The crowd surges toward U.S. President Barack Obama as he greets the audience after his remarks at an indoor stadium in Nairobi, July 26, 2015.
The crowd surges toward U.S. President Barack Obama as he greets the audience after his remarks at an indoor stadium in Nairobi, July 26, 2015.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

As U.S. President Barack Obama concluded his trip to Kenya, at the top of his agenda was the country’s ongoing fight against the Somali-based jihadist militia, al Shabab. The group remains a threat, but it has evolved, and the United States should help ensure that the Kenyan government’s response follows suit. Currently, Nairobi remains focused on responding with counterterrorism measures that, although necessary, cannot be the sole tactic. Kenyan Muslims remain among the most deprived groups in the country, and many feel marginalized and disconnected from the state and its power structures. They lack any trust in the system, and are extremely suspicious of security authorities and their heavy-handed tactics.

NYUMBA KUMI

Since the attack on the Westgate Mall three years ago, the Kenyan government has vastly increased its efforts against al Shabab. Before the shooting, the government still regarded the militant group as a Somalia-based problem affecting only Somali-Kenyans, but mass attacks on the affluent involving radicalized Kenyans forced a reassessment.

Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) Rangers, who are part of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), secure an area during a foot patrol on the outskirts of the controlled area of the old airport in the coastal town of Kismayu in southern Somalia, November 12, 20
Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) Rangers, who are part of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), secure an area during a foot patrol on the outskirts of the controlled area of the old airport in the coastal town of Kismayu in southern Somalia, November 12, 2013.
Siegfried Modola / Reuters
No longer can extremist sheikhs operate and recruit openly in known mosques and Islamic schools, also known as madrassas, which have mostly been shut down. Mass arrests of terrorist suspects, many of whom deny any involvement with al Shabab, are now commonplace, including in the last few weeks in preparation for the U.S. president’s visit. Counterterrorism police within Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) are also widely suspected of conducting an assassination campaign, targeting key figures thought to be involved in the al Shabab recruitment network. Along with the unsolved killing of al Shabab recruiter Sheikh Aboud Rogo in Mombasa in 2012, the most recent high-profile assassination was that of Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, also known as Sheikh Makaburi, in April last year. He, too, was a suspected recruiter and had expressed support for the Westgate attack. It is not only high-level figures who have been caught up in the sweep; foot soldiers who have defected from the group are also thought to have fallen victim. “So many of the youth have disappeared,” Sheikh Hassan Omar, an influential preacher who works on preventing radicalization and on deradicalization, told me. When I ask him what he thinks happened to them, he frowns and makes a gesture of a gun pointing to his head.

Such accusations are difficult to prove. But in interviews with other Kenyan Muslims and former members of al Shabab, it is clear that many at least believe the rumors and agree that the state has no interest in justice when it comes to Muslims. Human Rights Watch has investigated claims of human rights abuses, and it found that between November 2013 and June 2014, there were “at least 10 cases of killings, 10 cases of enforced disappearances, and 11 cases of mistreatment or harassment of terrorism suspects in which there is strong evidence of the counterterrorism unit’s involvement.”

Hard-power measures therefore seem to make up the bulk of the Kenyan government’s counterterrorism strategy, but they are not the only tactic. In October 2013, Narobi introduced the Nyumba Kumi initiative, which placed an emphasis on increased community policing. Nyumba Kumi is a Swahili term that means “ten households” and is akin to the Western concept of community watch programs. The initiative encourages the creation of clusters of households (not strictly limited to ten) within villages that take collective responsibility for ensuring that police are made aware of any suspicious criminal activity within the group. The initiative does not only focus on terrorism, but its timing and the language used in its official literature suggest that it is related to the government’s response to al Shabab. The program’s reception among Muslim Kenyans, who don’t trust the government, has been mixed. Reports suggest that it has struggled to reach the worst affected communities.

Many, though not all, of the al Shabab foot soldiers I have met have never been radicalized—they have not undergone any sort of value-system transformation or adopted the group’s ideology.
The Kenyan government has also drawn inspiration from the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, which evaluated various approaches for preventing radicalization, including addressing the role of disaffection and disconnection from the wider society. In late-June, the Kenyan ministry of interior held a similar summit. Although reiterating the need for ongoing military responses to the threat, the ministry also acknowledged that, “states should add “soft power” approaches to the necessary counter terrorism efforts, in a bid to “win” these communities over to ready participation in national economic and political life.” The suggested measures included addressing local socio-economic grievances and an increased focus on strengthening the role of civil society organizations.

The government has thus set itself some lofty goals in its efforts to combat jihadism. But it remains to be seen whether there is political will to pursue them. A senior member of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims (SUPKEM), who asked that I not use his name for fear of retribution from both al Shabab and the government, expressed serious doubt about the provision of government funds needed to pursue such a campaign. He, like most Kenyans, is extremely cynical when it comes to the question of the use of public money: “It will not go to those who need it, instead it will go into the pockets of one or two men.”

UNRADICALIZED

There is a crucial distinction between recruitment and radicalization, particularly in Kenya. Although recruitment refers simply to the act of joining a certain group or movement, radicalization is a specific process of joining and fully adopting a new identity and set of values. Among many former Kenyan members of al Shabab whom I have interviewed, the reasons for their involvement in the group vary greatly.

