Why Al-Shabaab Continued To Attract Kenyan Fighters?

Despite numerous efforts of the Kenyan government and its allies, Al-Shabab continues to recruit Kenyans. On Wednesday, Kenyan National Police Service (NPS) identified three Kenyans who went to Somalia to join the terror group. According to the NPS statement, the three are already in Somalia training under Al-Shabaab.

Without argument, Al-Shabaab Kenyan recruits are only behind Somalia. Although USA security experts in 2016 announced that foreign fighters who joined Al-Shabaab declined with the coming of Islamic State (IS) into existence, the same cannot be said for Kenyan fighters. Besides those who preferred to join Al-Shabaab primarily, radicalized Kenyan youth, who were unable to travel to Iraq and Syria, took the easier route to Somalia.

Peter Taylor, a writer at BBC, stated in 2013 that the journey of the recruits began with radical clerics who provided sermons. With the guidance of the radical preachers, their trail starts at Mombasa, leading to Lamu, and onto the remote islands to finally arrive in Somalia.

Kenyan fighters play a prominent role in the terror group’s network, specifically in executing terror attacks in their country. Hundreds of Kenyans, mainly those from the northeast and those who offer financial support, have served at mid-level command positions. In addition, Al-Shabaab frequently used Kenyan fighters to carry out suicide missions.

At times, there have been reports that foreign fighters, including those from Kenya, have faced alienation over suspicion of spying and plotting to shift allegiance to IS. The history of purges in Al-Shabaab against foreign fighters goes back to 2013. Many Kenyans had been tortured at Al-Shabaab’s secret prisons for spying for the Somalian and Kenyan governments. Hassan Mohammed, a former fighter who surrendered to Somalia’s government in 2015, told VOA that foreign fighters “prefer to fall into the enemy’s hands instead of meeting death in the hands of brothers.”

However, this fact has not stalled radicalized Kenyans from joining the group. Besides ideological and religious beliefs, different factors also have contributed to the continued recruitment of Kenyans into the terror group.

Poverty and high unemployment

Extreme poverty and high unemployment levels in Kenya, particularly in the coastal areas, forced youth to take Al-Shabaab as an alternative income source. The terror group is well known for luring youngsters with the prospect of jobs, money, and other livelihood opportunities.  Ex-recruiters told BBC in 2014 that Al-Shabaab had become a “business” where recruiters receive up to $1000 for joining the terror group.

It is believed that rather than ideological or religious reasons, many join Al-Shabab for the money.  In a 2017 study, the Institute for Security Studies in Africa (ISS) demonstrated this fact, where study-participants argued that poverty was pushing Kenyans to “embrace the organization.”  In the study, women participants also stated that Al-Shabaab offered them $260 US dollars to join the group. The group also gave annual payments for teenagers who joined the group, according to a 14-year-old recruit who gave an interview to ISS in 2014.

An active fighter of Al-Shabaab since 2007 also told BBC that his travel to Al-Shabaab “was all about the money,” where being jobless, offers by Al-Shabab attracted him to the group.  He claimed that most youths in Kenya joined the group demanding economic benefits and “aiming to find something to eat tomorrow.” It’s also been reported that Al-Shabaab pays compensation for the families of martyrs. Some Kenyans are ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their families who are living in severe poverty.

Al-Shabaab’s sophisticated public relations arm

Al-Shabaab is said to have well-laid recruitment networks in Kenya. Although the group’s social media presence and strengths are well known, it primarily uses physical recruitment networks to get fighters from Kenya and Somalia.  Recruiters travel to remote areas looking for potential fighters, approaching them with religious teachings. Potential recruits are then “given quotations from the Koran and the Hadiths,” says Al Amin Kimathi, Kenyan human rights lawyer.

Based on information gathered from interviews with detainees, Kimathi stated in 2013 that, due to lack of education, approached recruits did not have the “critical mind” to question the information they received. Instead, they totally believe the people who drives them to radicalism.  Al-Shabaab has thus benefited from their feeling of deprivation, creating an illusion for them of being important to collective action. Al-Shabaab recruiters further convince them that martyrdom is something to aspire to. Isiolo County Commissioner, George Natembeya, said to media outlets last Wednesday that recruiters “[were] taking advantage of Ramadhan to lure and mislead” a number of teenagers into joining the terror group last year.

It is understood as well that the recruitment network also includes several radical clerics who preach Islam in relation to fighting for salvation. The clerics provide hours-long sermons about “destiny and sweetness of holy war,” according to an ex-member of the terror group. They distribute leaflets and videos that preach radical Islam, using psychological manipulation to increase enrollment and radicalize young Muslims through their teachings. A former recruit also retells a story about a radical Kenyan cleric, Aboud Rogo Mohammed,  preaching “instead of sitting in the slum doing nothing, it’s better to go to Somalia and fight for your religion, you’ll go straight to heaven.”

The group’s propaganda through social media and well-produced videos have also played a significant role in recruiting fighters around the world. The videos are dubbed in English, Somali, and Swahili. Well-known ones include the 2010 released recruitment video, which called for fighters stating: “So what are you waiting for my brothers, why don’t you leap forth for this act of worship? Join us so that we can together fight the forces of kufr [unbelief]…”

Besides radicalizing Kenyan youth, religious preachers facilitate recruit travel to Somalia. In 2013, for instance, police identified Sheikh Ibrahim Umar (alias Amru), a religious leader at the Answar Sunna Mosque, as a key facilitator of an aborted trip of recruiters to Somalia.

Injustices and Family Ties

The perceived injustice among Kenyan Muslims is one of the primary factors for the continued recruitment of Kenyans into Al-Shabaab. Many Muslim Kenyans complain that they face unequal treatment, arguing that the government has denied them their rights as citizens. Two women from Lamu, for example, told the Institute for Security Studies in Africa that their sons were denied national identity documents because they looked Somali. According to them, the documents are crucial for higher education opportunities and for travelling.

The ISS participants also reported that existence of perceived injustice and “media profiling” has created a feeling of being “under attack” within the community, especially among men. An unnamed interviewee indicated that being Muslim is seen as being a terrorist. Similarly, women who the BBC interviewed in 2014, stated there is lack of trust between the police and the local community, particularly for Muslims living in places like the Majengo slum. The ISS’s study conclusion also showed that family ties and the desire to avenge ill-treated loved ones are driving some Kenyans to join Al-Shabab.

Thus, in addition to this sense of government injustice, Kenyans who have family ties in Al-Shabaab have been the main target of the terror group’s recruiters. The Kenyan National Police Service voiced its concern over the growing number of families who recruit their kin to join Al-Shabaab.  On Wednesday, too, the NPS stated that several families and Kenyan businessmen are “fueling” radicalization and recruitment of youngsters into the group.

Yeshihareg Abebe