Youth radicalisation: We made our bed, let us now lie in it

Emmanuel Oneka (left) and Lukwiya Malcom in a Nairobi court where they were linked to Syria’s ISIS terrorist group. FILE PHOTO | PAUL WAWERU |

What you need to know:

  • There is a need to understand why the youth get radicalised.
  • The drivers may be external as some tend to argue.
  • But there are drivers hidden deep in our own value systems and others in our own homes.

Security is now a global challenge. Of concern in this respect is terrorism and related consequences. This is a new global challenge that requires governments everywhere to put together measures to address it.

On this, it is clear governments everywhere are, on a daily basis, preoccupied with the question of how to counter violent extremism and radicalisation of the youth. In getting answers to this, they have turned “all issues security” into a major global enterprise. What to do about it is now an economy with networks of people producing security merchandise. Others are distributing them, and governments and private firms are consuming them.

Families and individuals are not left out. They are buying this or that for security. Feelings of insecurity are driving people to new ways of investments in what they think can secure them.

In doing all these, there are doubts whether we all know what problem we are addressing. There are doubts regarding whether governments in Europe, America, and even here at home, are treating the right problem or symptoms of a deeper malaise.

At the international level, Europe and America are even more confused. They mobilise in support of each other whenever they experience terror attacks. They isolate African episodes of attack only to realise that they are connected to attacks in their own backyards. These problems are linked and how they feed on each other is lost out.

Interesting is also that many view this problem as a new one. People having extremist viewpoints and adopting violent measures is not a new thing. People being radicalised because of the realities in which they live is also not a new thing. These are not new whether in Europe, North America or even in Africa.

Yet the global enterprise and drivers of the global security economy want everyone to believe that this is a new global problem requiring a new solution.

A related problem is that the context in which all governments are operating are varied and yet there is a tendency to generalise on the solutions to terrorism, violent extremism, and radicalisation of the youth. In fact, even more worrying is the tendency by many governments to adopt the “American solution” to everything security: Military intervention or use of the gun.

Here at home, there is also the nonsensical argument that terrorism related problems are the result of Kenya Defence Force’s presence in Somalia. This cannot be. Terrorism on Kenyan soil began way back, earlier than when the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab group came to the fore.

Those arguing so miss the picture. Some have not even reflected on the view that there are many non-Somali Kenyan youth in Al-Shabaab. Those reported to have joined the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab terrorist group include youth who are not from the traditional Muslim communities: The Somali and coastal communities. The recruits include Kamba, Kikuyu, Luhya, and other communities.

If this is the situation, is the world asking the right questions? Are governments in Europe, America, and even here in Kenya treating the right problem? And do all these problems require a “gun” solution?


To begin with, there is a need to understand why the youth get radicalised and, more so, what drives some to be recruited into violent groups. The drivers may be external as some tend to argue. But there are drivers hidden deep in our own value systems and others in our own homes. These are so deeply hidden in our values that we may not see them with naked eyes.

In all communities, black or white, Muslim or Christian, Swahili or English, Kikuyu or Somali, there are certain values that are slowly transmitted from the old to the young. The young learn and pick up certain values and attitudes from how they see parents, peers, behave. This is a life-long process through which one grows to develop certain views about other people or even issues in the society.

The views that the children pick up from their parents while at the fireplace or the dining table or even the church, mosque, or school, help to develop a mirror through which the children will be making judgements about events as they grow up. They make choices in life based on these lenses that they acquire from the fireplace, at home, the dining table at home or the school among others.

They develop views on politics, religion, other tribes or other families on the basis of these small fireplace “values” or what happens in their schools, the church and the mosque. They develop feelings of “tribal loyalty” or become violently opposed to other ethnic groups or religious groups on account of these values that are transmitted to them at an early age.

People develop certain positions, including radical positions, on the world on account of these contexts. As they grow up, they develop conscious decisions on certain things. One can even make a conscious decision to be a “terrorist” on the basis of how one is politically socialised. One can make a conscious decision to “hate another tribe” depending on how one is socialised.

The hate we see extremist groups expressing against people who are different from them on the basis of religion, colour, or even class is borne out of these values that are passed from generation to another. Muslim and Christian children are born innocent. Those who acquire extremist views or get recruited into violent extremist groups do so as a result of attitudes or values acquired from what is near them – the family, the mosque, and the church among others.

They become radicalised as a result of what they see going around them and as a result of what they hear from those around them. And those around them may deliberately choose to pass negative viewpoints against others because such messages were also passed to them earlier by others.

On the issue of radicalisation, and particularly shaping violent extremism, we all made our bed and, therefore, let us lie in it. The family, the mosque, and the church, as well as the local kindergarten, have contributed to making of this bed. Let us all lie in it.


Certainly this view is simplistic. There other causes of radicalism. World over, whether in Europe, America, or here in Kenya, radicalisation of the youth is also the result of fundamental grievances: Some are real and others are perceived.

Grievances of marginalisation on account of religion, race, or tribe are quite common. They lead to people adopting “violent viewpoints” on those they perceive as the perpetrators of their problems.

The grievances of the blacks in some areas of the US have pushed some to be radicalised in terms of how they view the “America government”. The immigrants in Europe have also adopted radicalised views about governments in Europe. The desolate conditions in which some people live on account of their “race” or even on account of “religion” reproduces the youth with certain extreme views of the world in which they live.

In Kenya, grievances of Muslims include concerns over difficulties in acquiring citizenship documents to concerns of poor development and mass dispossession in their regions.

They also touch on limited land rights at the Coast. Ironically, this problem has origins in the period of the Sultan of Zanzibar. It was during the Sultan’s era that many coastal groups were dispossessed and the land given away to Arabs and other people who converted to Muslim. Successive governments later aggravated the problem by allocating land to less deserving people.


De-radicalisation arguments have been going on for a while but it is rare to hear what people need to do with values that are passed at the family level or at schools, mosques, and the church among others. Revisiting the school curriculum to review what children are taught is not a choice. Neither is it a choice to revisit what is preached in mosques and churches.

And this is not the responsibility of the government. In fact, government’s intervention on some of these things will make it worse. The American solution to provide a “gun” for these problems will not work. What will work is simple awareness that this is the problem we all have contributed to and must work it. Saying no to what is not right at the mosque, church and the school is a good beginning. At the family, re-examine what you tell your children about other tribes, other families, and other religious groups.

Prof Karuti Kanyinga is a researcher at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi, [email protected]


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.