Al-Shabaab Exploits Kenyan Crackdown to Recruit Muslim Youth

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 11

Kenya, which in recent years has found itself surrounded by countries plagued by chaos and insurgency, is itself becoming another theater for terrorist attacks, with more than 90 such attacks recorded since Kenya’s 2011 military intervention in Somalia. The latest attack on May 22 injured a police officer and a civilian in the coastal town of Mombasa. Six days earlier, on May 16, two explosions killed more than ten people and injured 70 others inside Gikomba, Nairobi’s biggest open air market (Daily Nation [Nairobi] May 22; Standard [Nairobi], May 22).

The latest attacks coincided with massive searches and a crackdown by security forces in Eastleigh, a suburb and commercial hub of Nairobi. The district is often referred to as “Little Mogadishu” as its population is 80 percent ethnic-Somali. Known as the Usalama Watch operation, the security crackdown began immediately after an explosion killed six people (including two Somalis) on April 2. The operation, however, has been marred by a lack of strategic goals and priorities as well as accusations of harassment, extortion and various other abuses. 

Over 4,000 people, mostly ethnic-Somalis, including women, children, elderly people and youths, were rounded up and taken to the Safaricom Football Stadium Kasarani, which was converted into a police post (Capital FM [Nairobi], April 7; Standard [Nairobi], April 7). While some of these people were later released and many others remain in custody, the perpetrators of the explosion that incited the operation remain unknown and uncaptured nearly two months after the attack. The Somali-based al-Shabaab militant group that claimed responsibility for September 2013’s four-day terror siege at Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall that resulted in the death of more than 70 people was blamed for the rise in attacks, but the group has not so far claimed responsibility for any of them. 

The racial profiling of ethnic-Somalis has so far succeeded only in sowing division and creating friction between ethnic-Somalis and other communities in Kenya, a situation al-Shabaab has been trying to achieve for many years. The group has a history of capitalizing on the long-standing grievances of Somalis and Muslims in general to recruit and radicalize youth from Muslim-dominated regions such as the North-Eastern Province, the coastal region and Nairobi. However, recruitment has declined in recent years because of the movement’s internal power struggle and the growing number of Somali clerics publicly opposing al-Shabaab’s ideology, both in Somalia and Kenya.

There are growing fears that the government’s recent sweep targeting only Muslim-dominated areas could help open doors for al-Shabaab’s efforts to radicalize youth, a prospect that poses a grave threat to regional security and stability. Al-Shabaab has already begun to exploit the situation with three of its top leaders sending different messages targeted at ethnic-Somalis and Muslims in Kenya over the past two months. In a 36-minute video presentation entitled “Muslims of Bangui and Mombasa: a Tale of Tragedy,” al-Shabaab leader Ahmad Abdi Godane “Abu Zubayr” began by giving an account of the infamous 1984 Wagalla massacre, in which Kenyan security forces were responsible for the death of an estimated 5,000 ethnic-Somalis in northeastern Kenya. [1] Godane went on to condemn the recent harassment of ethnic Somalis and Muslims in Nairobi and Mombasa: “Do not waste your time protesting in front of courts and petitioning parliament… They only respect those with power and only understand the language of weapons.” The message was a clear disappointment to the Somali and Muslim activists trying to address their genuine grievances and injustice through legal means and dialogue between the community and the government.

Eight days after Godane’s presentation, a senior al-Shabaab commander, Shaykh Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf, threatened in an al-Shabaab radio broadcast that his group was going to shift its war to neighboring Kenya by launching teenage suicide bombers in Nairobi. Khalaf urged Muslims in Kenya to fight against their government in retaliation for their “Muslim brothers and children” killed in Kenya and Somalia:

When their soldiers and war planes kill your people, God permits you to retaliate accordingly; we will fight the Kenyans… We shall kill those inside our country and make their graveyards here in Somalia – and we will kill them in their homes as well (Radio Andalus, May 21; Radio Alfurqaan, May 21).

This broadcast was followed by another on April 15 from the group’s spokesman, Shaykh Ali Mohamud Raage, who told Somalis that Kenya is targeting them because of their ethnic backgrounds and religion and urged them to side with the militants and join the war against Kenya: “[The Kenyans] want you to be stateless… defend yourself and come help us to defeat the enemy” (Radio Alfurqaan, April 15).

Though the speakers and dates differ, all these messages have one goal: to take advantage of Kenya’s mishandling of the terrorism issue, make local Muslims (Somalis in particular) feel victimized and provoke the ethnic-Somali community in Kenya to turn to violence.

Though the crackdown and the collective criminalization of ethnic Somalis are not the only errors Kenya is committing in its counter-terrorism strategies, deporting young people to Somalia could be a major error.

The unemployment rate for 14- to 29-year-old youth in Somalia is one of the highest in the world at 67 percent, leading many young people to earn their livelihoods through criminal activities such as piracy, working for warlords or joining al-Shabaab. The 500 people that Kenya has deported back to Somalia in the past two months, the hundreds still in custody awaiting deportation and the hundreds of other young people going back to Somalia for fear of arrest and harassment are all vulnerable to recruitment by al-Shabaab.

Somalia’s State Minister for Interior and Federalism Affairs Mohamud Moalim Yahye, who asked Kenya to suspend the mass deportation of Somalis, told Jamestown on May 23 that the chance these young people could join the militants is very high as there are no job creation and integration programs ready for the deportees and returnees. If these youth join al-Shabaab, they could help Godane to materialize his ambition of spreading conflict through East Africa using their knowledge of Swahili language, culture and lifestyle.

As security conditions within Kenya continue to deteriorate, the Kenyan security apparatus will need to review its counter-terrorism strategy. Given that roundups have failed to provide a solution to the growing number of terrorist attacks, Kenyan authorities may look at counter-radicalization and de-radicalization strategies to improve relations and cooperation between the ethnic-Somali community and the state. Strategies of this sort could improve intelligence gathering and enable the pre-emptive location of terrorist safe-houses in preference to maintaining the current focus on raiding residential estates for mass roundups.

Muhyadin Ahmed Roble is a Nairobi-based analyst for the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor publication.


1. Al-Kataib Media Foundation, May 14, 2014.