USA Today.com -- The mosque stood empty beside the road in a Christian town in Kenya. Funded by Saudis, it wasn't meant for worshippers. It was meant to stake a claim.
The mosque annoyed the locals. Windows were broken. A goat grazed in the garbage-speckled yard. Yet that shabby mosque was part of an extremist campaign that threatens widespread strife in the years ahead.
On a trip to Kenya and Tanzania last month, I saw recently built mosques wherever I went. Even along the predominantly Muslim coast, there were far more mosques and madrassahs than the worshippers needed. I counted seven mosques along one street in a Mombasa slum - most of them new but neglected.
The construction boom is part of what my personal observation convinces me is "the other jihad," the slow-roll attempt by fundamentalists from the Arabian Peninsula to reclaim East Africa for the faith of the Prophet. We dismiss
Osama bin Laden's dream of re-establishing the caliphate, Islam's bygone empire, as madness. But Saudis, Yemenis, Omanis and oil-rich Gulf Arabs are every bit as determined as bin Laden to reassert Muslim domination of the lands Islam once ruled.
No region is as vulnerable as Africa. The differences between the Saudi ruling family and bin Laden aren't so much about goals as about methods. The Saudis were furious over the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam not because of the viciousness of the acts, but because the attacks threatened to call the West's attention to quiet subversion by fundamentalist Wahhabis in the region.
For the Muslims of the Arabian Peninsula, ties to Africa's Indian Ocean coast go back more than a millennium. By the 14th century, trading cities such as Kilwa (now a ruin) and Mombasa were opulent outposts of Islam. One dream shared by the House of Saud and Islamist terrorists is the reclamation of the old Swahili Coast, where their ancestors grew rich trading ivory, gold and slaves.
Arabs still regard black Africans as inferior, fit only to be subjects. As a result, their charities don't fund clinics, universities or sanitation systems. They just keep on building mosques, staking graphic claims to a once and future empire of faith.
Even in the United States, Saudi-funded Quranic schools encourage religious apartheid. While events have forced their mullahs to tone down public hate-speech directed toward the West, Saudi madrassas never encourage young people to integrate into their host society. They praise rigid separation.
In East Africa, this takes the form of pressuring the young to devote themselves to studying the Quran. This prevents Muslims from getting a practical education. As a result, they remain unqualified for the best jobs, which are taken by Christians with university degrees, further exacerbating antagonism.
The Saudis and their accomplices know exactly what they're doing. They don't want a "separate but equal" system. Separate and unequal does the trick, creating a sense of deprivation, of being cheated, among Muslims and driving a wedge down the middle of fragile societies. The last thing the bigots of the Arabian Peninsula want to see would be prosperous, patriotic, well-integrated Muslim communities in Africa.
Nor is this slow-motion jihad confined to the coast. It takes still uglier forms in the interior. Saudi money and arms smuggled from Yemen keep tribal strife alive in northern Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and, of course, Somalia.
During my stay in Kenya, nearly a hundred tribal people were massacred near the Ethiopian border. The religious undertone of the slaughter - which included the executions of schoolchildren - was played down. The Kenyan government fears a wider conflagration and quietly accepts its inability to control its northern borders. But extremist sentiment is growing, while Kenya's policy of benign neglect collapses.
East Africa not immune
The jihad in eastern Africa stretches from the butchery in Sudan down to Tanzanian villages where poverty was exacerbated by decades of socialism. It takes multiple forms, from a name-calling contest with émigrés returning to Somaliland from the West to support for separatist movements on Zanzibar and Pemba islands.
No one has called the Saudis or their partners to account. This matters. Kenya and Tanzania have largely avoided the succession of tragedies that crippled Africa in the post-independence era. But the tension between Kenya's Christian majority and Muslim minority, or between Tanzania's roughly equal factions, never quite disappeared. Now, Arab money threatens to undermine the fragile unity of these struggling, yet hopeful states.
Religious freedom goes only so far. Building mosques and madrassas would be tolerable were their purpose not frankly subversive. A strong society such as our own can overcome such hate-based shenanigans. But the stakes could not be higher and the danger could not be greater for the struggling states of eastern Africa.
The violent jihad waged by those who hijacked Islam in the Middle East is our immediate challenge. Even so, terrorists from the Horn of Africa have already been implicated in the London subway bombings and other attacks. The time for engagement is now - not after widespread radicalization has destroyed the future for millions of Africans and drawn still more states into the maelstrom of terror.
Ralph Peters is the author of the just-released book New Glory, Expanding America's Global Supremacy. He's also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.