The Rwandan government has been quietly dealing with religious extremism and radicalisation as reports emerge that the Somalia-based Al Shabaab and the Islamic State (IS) have been targeting the country’s Muslim youth for recruitment.
Before President Paul Kagame broached the subject on March 26 in the Western Province district of Rubavu, there had been no media or public discourse on the issue.
Rubavu has the highest number of Muslims in Rwanda, and President Kagame while addressing opinion leaders made reference to last month’s terrorist attacks in the Belgian capital Brussels, saying that Rwanda too was facing religious radicalisation, citing an example of a Rwandan soldier on a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic who shot and killed four of his colleagues in August 2015.
“I don’t know if people told you what happened exactly but I will tell you. This particular incident showed us how strong the issue of radicalisation is. One of our soldiers, a Muslim, turned his gun on colleagues who considered him a friend and relative,” President Kagame said.
“They had no problem whatsoever, they had not disagreed on anything but he just woke up in the morning, shot and killed his colleagues. This happened in the Central African Republic,” he added, breaking the silence on the August 8 shooting of which until then few details had been revealed.
The president added that investigations revealed the shooting was found to be linked to acts of terror, similar to what is happening in Europe, after the investigators tracked the soldier’s phone records and possessions, which included writings linked to Islamic extremism.
“We found that there are some people who come from other countries to radicalise our people here in Rwanda using religion,” President Kagame said.
The president’s remarks came not long after the January 23, 2016 shooting of Muhammad Mugemangango, a deputy Imam at Kimironko Mosque in Kigali, by police as he tried to flee from custody.
Mugemangango, 39, had been arrested on suspicion of recruiting young men and women for IS. The incident elevated fears of radicalisation taking root in Rwanda. Both President Kagame and the police have said that despite the country being free from overt activities of extremist groups, it has for a while been targeted as a recruitment zone.
The EastAfrican has learnt that security organs have been covertly identifying and arresting individuals suspected of recruiting young men and women and radicalising them. Rwanda has not reported terror threats or attacks by extremist groups.
Following the shooting of Mugemangango, the police said that terror recruitment networks exist in the country and that investigations are going on.
Last week, 17 Rwandans — all Muslims and suspected to be recruiters and some the recruited — were arraigned in court.
All were middle-aged and they included three women. The police said they were accomplices of Mugemangango and that some of their accomplices had escaped “beyond the country’s borders.”
The trial – held at the Gasabo Intermediary Court — was expected to be open to the public, but the judge decided to hold proceedings in camera, after the prosecution’s appeal that “it is a highly security-sensitive trial that needs no public scrutiny.”
In an earlier interview with The EastAfrican, the head of the Muslim community in Rwanda, Mufti Sheikh Ibrahim Kayitare, denied the existence of terrorist recruitment in the country’s mosques, arguing that any such recruitment is not supported by any mosque in the country.
He promised full co-operation with police, but warned that “any form of radicalisation that could be going on should not be linked to our mosques or Islam but to individuals’ beliefs or actions.”
According to the identifications of the 17 Rwandans facing trial, they are from different parts of the country, a fact that has raised fears of a possible widespread presence of “terrorist networks” in the country.
The police have however has assured Rwandans that there is no threat to the safety and security that prevails in the country.