Nairobi, Kenya – Speaking in Swahili, with a backdrop of lush forest in south-central Somalia, a Kenyan al-Shabab commander encourages young Muslim men to fight in the conflict in Somalia.
“My dear brothers, you must march forward for the sake of Allah,” he said. “Some people say they want to go to Afghanistan. If Allah enables you to get there then that is jihad … and if Allah enables you to get to Somalia, then that is even closer to you.”
In the recruitment video released by al-Shabab in February, young men in uniforms compete in running races, a tug of war match and listen to a message from the Quran. Accompanied by English subtitles but narrated mostly in Swahili, a language common to Tanzania and Kenya, the video is designed to attract new fighters to Somalia from neighbouring countries and abroad. It is part of a long recruitment campaign waged by the al-Qaeda linked group to maintain a ready flow of foot soldiers into its ranks, often from outside Somalia.
Although the number of al-Shabab’s foreign recruits reportedly has dwindled in recent years, about 20 percent of the 500 foreign fighters hail from Kenya.
These Kenyan fighters, called the “Kenya Mujahideen” by al-Shabab, are young men recruited through complex networks from the coastal town of Mombasa and in Nairobi’s slums.
As long as economic opportunities are scarce – at least 59 percent of the young working class is unemployed – and security policies like “Operation Usalama Watch” create resentment in the community, Kenya’s marginalised youth are at risk of turning to al-Shabab for a new identity and the promise of a steady income.
A recruiting ground for al-Shabab
Juma Omondi and his friends are typical of the youth targeted by al-Shabab in their slick recruitment campaigns. For 2,000 Kenyan shillings (around $23) per month he and four friends rent a small room together in Pumwani, a Nairobi slum and a well known recruiting ground for al-Shabab.
They rely on casual jobs in neighbouring Eastleigh to pay rent, and buy food and clothing.
“I do garbage collection and cleaning drains,” he said. “We are in a group, so if you’ve got this 500 shillings (around $5.60) a week in garbage we divide it between us.”
Youth like Omondi are prime targets for al-Shabab recruiters in Nairobi’s slums. It’s well known that they offer extraordinary amounts of money compared with what Omondi could earn in a normal month. “You sit here each and every day, you are getting harassed by the police, and then you’re suffering and you don’t have anything to eat,” he said. “So if you get any opportunity to go somewhere to get money you take it.”
Omondi, a Kenyan Muslim who has lived his entire life in Pumwani, is not against the idea of joining the militant group. “Yes, I’d go very quickly because of the salary. For me it’s OK to go to Somalia to provide for my family, for my brothers,” he said.
David Odhambo, a local youth leader in Eastleigh, says he has concerns that a lack of opportunities makes the decision for young people in his community to join al-Shabab much more appealing. “These young people can easily be lured to these illegal groups like al-Shabab. Because the system, itself, is not conducive for them. It’s like they’re condemned, it’s like they are nothing in the society,” he said.
Odhambo says that even if they have qualifications, many youth can’t get jobs because the system in its current form is crippled with corruption. Young people can’t afford the exorbitant fees required to secure full time employment, leaving them disenfranchised and disconnected from society.
‘Some of his friends were disappearing’
While many youth are drawn to al-Shabab for economic reasons, others are targeted by recruiters through a slower method of indoctrination.
Collins Mwangi is another youth living in the Majengo area of Pumwani. In 2011, his younger brother converted to Islam and started attending the local mosque just 20 metres from their house. Within a year though, Mwangi noticed that some of his brother’s friends from the mosque had left for Somalia.
“Some of his friends were disappearing, so we started questioning him,” he said. “But it came at August that same year that he disappeared.”
Mwangi’s 17-year-old brother had travelled with three friends to Mombasa. From there they were taken by al-Shabab operatives to a remote region between Kenya and Somalia to travel across the border and into al-Shabab territory.
However, Mwangi’s family took a picture of their brother to police, who circulated it widely through Kenyan security networks. Once al-Shabab saw that his brother had been identified by the authorities they sent him back to Nairobi while the others crossed over into Somalia.
“For me, I understand him because he was still young, he had depression and was confused, like being forced you know?” Mwangi said.
“And many of the children who go there, the moment you hit Somalia they turn you into a child soldier,” he said. “Here they’re teaching them religion, but when it’s there, it’s war.”
Julias Muhia, a human rights advocate from the Kamukunji Human Rights Defenders, says that this kind of indoctrination has been common in the Pumwani area.
“They identify you first; they look for some characteristics in you… Because of your situation and lack of opportunities you’ll find it difficult to refuse.”
‘People are pushed to the wall’
Sami Gathii from the Youth Arts Development Entrepreneurship Network (YADEN) runs a peace programme for youth in Eastleigh. He says that al-Shabab recruiters use different tactics for each young person they target.
“There’s a lot of vulnerabilities … so anything that can be introduced to you that gives you a sense of belonging, a sense of worthiness, a sense of hope … you will be glued to it,” he said.
In their programmes, YADEN engages young people and the community in discussions on violent extremism. However, Gathii says that recently they have found the community retreating from discussing the issues as openly as they once did.
Following the Westgate attack in 2013 and a series of bombings in Nairobi early 2014, Kenyan authorities launched “Uslama Watch”, an operation targeting undocumented ethnic Somalis and refugees living and working in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area.
The result was an exodus of business and people from Eastleigh, and allegations of extortion and harassment by police targeted at the largely ethnic Somali community.
Gathii says heavy-handed security operations like these are creating conditions conducive to the spread of violent extremism rather than reducing the threat of terrorism in Kenya.
“Now we see because of the ‘Operation Uslama Watch’, because of the conditions created by that it gives a lot of sympathy, and disorients a lot of people,” he said. “The police go to Eastleigh, knock down the house, collect money. They will stop you on the street and bring you to the police station.”
Julias Muhia from the Kamukunji Human Rights Defenders has also seen the effects of these anti-terror operations on the local economy and increased risks for youth like Juma Omondi.
“The economy has gone down for these young people. And these young people are at a higher risk. This time around it will not be like before. [Al-Shabab] will target a huge number of youths,” he said. “Why? Because people are pushed to the wall to the extent that they will do anything.”
As long as young Kenyans struggle in poverty and feel excluded by their own government and society, recruitment drives like the recent film from al-Shabab will always find an audience – and recruits.