Why is Al Shabab making inroads into Kenya?

  • 15 Mar 2019

The Somali-based branch of Al Qaeda has sharpened its focus on East African countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Sudan, recruiting hundreds if not thousands of fighters.

Al Qaeda linked al Shabab recruits walk down a street on March 5, 2012 in the Deniile district of Somalian capital, Mogadishu, following their graduation. ( Getty Images )

Poverty and hopelessness has driven many Kenyans to cross the border and join the Al Shabab terror group in neighbouring Somalia.

For the past decade, Al Shabab has targeted marginalised communities along East Africa’s Swahili coast who share historical ties through Islamic culture and ancient trade roots.

The terror group also targets vulnerable unemployed young people in Kenya’s underdeveloped North Eastern Province, which borders Somalia and is predominantly inhabited by the Somali community.

The group has also exploited local grievances, attracting impoverished young people across faiths in Kenya who feel the government has failed them.

Khelef Khalifa, a veteran human rights campaigner and Chairman of Mombasa-based Muslims for Human rights (MUHURI) told TRT World that Kenya's raging financial turmoil and erratic economy is "causing unemployment and pushing desperate youth to join militant group, Al Shabaab".

Rampant corruption and a judicial crisis have fuelled the militant recruitments. For decades - even before 2013 when devolution came to effect - resource allocation was skewed which resulted in the marginalisation of some areas. An effect that is still being felt to date.

"The extremists are promising hefty pay for local fighters who have largely remained unemployed or poorly paid," Khalifa said. "They target those below 30 years, Kenya's biggest population and one which has been greatly affected and impacted by unemployment.

Al Shabab is waging most terror onslaughts in Kenya than any other radical faction in the world." 

Khalifa also said terror attacks increased when Kenya joined the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) in 2011, sending its troops to 'stabilise' the country. There are several reasons why locals support Al Shabab and the most common ones are unemployment, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance and political and economic marginalisation. 

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Kenya leads other East African countries with the largest number of people who are unemployed. Records show that one in every five Kenyans is unemployed compared to Tanzania where one in every 20 Tanzanians is without a job. 

Youth unemployment in Kenya has been described as a ticking time bomb. Three-quarters of the population are under the age of 30.

"Al Shabab came into existence in 2006 as an armed wing of Islamic Courts Union, later splitting into smaller groups," Khalifa said. "At the time, youth unemployment in Kenya was at around 22 percent according to data from Statista – a reputable international firm leading in providing market and consumer statistics. Al Shabab attacks increased with the rate of youth unemployment."

He continued: "Since the group's inception in 2006 to 2017, there has been a 3.40 percent increase in youth unemployment from 22.81 per cent.

"Over this period, there were five deadly terror strikes by Al Shabab-affiliated locals in Coast [Province] alone and dozens of incursions in other parts of the country. With it, hundreds of innocent lives lost, dreams and hopes of many more shuttered, an everlasting trauma."

Many people have taken to social media to express their frustrations about youth unemployment.

Nairobi-based journalist Luke Wasike told TRT World that there's a need to establish government-run institutions "to train the youth on income generating activities and give loans to start business".

"There should be ready markets for graduates since it has been established that terror groups are targeting the educated in the community," he said. "‘Well the youth are driven by poverty and hardship back home, with promise of good money, they decide to join."

Wasike said many have also been "radicalised through social media" and misconstrued Islamic teachings in madrassas. 

"More needs to be done at the grassroots level to rehabilitate former fighters and prevent future ones,” he said. 

While it’s true that Al Shabab has used social media to recruit young unemployed people, the terror group also uses other ploys to enlist its members. One of them being to lure teenagers with well-paid jobs.

They are taken to training camps, given code names and taught how to make bombs and to wield weapons until they ‘graduate’ and inflict violence upon people and the state.

Al Shabab’s use of Kiswahili and the depiction of Swahili-speakers in its media propaganda are indicative of the insurgent movement’s desire to attract more recruits from East Africa, where Kiswahili, the language of an estimated 35 million people, is widely spoken. Kiswahili, a Bantu language, is a lingua franca in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and parts of southern Somalia.

Al-Shabab took root in Somalia in 2006, when US-backed Ethiopian forces

invaded Mogadishu in an effort to support the federal government, destroying their political rival, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU had become increasingly powerful, and popular, by promoting a religiously-inspired interpretation of law and governance. The group has been carrying terror attacks in neighbouring countries especially Kenya.

Why Kenya?

In 2011, Kenya deployed troops to Somalia under Operation Linda Nchi to fight Al Shabab militants in southern Somalia. Kenya says the aim of the operation was to create a buffer zone between Al Shabab-held territories and Kenya. In the process, the Kenyan forces captured the port of Kismayo and quickly joined troops from the African Union Mission (AMISOM) in Somalia in battling Al Shabab.

 The capture of Kismayo by Kenyan troops was a hollow victory. Al Shabab reacted with deadly attacks against the police and civilians in Nairobi, Garissa, and other Kenyan towns, most notorious among them the September 21, 2013, assault in Nairobi's prestigious Westgate shopping mall.

Kenyan authorities more often than not respond with blanket arrests of Muslims and indiscriminate crackdowns aimed at ethnic Somalis in the sprawling Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi, which is often referred to as ‘Little Mogadishu’, the coastal town of Mombasa and in the far-flung remote parts of North Eastern Kenya.

The ‘blowback’ from the invasion is now having an impact on Kenya's troubled internal politics, with recent evidence from attacks on the coastal settlement of Mpeketoni suggesting that the Islamists are skillfully exploiting local political divisions to further their agenda.

Al Shabab says its attacks in Kenya are in retaliation to the Kenya Defense Force’s incursion in Somalia. It also justifies them for nebulous reasons associated with international jihad.

Speaking to TRT World, Yusuf Serunkuma, a political expert on the East and Horn of Africa, and a Researcher at Kampala-based Makerere University, said. "The dearth of serious religious/Islamic scholarship in the region has tended to be more dogmatic than discursive.  

"Interestingly, however, the more governments in the region have fought, curtailed and denied Islamic scholarship to flourish, the more a rather dogmatic version is being spread.”

Serunkuma continued: "Terrorist groups tend to reduce Islam to a penal code, which is at the expense of the intellectual, communal, aesthetic, and humane aspirations of the religion. The end result is easy persuasion for young men and women in the region to join the group.  These are views I picked from Somaliland, from someone who almost got recruited but missed out.” 

In April 2015, Kenya’s government announced an amnesty for young Kenyans who had gone to neighbouring Somalia to train with the terrorist group, Al Shabab. In a statement, the then-cabinet secretary for interior Joseph Nkaissery urged the repentant to return home and report to their county commissioners, where their cases would be considered. Those found to be eligible for amnesty would receive support to help them reintegrate into society.

Did the reintegration program work?

While the Kenyan government offers amnesty to returnees with the promise of rehabilitation and job offers, more and more youth are crossing the border into neighbouring Somalia to join Al Shabab due fear of reprisals and hopelessness.

Khalifa said the government's integration programme was failing the youth and resulted in the killing of some returnees – mostly from Coast and Northeastern parts of Kenya. 

Others are facing stigmatisation and rejection from locals. They are viewed as threats.

"Police have gone after those who might have been in contact with the returnees, forcing them disappear or execute them extra-judicially," he said.

"Rogue officers have also extorted fearful families whose promising protection of returnee kins yet they were killed without their knowledge."