Reformed youth reveal how they were radicalised into joining Al-Shabaab

A victim of a terror attack receiving treatment in Garissa General Hospital. [Picture: Abjata Khalif]
A victim of a terror attack receiving treatment in Garissa General Hospital. [Picture: Abjata Khalif]

Slightly over one year since the terrorist attack at Garissa University in which 147 students died, some daring Garissa residents have opened up to confess about radicalisation and how the youth are being recruited.

The local community and youths were quick to identify one of the attackers who was a university student and son of prominent chief in Mandera County in Northern Kenya.

The student was reported to have graduated from University of Nairobi with a law degree and was a role model to dozens of students from the arid region of Northern Kenya.

Investigation into the attacks indicated the student, who joined Al-Shabaab terrorist organisation, was in–charge of terrorist cells operating in Garissa, Wajir and Mandera counties.

The suspect was also linked to the brutal attacks in the region like the Mandera bus attack where 28 people, mainly Christians, were killed and the quarry attack where 14 workers were targeted and killed in cold blood.

While the national government through the Ministry of Interior offers amnesty for radicalised youths who have returned to Kenya from Somalia, hundreds of youths from Northern Kenya have opted to sneak back to their community and villages fearing victimisation and forced disappearance once they surrender.

Abdi Mohammed (not his real name), one of the returnees who was recruited to join Al-Shabaab in 2012 and received numerous training in Somalia, told Reject that most returnees do not trust the government’s amnesty programme which is rife with profiling and disappearances.

“I was recruited to join Al-Shabaab in 2012 and I received numerous trainings before engaging Kenyan soldiers in Kismayu and Afmadow areas of Somalia,” says Mohammed. “I was later transferred to join Al-Shabaab crack unit known as Ag-Libah meaning Lion Footsteps. I was sent to Daadab Refugee Camp to take over from key recruiter who was transferred to another part of Kenya. I then decided to abandon the group and return to Garissa.”

Mohammed decided to leave Al Shabaab because he had not been paid for one year and their operation was risky. Most of the youths from Garissa who were with him in the same training camp lost their lives in Kismayu, Tabda, Qoqani and Afmadow.

Mohammed was motivated to leave because he was opposed to the groups’ indiscriminate killing of both Muslims and non-Muslim.

“We are back home and want to be integrates into the community,” says Mohammed. He notes: “We want to weed out bad elements who radicalise and recruit youth with fake promises.

Mohammed says: “Our fear in surrendering is that the government will renege on its promise of amnesty and replacing it with arrests and forced disappearance.’’

Forced disappearance of youth in northern Kenya has been captured in a report prepared by Kenya National Human Right Commission, a government human rights organisation mandated to monitor government institutions and carries out investigations on alleged human rights violations.

The human rights organization also offers the returnees training on different skills with a view of having them engage in income generating activities in Garissa, Wajir and Mandera towns of Northern Kenya.

According to Mohamed Bishar, an official with the Kenya National Human Rights Commission based in Garissa town says that they decided to work with returnees after the latter expressed fear for their lives and victimisation. This was done after the human rights group registered and documented a number of youths who were arrested and have not been seen.

Hassan Ali (not his real name), also a returnee says he was recruited by a Madrassa teacher who showed him various propaganda video and literature showing how Kenyan soldiers were killing people in Somalia and allegedly raping young Somali girls.

Ali was attached to the Madrassa teacher for one month where he received continuous teachings before being introduced to two Somali sheikhs based in Garissa. It’s the sheikhs who facilitated his movement from Garissa into Somalia.

“I was paid $1,000 (KSh100,000) and promised to get some pay every month including $10,000 (KSh1,000,000) for every Kenyan soldier I would kill in areas which they occupied,” explains Ali. He notes: “The two sheikhs promised to pay my family $200 (KSh20,000) every month as I was their sole bread winner.”

Ali says: “I later confirmed that they were paying my parents the agreed sum every month without fail and they use to drop the $200 in cash to my mother using Al-Shabaab women agents based in Garissa.”

Ali was received by a training commander in the remote village off Kolbiyo town and underwent para-military training before participating in numerous attacks in Somalia region.

“I left the group after I was taken through further training and orientation on suicide attack. I decided to desert the group and trekked for 15 days from the camp and got assistance from Somali pastoralist family herding camel along the Kenya-Somalia border,’’ Ali explains.

The network which played a key role in recruitment of youths in northern Kenya also liaised with families of youth who have lost their lives fighting in Somalia or Kenyan territory by approaching the families and offering condolences.

In a separate interview, a member of the investigation team who talked to Reject on condition of anonymity, said the former university student played a key role in recruiting other university and college students from Northern Kenya into the terror group.

The team came up with raft of measures to improve coordination between multi-agencies and engaging local Somali communities on security matters by replacing dismissed security chiefs with local Somali officials who understood the region and its people.

The government has since transferred a number of Somali-speaking security personnel from other parts of Kenya to Wajir, Garissa and Mandera to supplement ‘localized’ security arrangement and pursuing Al-Shabaab assailants in border areas with Somalia and Daadab Refugee Camp.

Non-governmental organisations addressing peace and security issues in northern Kenya note that hundreds of youths from Wajir, Garissa and Mandera as well as Isiolo and Marsabit counties have joined the terror organisation. Some have returned to their respective counties after disappearing in Somalia and getting military training.

Amran Abdundi, an award-winning women’s right activist based in Wajir says the national government needs to embrace and rehabilitate the returning youth who have defected from Al-Shabaab and use the information and knowledge derived from them to seal loopholes and gaps on the war on terror.

“The authorities should also use this information to strengthen local capabilities in fighting recruitment and radicalisation at local village level,” says Abdundi.

According to Abdundi, who is also the Executive Director with Frontier Indigenous Network these efforts require the government to build confidence of local Kenyan Somalis including the youth in supporting the anti-Al Shabaab campaign.

Bishara Ismael, a mother of four, says she received a call from private number and the person on the other end of the line had a rough voice. He told her in Somali language to pray for her son as he died fighting non-Muslims in Somalia.

The caller ended by telling Ismael that her son had died a martyr. The line went dead as he gave a Muslim salutation and used a Somali phrase meaning: “May God give you endurance during grieving period.”

Ismael knows a number of women who have received such strange and disturbing calls informing them of their children or kin’s death in Somalia.

“I realised I was not the only one who received a strange call from the group. Many women turned up to me and confessed that they had received similar calls but decided to keep quiet and not speak about their sons who had been killed in Somalia,’’ says Ismael.

Abdundi says: “The Government should implement the Northern Kenya Development Action Plan to spur development as well as create jobs and wealth to keep the youth away from terrorists and criminal gangs.”

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