Three Kenyan Christians were hacked to death by Al-Shabaab militants on Friday night (18 August) after they refused to recite the Islamic prayer of faith. A fourth Christian – the mentally challenged older brother of one of the three – was also killed.
At around 9pm, Changawa Muthemba, who was in his forties, was dragged out of his home in Kasala Kairu, Lamu County, by a group of armed men and taken to the nearby home of his brother-in-law, Joseph Kasena, 42, where a 17-year-old neighbour, Kadenge Katana, also happened to be at the time.
The three men were held at machete point and ordered to recite the Shahada. When none of them did, the attackers began to tie them up. When the men resisted, they were hacked to death. Then the attackers went to the home of Joseph’s older brother, Charo, who was in his late forties, and killed him.
“Earlier that day, some locals met with the Somali herdsmen, who threatened them. But his was not the reason for the attack; it only provided the opportunity for it. Al-Shabaab knew these men as Christians, and Joseph as a church elder.”
Joseph’s wife, Caroline, who is in her late thirties, watched everything happen and is “severely traumatised”, according to a local source. Their 17-year-old daughter, Zawadi, was out of town at the time.
“Joseph was an elder at a local church. He did communal farming, worked as a cook in a local hotel and also served as a night guard at the home of an expatriate family, who had to leave the area due to the deteriorating security situation. His wife runs a small kiosk,” said the source.
The source said the family of the 17-year-old boy, who was part of a local Catholic church, are “devastated” at his murder.
According to the source, Al-Shabaab militants and their sympathisers are “deeply embedded” in the local communities of wider Lamu and Tana, which are in coastal Kenya, near the border with Somalia where Al-Shabaab originated.
“They move around freely and often are at odds with the Kenyan farmers, deliberately sending their animals to feed on their crops,” the source said. “Locals complain that the police are not doing anything about the situation and even show preferential treatment to the herders. Earlier that day, some locals met with the Somali herdsmen, who threatened them. But this was not the reason for the attack; it only provided the opportunity for it. Al-Shabaab knew these men as Christians, and Joseph as a church elder.”
Last month, Al-Shabaab beheaded nine Kenyans – some of whom belonged to a local church – in the Pandaguo area of Lamu West. One witness, Johnson Kitsao, told the Washington Post the attackers were “specifically looking for non-Muslim men”.
Al-Shabaab had threatened to disrupt the Kenyan elections earlier this month, and had called on Muslims to vote against the Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta. However, the voting process “went smoothly”, according to CSW, “and Kenyatta’s party won all of the predominantly Somali counties, as well as the presidency”.
Al-Shabaab, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, has targeted Kenyan Christians for years, attacking churches, public places and buses. This has left behind a trail of pain and destruction, and has instilled fear among regions where Christians are the minority.
Last month, as mentioned above, Al-Shabaab militants surrounded Jima village and beheaded nine people, in an attack that targeted non-Muslim men only. Two days earlier, attackers had killed four people (including police), also in the Pandaguo area, in a similar pattern. This appeared to be a change of strategy for the group, which has used improvised explosive devices (IEDs), guns and grenades to attack Kenyan Christians.
In April 2015, Al-Shabaab gunmen armed with AK47s attacked the Garissa University College, killing 148 people – mainly Christian students. The previous year, in June 2014, twin attacks on Mpeketoni and the nearby village of Poroko left 52 people dead. The attackers singled out all who could not recite Muslim prayers and killed them in plain sight, before destroying their homes. The militants struck the Westgate Shopping mall in 2013 in an attack that left 68 people dead. They separated Muslims and killed Christians in one of the deadliest attacks in the city.
Reports suggest Al-Shabaab has set bases in Boni, a forest that straddles the Kenyan-Somali border. The group has been using the forest as a cover to attack villages on the Kenyan side, according to security sources.
The attackers are believed to be Kenyan youths trained by the group in Somalia, before returning to the country. Church officials say they were brainwashed, radicalised and recruited on the basis of promises of a better life and benefits for their family.
“We believe that some people have been paid by the militants to ensure a constant supply of young fighters,” said Fr Wilybard Lagho, vicar general of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mombasa. “At first, they used schools and madrassas, but that has since changed after the security and religious leaders became alert. They are now using social media to recruit. There is a lot of deception.”