On a hot afternoon sometimes in 2007, an executive meeting at one of Nairobi’s oldest mosques, Masjid Pumwani Riyadha, was violently cut short by hundreds of youth who threw out five executive officials, accusing them of corruption and mismanagement of the mosque’s development programmes.
The leader of those rowdy youths was a slightly built man by the name Sheikh Ahmed Iman Ali, and terror organisation Al-Shabaab took note of his religious fundamentalism and appointed him the de facto leader of its Kenyan cell.
That appointment, however, was not published to the world and only became apparent recently when Ahmed called for a jihad against Kenya over the country’s incursion into Somalia.
So how did a relatively quiet boy who grew up under the watchful eyes of Imams end up in the rank and file of a global terror network?
How could a man who was accorded the best education opportunities his parents could afford (he studied at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology) turn so radically?
It is not clear when he graduated from JKUAT. His associates, however, cite 1997 or 1998 as the probable years. The university declined to divulge any information about him, saying it was under instructions not to deal with the press.
“This is a matter of national security,” an official told us. “We have orders from the anti-terrorism police unit not to share out any information about him.”
After university, Sheikh Iman worked for Shell and Mobil as an engineer, but it was his exemplary performance as a community mobiliser that attracted the attention of many in Pumwani.
“All of a sudden, he was offering bursaries, waiving and subsidising fees for the sick at our clinic and taking responsibility for burying the dead,” Amina Hussein, whose son followed Sheikh Iman to Somalia, said.
The man had, in the blink of an eye, access to big money, but his followers say he never cared much about money.
He lived in a rented flat in Pumwani’s Highrise section with his wife and two children, and in the modest sitting room lay large pillows arranged against the walls in place of couches.
Whenever he had the time, he would join the local youth for a football match at a nearby dusty pitch. “He was a decidedly unimpressive striker,” recalls an official with Maratib Islamic Centre in Pumwani.
Such was his down-to-earth mien that he begged for lunch three days after he received Sh70,000 from a friend in Europe.
Instead of using the money for his upkeep, the official recalls, Sheikh Iman made a long list of those who wanted financial assistance and distributed the money to them.
A man (name withheld at his request) who was at Masjid Riyadha when Sheikh Iman overthrew the mosque’s committee says he had never seen such a violent ouster.
“We are here to build, not to destroy,” the man recalls an eloquent Sheikh Iman telling hundreds of worshippers outside the mosque after the incident.
At first glance, it seemed implausible that this athletic young preacher in those flimsily framed glasses popular with intellectuals could stage such a coup against the mosque’s respected old guard.
The mosque owns several properties in Gikomba Market, including a number of the storage facilities where market people keep their wares.
And it was the properties that ignited the violent ouster because, according to Sheikh Iman, a few corrupt officials within the management committee were pocketing the proceeds.
“Kicking out the corrupt officials was an unthinkable act,” Ustadh Muriuki Aizudin told DN2 shortly after leading prayers a week ago at Masjid Sunna Centre, popularly known as Masjid Chelsea after a nearby popular eatery. “During their tenure, they said the property raised Sh350,000 monthly in revenue, but the new team records figures of over Sh1.2 million monthly.”
‘The Revolution’, as the 2007 ouster is referred to in Pumwani, also gave rise to Sheikh Iman, who from that day assumed the title Amir, Arabic for commander.
On January 10 this year, the radical Pumwani Islamist Muslim Youth Centre (MYC) reported its blog www.mycnjiawaukweli.blogspot.com that Al-Shabaab had raised Sheikh Iman’s status to “Supreme Amir.”
They said that he was following in the footsteps of Fazul Mohammed, the former leader of Al-Qaeda’s operations in East Africa who also served as a senior leader in Al-Shabaab.
Sheikh Iman Ali founded the MYC in 2006, running under the slogan “preference for others”. Its constitution identified the group as one that provided the youth with religious counselling.
He worked towards ensuring that the community-based organisation had extensive funding, recruited and trained networks within Kenya and established connections with jihadist groups, claims a frequent worshipper at Masjid Sunna Centre.
Responding to our questions at the Chelsea eatery, some MYC members said they used to have a small office in Pumwani which was closed when Sheikh Iman went to Somalia and after frequent visits by police.
“We meet in small groups in local hotels and operate using laptops or from cybercafés, where we communicate to each other and organise our social welfare activities,” Ibn Ahmed, a member, said.
However, a UN Monitoring Group report says “in practice, members of the group openly engage in recruiting for Al-Shabaab in Kenya”, and Ahmed Iman’s success in recruiting fighters and mobilising funds for the cause appear to have earned him steady ascendancy within Al-Shabaab, the report says.
“What the UN is saying is not a claim, but a fact,” a member of the MYC said last week. Their twitter account, MYC_Press, offered an even more interesting detail. It reported: “The UN views MYC as a new alarming trend in East Africa inspired and mentored by Al-Shabaab. We also represent the next generation of terrorist threats too. True!”
One of Sheikh Iman’s friends, who thought of travelling to Somalia but was deterred when the Kenya-Somalia border was closed and soldiers deployed to prevent cross-border movement last year, agrees.
“It’s true that hundreds of youth from this area joined the Al-Shabaab. But I never heard him ask them to join (the terror group). He never recruited. He only preached, and through his moving summons, a lot of them chose to go and fight for Al-Shabaab.” Nevertheless, the man says that, although Sheikh Iman “did not recruit”, he facilitated their safe passage into Somalia and communication back home.
“It was a very secretive process. Not many people knew about it. After you agreed to join, you travelled in a group of between two and three by road to the border and then crossed into Somalia. Two weeks later, they would relay a message to Pumwani that the journey was successful.
“Amir is leading us. We call him Mujahideen. He is fighting in the way of Allah. Those killed will go straight to heaven and get rewarded with virgins,” he concluded before ushering us out of his office, located at a mosque in the Pumwani neighbourhood. It is not clear when Sheikh Ahmed was born, but many put the year at either 1973 or 1974.
His parents, a Meru man and his Kamba wife who lived near Nairobi’s California housing estate, brought him up the Muslim way, with the lad attending madrassa as is the norm in the community.
But, somehow, and despite all the preaching and mentoring he went through, the chap still managed to grow into a security headache for the republic.
His ability to attract financial support and followers from the US and Europe has baffled many. Among the terror suspects he is alleged to have recruited are Britons Natalia Faye Webb and Jermaine Grant, who were arrested in Kenya over claims of links to terrorism.
One of Sheikh Iman’s responsibilities was to oversee the construction of Pumwani Riyadha Mosque as the secretary to the planning committee.
Months after he left for Somalia, a storm ensued at the mosque over allegations that the committee had been channelling funds to terror cells.
Tourism Minister Najib Balala and Nominated MP Amina Abdallah were some of those who donated funds for construction of the mosque, and they had to come forward and explain that theirs were bona fide donations, and that there was no way they would have known that the monies would be diverted to other uses.
When the claims surfaced, the committee’s vice chairman Ali Abdulmajid and treasurer Iddi Abdallah denied links with Al-Shabaab and threatened to sue their bank, which they accused of breaching client confidentiality by exposing banking details to a third party.
The UN report says Sheikh Iman channelled funds from the mosque and MYC to Al-Shabaab. But mosque officials insist that Sheikh Iman stuck to the policies and decisions of the committee, which did not authorise funding Al-Shabaab.