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Kenya Faces Battle to Win Over Muslims

FILE - President Uhuru Kenyatta urged Kenyans "to not allow those who hide and abet the terrorists to compromise and even destroy the development that is fast growing in your area."

Days after Islamists killed 148 people at Garissa University College, Kenya's president held out an olive branch to Muslims and urged them to join Nairobi in the struggle against militant Islam by informing on sympathizers.

But as Uhuru Kenyatta launches a battle for Muslim hearts and minds, his security forces must first reckon with the deep mistrust among ethnic Somali Muslims in the country's northeast regions bordering Somalia.

Kenyatta also faces an uphill task in reforming the violent ways of troops on the ground. A day before the president spoke, a Reuters reporter saw a soldier in Garissa lashing at a crowd of Muslim women with a long stick.

"We live in fear," said Barey Bare, one of a dozen veiled Somali-Kenyan women targeted by the soldier. "The military are a threat and al-Shabab are a threat. We are in between."

Without the cooperation of local people like Bare, experts say, Kenya will struggle to glean vital, on-the-ground intelligence to stop crude but lethal assaults by Somalia's al-Shabab militants.

Winning favor with Muslim communities near Somalia has been made more urgent by al-Shabab's switch in tactics to target Kenya's frontier regions near the porous 700-kilometer border. Al-Shabab has killed more than 400 people in two years, including 67 during an assault on Nairobi's Westgate mall in 2013.

"Kenyans can't afford to build a wall with Somalia, so intelligence from local sources is the best approach," a Western diplomat said. "But people in villages won't inform if Kenyan soldiers steal or hit women."

Brutality by troops disputed

Kenyan Defense Forces spokesman David Obonyo denied the troops had a track record of brutality against Muslims, who make up about 10 percent of Kenya's 44 million people.

"I don't see why we would harm our own citizens in Kenya. We are there to protect them," he said.

Analysts and diplomats say Kenya's top brass are now aware that heavy-handed security tactics can cripple intelligence gathering.

Mass security sweeps also breed radicalization and help al-Shabab portray itself as the protector of Muslims in Kenya, Muslim groups say.

"In the upper echelons, especially in the intelligence department, there are constant warnings to police that these mass arrests are counterproductive," said Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa security analyst.

Though the group has lost swaths of territory and key sources of income in its native Somalia, it can still strike at soft targets in Kenya by using a handful of fighters with AK-47 rifles and grenades. Local knowledge also helps.

One of the four fighters who stormed the Garissa college was an ethnic Somali whose father was a Kenyan government official, intensifying fears about homegrown jihadis. Five other Kenyans have been arrested since.

"Radicalization has grown and become a national problem rather than a regional problem," said Ali Roba, the governor of Mandera, a region also targeted by militants.

Urging Muslims to do more to root out jihadi sympathizers within their community, Kenyatta said the attacks by the Somali militants threaten economic progress in their heartlands.

"I urge all my brothers and sisters in the affected regions, and across the country, to not allow those who hide and abet the terrorists to compromise and even destroy the development that is fast growing in your area," said Kenyatta, who replaced his intelligence and police chief following attacks.

Joseph Nkaissery, appointed interior minister in December, has impressed diplomats with his desire to use more modern methods to counter radicalization.

Suspicion of security services

But to get Muslims on board, especially the 2.4 million ethnic Somalis living in Kenya, the authorities will have to address their deep suspicion of the security services. Many say they carry extra "shakedown" cash for bribes.

"Their interest is just money. You can't go to the government to complain. Nothing will happen," said Saddam Hassan, 23, who had to pay a 20,000-shilling ($216) bribe to be freed after four days in custody last April.

Diplomats say coming months could be key to see if the new leadership wholeheartedly embraces a new strategy or reverts to bad old ways.

Kenya's shutdown of Somali money transfer firms, vital to Somali businesses and people who rely on remittances from family members abroad, has raised concern.

So has the closure of two coastal civil society groups that were mediating talks between the government and radicalized Muslim youths who had burned down churches and attacked Christians in the Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa.

In Nairobi's Eastleigh district, popularly known as Little Mogadishu, a change in policy is welcomed. But jaded by what civil society groups say is years of harassment, most ethnic Somalis are bracing for another crackdown.

"We are tense because of the expectation of what's to come," said Ibrahim Ali Maalim, a local imam.