Over the last 2 years Kenya has been one of the few countries successful in its military engagement with Al-Shabaab – expelling the Al-Qaeda affiliate from Kismayo, Somalia’s third largest city. However, the Kenyan government has also been tolerating the presence of a young Somali-Kenyan radical cleric by the name of Hassan Mahad Omar AKA Hassaan Hussein Adam “Abu Salman” who is considered the unofficial mufti (a religious scholar who interprets the sharia) of Al-Shabaab.
“Sheikh Hassaan,” as he is popularly known, is not your typical cleric who teaches basic religious doctrine. He is well-educated and has a degree from an Islamic university in Saudi Arabia. He is 34 years old, articulate, sharp, and a man with a mission. He is, for all practical purposes, a scholar who does not shy away from urging his followers to wage jihad. On July 28, 2011, the United Nations Security Council Committee put Sheikh Hassaan on its sanctions list for “engaging in acts that threaten the peace, security or stability of Somalia.” Moreover, the committee accused the young cleric of acts ranging from recruitment for Al-Shabaab and fund-raising for the group, to issuing fatwas that call for attacks on the Somali government. Sheikh Hassaan does not carry arms himself, but instead provides the religious justification for Al-Shabaab’s heinous crimes. He is highly celebrated on websites sympathetic to the militant group.
Sheikh Hassaan has drawn the ire of Somalia’s religious establishment. In July 2012, a group of 22 Somali scholars met in Nairobi and issued a fatwa of their own, condemning the young radical as a heretic and calling on Somalis to boycott his books and lectures.
The recent bloody discord in Al-Shabaab’s leadership saw two founders of the group killed by loyalists of its emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane. Others, like Hassan Dahir Aweys and Mukhtar Robow, fled for their lives. Such actions were justified by a fatwa of Sheikh Hassaan, who said that those who create conflict among the mujahidin in Somalia should be killed. Al-Shabaab officials still use that fatwa as the religious justification for liquidating their detractors in the movement.
In 2011, the Kenyan government arrested and held Sheikh Hassaan for a few days but then released him without explanation. It is not clear why the young cleric, whose lectures are widely distributed among Somali jihadists across the globe, was let go. Some say that he is being protected by highly influential Kenyan-Somali politicians who, like Sheikh Hassaan, belong to the Darod-Ogaden clan. Others argue that the young cleric is so popular among Somali jihadists that his arrest might create more problems for the already over-stretched and poorly run Kenyan security forces.
One thing is clear: The young cleric is mostly engaged in inciting violence and preaching jihadi ideology among his admirers who in turn direct it against the Somali government.
The Kenyan government has yet to understand that Al-Shabaab’s terrorist attacks in both Somalia and Kenya, like the recent killings in the Westgate Mall of Nairobi, are not born out of a vacuum. They are based, directly or indirectly, on fatwas issued by the group’s de facto mufti, Shaikh Hassan, from the comfort of his home in Nairobi.
Hassan M. Abukar is a freelance writer and political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com.