police Unit arrested Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal as he left evening prayers at a mosque close to Mombasa last Thursday. He was held by authorities and was been in legal limbo as Kenya has sought to act on its own deportation order.

“He is persona non grata here in Kenya,” said government spokesman Alfred Mutua.

Because there are no direct flights to al-Faisal’s home country of Jamaica he would have to transit through a European country, but none were willing to have him, even in transit.

The solution was found when Gambia agreed to have al-Faisal in transit enroute to Jamaica. On Thursday al-Faisal left Jomo Kenyatta International Airport outside Nairobi on a flight to Gambia.

Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal, Feb. 24, 2003.
(Ian Waldie/Reuters)

Al-Faisal entered Kenya overland from Tanzania on Dec. 24 to continue a lecture tour that had already taken him to Nigeria, Angola, Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania.

His firebrand speeches inciting violence against non-believers had already gotten him locked up and then deported from Britain, his adopted home. In 2003 al-Faisal was jailed by British authorities for seven years after being convicted of inciting his followers to kill Christians, Hindus, Jews and Westerners and for encouraging them to use chemical weapons against their enemies.

One of the suicide bombers who detonated devices in London in July 2007 had attended the south London mosque where al-Faisal was imam, as had Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" who botched an attempt to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight.

Al-Faisal was released early from jail in 2007 and subsequently deported to his home country of Jamaica. The 45-year old father of four was born Trevor William Forest in St James, Jamaica. He was nicknamed "Dictionary" because of his learned vocabulary.

His parents were Salvation Army officers and he was raised as a Christian, but when he was 16 he went to Saudi Arabia where is believed to have spent eight years and became a Muslim. He took a degree in Islamic studies in Riyadh before moving to Britain in the early 1980s.

Al-Faisal's arrest in Kenya has been seen by some Islamic leaders as another example of anti-Muslim discrimination in the name of fighting terrorism. Immigration minister Gerald Kajwang denied targeting Muslims saying this was “not a religious matter” and referring to al-Faisal’s “history of criminality” and alleged terrorist links.

“We are not deporting him because he is a Muslim. We are deporting him because of his terrorist history and the fact that he is on the international watch-list,” Kajwang told the Daily Nation newspaper.

Al-Amin Kimathi, executive coordinator of Kenya’s Muslim Human Rights Forum condemned the arrest, detention and deportation of al-Faisal.

“The whole process infringes his human rights. There are charges that he has links to terrorism but no evidence. There is no proven crime committed in Kenya,” he said.

Kimathi drew parallels with documented cases of "rendition" in early 2007.

In December 2006 the U.S. backed an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in order to oust a home-grown Islamist regime that had taken charge there. Immediately after the invasion at least 90 individuals were transported from Kenya to Ethiopian authorities in Somalia, according to reports by Human Rights Watch and Kimathi’s own organization. All were accused of having terrorist links.

“Al-Faisal’s arrest is part of the Kenyan government’s paranoia and its desire to please the U.S. and Britain,” said Kimathi. America and Britain are Kenya’s two biggest foreign donors. “The government of Kenya is very over-zealous in carrying out the wishes of America,” he charged.

On-message actions such as swiftly deporting those seen as undesirable by Washington or allowing the U.S. to base special forces in Kenya (for example, at Manda Bay close to the resort island of Lamu) helps curry favor and, Kenya’s government may calculate, could help dampen America’s outspoken criticism of the Kenyan government’s own problems with corruption, human rights and rule of law.

The threat of Muslim extremism in Kenya is nevertheless very real. Two hundred and twenty five people were killed and hundreds more injured in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and neighboring Tanzania by Al Qaeda.

In November 2002 a suicide bombing destroyed part of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa killing 13 people. At the same time there was a failed attempt to shoot down a Tel Aviv-bound plane with surface-to-air missiles.

The man allegedly behind the Mombasa attacks and linked to the embassy bombings, 30-year old Kenyan citizen Saleh Ali Saleh Naban, was assassinated in September by U.S. Special Forces during a helicopter raid into southern Somalia.

The threat is not over. Last month Kenyan police, backed by the paramilitary General Service Unit, made a rare appearance in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, nicknamed Little Mogadishu. They rounded up 300 Somalis acting on intelligence reports that Islamist fighters from Somalia were taking refuge in the enclave.

It is thought some of those arrested were fleeing members of the Hisbul Islam opposition group that has lost a number of recent battles in southern Somalia against its on/off Islamist ally Al Shabaab, believed to have links to Al Qaeda.

For the most part Kenyan security is invisible in Eastleigh which, with its radical madrasas and mosques, its thriving business community and growing refugee population, is becoming a fertile recruiting ground for Al Shabaab as well as a valuable source of funding.

Analysts say that were a group such as Al Shabaab to carry out a terrorist attack in Kenya it would backfire.

“Al Shabaab recognises Kenya as strategic,” explained Rashid Abdi, Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. “There are funds here and they recruit here, recruits from London, Denmark, the U.S. pass through here, so Nairobi is a rear base for them.”

Abdi said that an attack would result in a backlash that might shut down all of the existing networks.

In the meantime al-Faisal’s fate remains uncertain with Kenya’s twitchy government keen to have him off its hands but no country seemingly willing to help out.

Editor's note: This piece was updated to show that al-Faisal was deported from Kenya on Thursday, January 7.