It is clear that, for many, al Shabab was the only gig in town. If they were not tricked or coerced, they simply accepted offers of large sums of money to join up and fight in Somalia. One young man from the Nairobi slum of Majengo told me how he and his friends were approached by a Christian man who promised them jobs in Somalia. Although wary of traveling to a warzone, he didn’t have many other options. He was finally swayed after hearing that his mother would also receive money. The man who made these promises was, like a number of other Christians, hired by al Shabab to lull potential recruits into a false sense of security. The young Nairobian told me that he didn’t think that a non-Muslim would lead him and his friends to fight for a jihadist organization.

People wait outside to watch Obama depart after his remarks at an indoor stadium in Nairobi, July 26, 2015.
People wait outside to watch Obama depart after his remarks at an indoor stadium in Nairobi, July 26, 2015.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Upon arrival in Somalia, recruits are taken to a heavily guarded compound and stripped of all forms of communication. Forced to train and fight and realizing that they have been duped, many recruits bide their time until they see an opportunity to escape. Those who are caught, or even ask suspicious questions, are often summarily executed, and those who escape face an uncertain future back home. They are known in their local community and hunted by ATPU forces. Fearing for their lives, they often go into hiding.

Many, though not all, of the al Shabab foot soldiers I have met have never been radicalized—they have not undergone any sort of value-system transformation or adopted the group’s ideology. As observers in the West puzzle over why middle-class Muslims would join the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and radicalize in the cause of global jihad, things are somewhat clearer in East Africa. Muslims in Kenya don’t trust the government, and they feel victimized by the sate. Men with Muslim names sometimes cannot even get national identification cards, without which they cannot join the formal job market or access government buildings. Forced into the underground economy, it is not a huge leap for them to become mercenary soldiers.

No one, however, can be tricked into carrying out a mass killing or sawing off someone’s head. The individuals who carry out these atrocities are not just recruited, but radicalized as well. They are often manipulated by highly skilled and manipulative recruiters who draw upon global jihadist ideology to convince Muslims of their duty to God and exploit preexisting grievances for their own ends. It is only after adopting this new identity and ideology that they are able to rationalize and legitimize such violence.  

Radicalization is a different and more complex type of threat than recruitment. It concerns not just the poorest and most vulnerable in Kenyan society but also the middle class. Indeed, authorities are now seeing increased involvement of middle-class Kenyan university students in the terrorist group. And it is often these people, who have no financial incentive to join and take part purely out of a zealous belief in the cause, who are far more likely to be willing to conduct mass killings.

If the government doesn’t make more of an effort to address the legitimate grievances of Kenyan Muslims and to undermine the ideology of al Shabab, Kenya will find it exceedingly difficult to rid itself of this menace.
It should come as no surprise that one of the gunmen in the Garissa University massacre, Abdirahim Abdulahi, was the son of a local government official and a graduate of the University of Nairobi. Sheikh Hassan Omar, who is also a lecturer at the university, told me that recruiters are now active on the campus. They are also are using the Internet in much the same as way as jihadist recruiters in the West, creating virtual online networks through which they disseminate propaganda, including the Swahili language online magazine Gaidi Mtaani (“street terrorist”), which takes its inspiration from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire and the ISIS-produced Dabiq. “The internet is very important for them now,” Hassan explains as we stroll around the grounds of the campus, “it is helping them overcome the increased activity and surveillance of the security forces.

The government has also taken notice of this development, and has adapted the Nyumba Kumi initiative so that it can be applied to the virtual world. Earlier this month, the initiative’s Chairman, Joseph Kaguthi, announced plans to work with IT companies to create a social-media platform that aims to provide a space for vulnerable Kenyan youth to discuss security issues and report possible threats.

This increased involvement of the Kenyan middle class is testament to the effectiveness of global jihadist messaging and propaganda. It is not only able to reach those who are vulnerable due to their lack of choices, but also those who are educated and politically aware, who see their state as an enemy of their religion. The establishment of jihadist ideology in Kenya has meant that the country has become fertile ground for other organizations that share this belief system, and there have been a number of reports of Kenyan Muslim students joining ISIS.

The threat to Kenya posed by al Shabab is, like that posed by ISIS, unlikely to disappear in the near future. Kenya is one of the world’s biggest beneficiaries of U.S. military aid and, with it, the country has been able to become more resilient to terrorist attacks. The aid has come at a cost, though. The country’s focus on security sweeps alienates the very population that the government needs to win over. The United States should ask some serious questions of its ally, especially surrounding the accusations of kidnapping and extra-judicial killing. Setting aside the legality of this approach, such methods also exacerbate the problem in the long run, lending legitimacy to jihadist’s bogus claims that there is a global conspiracy to destroy Islam. If the government doesn’t make more of an effort to address the legitimate grievances of Kenyan Muslims and to undermine the ideology of al Shabab, Kenya will find it exceedingly difficult to rid itself of this menace.

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  • ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS is head of research at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, and a lecturer at King’s College London.
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