NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Gunmen shot and killed a moderate Muslim leader on Tuesday, an official said, the fourth prominent Muslim to be shot dead in the coastal city of Mombasa in two years.
Sheik Mohamed Idris, the chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, was shot as he left his home for a mosque early in the morning. A Mombasa police commander, Henry Ondiek, said neither the motive nor the identities of the killers are known.
Human rights activists allege that the government is behind a long string of killings of Muslim leaders. Sheik Aboud Rogo Mohammed was killed in August 2012. Sheik Ibrahim Ismael was killed in October 2013. In April gunmen shot and killed Abubakar Shariff Ahmed, known as Makaburi, near a mosque.
All those murders remain unsolved.
But while the three previous slayings of Muslim leaders were against men seen as radical and tied to extremists, Idris was known for opposing radicalism in the Muslim community, a fact that opens up the possibility he may have been targeted by a religious extremist and not a government agent.
Also unlike the previous killings, Idris' death attracted immediate statements of condolence from top political leaders.
President Uhuru Kenyatta described Idris as a committed religious leader "who stood for what was good for the country." Kenyatta extended condolences to Kenya's Muslim community and said the government would do all it can to find the killer.
"Sheikh Idris was at the forefront in the fight against the radicalization of the youth and therefore his death is a big blow to the country's efforts to stop religious extremism," Kenyatta said.
Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga said he was "greatly saddened" by the killing and that he would go to Idris' burial.
The U.S. ambassador and British high commissioner to Kenya both condemned the murder and called on the Kenyan government to investigate and hold those responsible to account.
"We call for calm and restraint on the coast, and underscore the need to prevent any possible spread of violence. Equally, we urge everyone to respect Kenya's cultural and religious diversity, which is a source of Kenya's strength," U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec said.
Idris was among several clerics targeted by Muslim youths who stormed mosques on the coast in December in what is seen as evidence of a split between more moderate leaders and radicalized youth. Several mosques in Kenya are seen as incubators and recruitment centers for radical extremists loyal to al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked militant group in neighboring Somalia.
A wave of terror attacks believed to be perpetrated by Somali Islamic militants and their supporters has hit Kenya, including the attack on an upscale mall in the capital, Nairobi, that killed at least 67 people in September. Rights groups say the government kills high-profile suspects because prosecutors cannot build a case that would lead to a conviction in court.
A prominent moderate Muslim leader, Al-Amin Kimathi, said he is "terribly distributed" by Idris' death. He called it "so senseless."