Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based Islamist militant organization, is still actively recruiting from neighboring Kenya even as the group suffers major setbacks in southern Somalia. Underpinning the group’s notable success in recruitment is the radicalization and indoctrination of young men in order to prepare them for the battle in Somalia and beyond (The Standard, November 5, 2015). This trend has clear implications for efforts to tackle al-Shabaab in Somalia, as well as for Kenya’s own internal security.
The methods and aims driving al-Shabaab recruitment have changed in response to the combat theater in which the actors operate (The Star, November 2, 2015). Initially, recruitment targeted desperate slum youths in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa, but the tactics and the individuals they prey on has since changed. According to officials in Kenya’s National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS), the militants are increasingly luring well-educated university students to the group, thereby penetrating institutions of higher learning with recruitment, training and indoctrination efforts (Daily Nation, June 29, 2015). Like the slum youths al-Shabaab previously targeted, students and recent graduates are been offered money, jobs and opportunity. Typically, such opportunities include a $700 per month salary, upkeep for their families, and a list of economic and spiritual benefits, which have led many educated individuals to accept al-Shabaab’s offer. Reports indicate that al-Shabaab may be seeking the development of chemical weapons to employ in East Africa. Perhaps for this reason, recruits with science background – such as chemical, electrical, and mechanical engineering – have reportedly been a priority (Intelligence Brief, May 24, 2015; The Star, November 2, 2015).
Although the recruitment process has netted young people from all parts of Kenya, the majority are from Muslim-dominant regions in the country’s northeastern territory (Intelligence Briefs, May 25, 2015). The recruits’ presence in the militant group has been put on display by its propaganda videos, which feature fighters speaking a Kenyan Kiswahili dialect (Daily Nation, November 1, 2015). In April, Kenyan security agencies learned firsthand the impact of educated Kenyan recruits after it was revealed that one of the Garissa University College attackers was a prior University of Nairobi (UON) law student. The attack killed 148 people, primarily university students in Garissa, a town often cited as the gateway to Kenya’s northern districts.
Abdirahim Mohammad Abdullahi, the former student behind the attack – killed by Special Forces during an operation to retake the university – was a privileged son of a chief in Mandera (Kenya Today, April 25, 2015). Abdullahi had graduated in 2013 and worked for a local bank as an advisor before joining the ranks of al-Shabaab. He became the second university student to die while carrying out an attack on behalf of al-Shabaab. Another university graduate died by suicide bomb in 2014 in an al-Shabaab raid on a police station in Nairobi. That attacker, Abdul Hajira, had disappeared for a year before reappearing to complete his studies in a Bachelors of Commerce degree (Citizen TV, August 2, 2015).
Student recruits like Abdullahi are believed to be under the wing of Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali, an engineer recently declared the supreme leader of al-Shabaab’s Kenyan branch. Ali, a former student of the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), additionally heads video production within al-Shabaab (Wardheernews, December 14, 2015). Based in Somalia since 2009, Ali’s recruitment efforts are believed to target not only students, but also deprived individuals in the Majengo slums in Nairobi where he grew up. Shabaab recruiters like Ali are recruiting street children between ages 12 and 16 residing in the coastal region. The children tend to be “easy targets,” as they often lack fundamental human needs, such as housing, clothing and food, which the group promises to provide in return for membership. Al-Shabaab also offers them a sense of family, purpose and belonging (Daily Nation, November 1, 2015). In August, security agencies named the top al-Shabaab members responsible for recruiting Kenyans; they included the aforementioned Ali, as well as Abdifatah Abubakar Ahmad and Ramadan Hamisi Kufungwa. The latter two are leaders of the Jeshi la Ayman (‘Army of Ayman’), a group formed by the militants to increase the number of attacks in Kenya. They have also participated in some large attacks in Kenya’s coastal region, where they reportedly focus many of their recruiting efforts (Tuko, August 17, 2015).
Recently, however, divisions between foreign fighters and ethnic Somalis have escalated, threatening to tear apart the militant force. This infighting is exacerbating the pressure on the group coming from increasingly effective operations in Somalia by the African Union’s African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). In particular, the loss of strategic towns and key revenue sources in Somalia due to AMISON actions have left the group looking weak and disjointed. An additional cause of the divisions within the group has been whether the organization and its various, diverse sub-factions should pledge allegiance to the Islamic State or remain loyal to al-Qaeda (Intelligence Brief, April 27, 2015).
Since the emergence of the Islamic State, foreign fighters in al-Shabaab have pushed to strengthen links with the group. These fighters are convinced that linking themselves with Islamic State would raise al-Shabaab’s status to that of a global jihadist group, as opposed to its current profile as a regional heavyweight. The rift between foreign recruits and the more locally-focused ethnic Somalis that comprise al-Shabaab appeared to widen in October with international media reporting that a faction led by the formerly UK-based Abdul Qadir Mumin had pledged its loyalty to the Islamic State (Tuko, October 23, 2015).
These developments have put foreign al-Shabaab fighters on a collision course with native Somali fighters who, though loyal to al-Qaeda, see the current battle partially in nationalistic terms; it is away to liberate the country from foreign influence. Indeed, al-Shabaab has constantly emphasized its allegiance to al-Qaeda in spite of personnel changes in both groups. Al-Shabaab’s previous leader, Mukhtar Abu Zubair, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2012. Abu Ubaidah made a point of renewing al-Shabaab’s allegiance to al-Qaeda under his leadership 2014 after his promotion (Daily Nation, September 17, 2014).
Even with tumultuous internal politics, recruitment by al-Shabaab’s leaders have continued to be successful. In particular, the presence of Kenyan foreign fighters has accelerated the recruitment of new individuals from Kenya, bringing on board both Somali and non-Somali speakers and expanding the organization’s reach. So far, the group has been keen to use Kenyans to attack their country. Al-Shabaab has sought to target since the 2011 invasion of Southern Somalia by the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF), which dealt a heavy blow to the group’s previously strong presence in that region.
In spite of the apparent influx of Kenyan fighters into al-Shabaab, there is a notable flow of individuals departing the group, as well. In the last few months, 700 al-Shabaab members are believed to have left the group and returned to Kenya (The Star, November 4, 2015). Many have sought to take advantage of a government amnesty program announced in April after the Garissa University college attack, while others have returned on their own accord after promises made by al-Shabaab recruiters were not kept. Many foreign fighters returned with amputated limbs, head injuries and other significant bodily harm.
Al-Shabaab has unquestionably penetrated Kenya’s institutions of higher learning, radicalizing and recruiting students. The government’s poor monitoring of these institutions has directly impacted the success of such efforts, and Kenya should prioritize the issue. Until the country takes a proactive stance on the outflow of foreign fighters from its country and into the ranks of al-Shabaab, Kenya risks losing highly trained, educated students to the appeal of a terrorist organization and, as seen in the Garissa University College attack, knowledgeable students may be able to carry out more complex, effective attacks.
Sunguta West is an independent journalist based in Nairobi.