Police have linked the increase in terrorist attacks at the Coast to a group of youths who are reported to have returned from Somalia where they were recruited by Al-Shabaab militants to fight the Transitional Federal Government.
“The way attacks are being conducted makes us suspect locals are involved, and some of them might be those who returned from Somalia some time late last year and early this year,” said a police officer privy to the investigations.
The police revelations come exactly one week after a grenade attack at a bar in Mishomoroni that killed four people. (READ: One dead in terror attack at a Mombasa nightclub)
A day before the attack, the US embassy had ordered the immediate evacuation of all its staff in Mombasa, claiming that a major attack was about to happen.
However, police maintain that the attack at the bar was not related to the US warning and have instead pointed an accusing finger at illegal groups operating in the region.
A suspect in the Mishomoroni attacks, Athman Salim, comes from Kaloleni, Kilifi County, an area that has been identified by security forces as one of the Al-Shabaab recruitment hotspots.
In a span of two months, the Coast region has been attacked five times, leaving six people dead and several others maimed.
The attacks have greatly contributed to a growing perception of a region under siege from terror groups.
Sources at the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit said that hundreds of Kenyan youth, mainly from the Coast, flocked to Somalia to shore up the militant group when the tide started turning against it two years ago.
Last year, the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya’s treasurer, Sheikh Hassan Omar, said at least three mosques had been identified as recruiting spots for various militia groups in Somalia.
Early last year, two men were arrested at Maganyakulo village, Diani, South Coast over allegations of recruiting and training Kenyan youth for militant duties outside the country.
The Sunday Nation has learnt the youth were lured with religious dogma and money, which was paid out in two instalments of Sh40,000 while still in Kenya and another Sh40,000 on arrival in Somalia.
But as the Al-Shabaab disintegrates, its fighters are now fleeing to safer havens. Foreign fighters are said to be fleeing towards Yemen and Oman while local fighters are coming back home.
And it seems the returnees are coming back with even more lethal weapons. Sources within security circles say that the Mishomoroni attackers used launchers to propel the three grenades into the club.
But Muslim cleric, Sheikh Juma Ngao, said that some clerics are still recruiting and training youth to help fight TFG forces. He complained that the police were not taking the information seriously.
“Some clerics have condemned me for revealing their illegal practices,” he said.
He said that the latest round of recruitment drive is being conducted in Likoni where he and another sheikh have been threatened for passing information to the police.
Late last year, a popular cleric in Kilifi, Sheikh Aboud Rogo, was charged with illegal possession of firearms.
Sheikh Rogo last year insinuated in one of his sermons that Al-Shabaab had requested support from their Kenyan “brothers”.
The Coast is slowly emerging as a hotbed of terrorist activity in the country. The large presence of foreigners and Western businesses have made the region a choice target for Islamic extremists.
However, the Mishomoroni attack has given the police reason enough to believe there might also be other criminal elements at work.
The pointer, according to Coast police boss Aggrey Adoli, is the fact that the attack was not directed at a popular place frequented by tourists but an inconspicuous local bar.
Mr Adoli pointed an accusing finger at the mushrooming of criminal gangs in the region.
Although it has vehemently denied engaging in criminal activities, the outlawed Mombasa Republic Council, which is fighting for the cessation of Coast Province, has slowly been adopting militant means to achieve its goal.
The group has been accused of being behind several ambushes on security forces since the beginning of the year in which several police guns and rounds of ammunition disappeared. The group has denied the allegations.
Veteran journalist Njuguna Mutonya, a resident of the Coast, says business rivalry could also be behind the recent spate of grenade attacks.
“I think some people are taking advantage of the prevailing fear of terror attacks to settle business scores.”
But that is not to say there are no international terrorists in the area. The Mishomoroni attack had initially been linked to Ms Samantha Lewthwaite, a British national who is believed to be financing Al-Qaeda’s cell in East Africa.
Besides Ms Lewthwaite, Fazul Mohammed, Al-Qaeda’s leader in East Africa, operated freely from the Coast region until he was killed in Somalia last year. Police have since said Ms Lewthwaite was not involved in the Mishomoroni attack.
The large Muslim population at the Coast has helped Islamic fundamentalists blend in quite simply, and it is much easier for them to find sanctuary, sympathy and support, be it financial, political or religious, in the region more than anywhere else.
“It is very easy for anyone, even foreigners, to pass himself off as a local. You cannot tell the difference between a tourist who has come to enjoy himself and a terrorist planning to do harm,” said Mr Mutonya.
Some security experts have also blamed the radicalisation of Islam at the Coast for the surge in terror activities. Most Muslims at the Coast practise a moderate form of Sunni Islam which, some say, has become virulent lately.
But the executive director of Muslims for Human Rights, Mr Hussein Khalid, said that the radical element is not a new thing but government failure to curb it is the problem.
“These people have been preaching jihadism for as long as I can remember. But their message has found root because there has been absolutely no response to it by the government,” he said.
But Mr Mutonya is of the opinion that the radicalisation has somewhat softened.
“There was a time when it was really bad, especially when Fazul was around. But I think there is more religious tolerance here now, perhaps better than anywhere in the country.” He credits interfaith groups at the Coast for bringing about the change.
Further, the Coast has a long coastline, which until recently was poorly secured. It provided entry routes for criminal elements from lawless Somalia and beyond.
However, the deployment of the Kenya Navy, the Administration Police marine wing and the presence of the US Navy at Manda Island has deterred criminal elements from accessing Kenyan shores.
But the danger is far from being neutralised. Early last week, two Iranian nationals were arrested in Nairobi with 15 kilos of a substance believed to be bomb-making material.
They later led police to the recovery of more of the substance in Mombasa. To reduce the rising insecurity in the region, Mr Adoli advocates community policing.
“Police cannot be everywhere all the time, but we are planning to work closely with members of the public to reduce attacks in the region,” he said.
Kenya has complained that last week’s US travel advisory was tantamount to economic sabotage given the negative global implications of the caution to the tourism sector, which is the country’s second-highest foreign exchange earner.