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The changing face of militia recruitment in northern Kenya

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Recruiters are targeting youths in Garissa, Wajir and Mandera counties to join militia groups.

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When Ismail Mohamed aka Oscar Maley left Kenya last December, his family was ecstatic and hoped he would help change their fortune.

Ms Mariam Abdullahi Hussein said the family believed her brother had been recruited to join the military in Russia.

However, they were devastated to learn that their son was being held in Libya after being recruited locally to join the military in Libya.

“My brother always talked of going to Russia and we were shocked when we received a call informing us that he was in Libya,” Ms Hussein said.

The victim has worked for several local radio stations in Mandera town and even vied for Neboi MCA seat in the 2017 elections but lost.

Ahmed moved into Mandera from Moyale in 2015 and crossed into Somalia on October 5, 2023.

He returned to Mandera after a few weeks in Mogadishu in the company of a local man.

“He came back with a man we all know, only for him to disappear again. I was shocked to see a video clip of him while in Libya and being beaten,” said his friend who spoke to us on condition of anonymity.

The friend said it remained mysterious how Ahmed ended up in Libya but confirmed that there are businessmen recruiting youths to join the military in Russia and Syria.

The family has since sent a million shillings to the Magafe in Libya to set their kin free but the captors are demanding another one million shillings.

“My brother arrived in Libya on December 15, 2023, and his captors called a day later demanding Sh2 million. We have managed to raise a half. He has never told us how he ended up in Libya but he says there are many in captivity and that another youth from Mandera recently died,” she said.

Magafe is a nickname given to a Libyan warlord who has made a business out of kidnapping immigrants heading to Europe through the Sahara Desert.

Magafe literally means one who never misses in the Somali language.

After waylaying the immigrants, Magafe detains them until they pay off a ransom to buy their freedom.

After he is paid, Magafe takes the immigrants across the desert to the coastline and hands them over to other human traffickers who still charge them a certain amount of money to take them across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe through Italy.

Magafe has grown to the point that they operate vehicles, horses and even camels to patrol the expansive Libyan Desert in search of immigrants.

To raise funds to free Ahmed, a WhatsApp group was started in Mandera where local politicians and senior government officials were added and even contributed funds.

Ahmed’s case has opened the lid on how recruitment of youths into militia groups in Northern Kenya is now fast changing as the victims are lured into traps of job opportunities, only to be armed.

Recruiters are spread across the region and operate from places of worship to playgrounds, preying on jobless youths.

Confidential security reports have indicated the presence of recruiters in urban areas targeting youths across the three counties of Garissa, Wajir and Mandera.

Wajir Governor Ahmed Abdullahi opened the lid on the most guarded information by security agencies in the region over the weekend.

The Wajir County boss revealed that there is a recruitment drive in Northern Kenya disguised as military job opportunities in Syria, Israel and Russia, while in reality, the youths are being lured into joining militant groups such as Al-Shabaab and Isis.

 “We are asking our youths not to be cheated or hoodwinked with goodies that don't exist; we are pleading with them not to be radicalised into joining militant groups, be it al-Shabaab, Isis or all manner of terrorist groups,” said Governor Abdullahi.

He added, “It is unfortunate that the youth from this region are being cheated that there are job opportunities to go and fight in Russia and Syria.  We ask the parents to know where their children are.”

Mr Abdullahi, who also serves as the vice-chairperson of the Council of Governors (COG), warned recruiters and radicalisers that the Kenyan government is aware of their activities and will take decisive action against them.

“Don’t think that you will come to this region, recruit and radicalise our children into joining militia groups and you walk scot-free, it will not be the case, the government shall deal decisively with such individuals,” he held.

But when reached for comment, North Eastern Regional Coordinator John Otieno denied knowledge of any ongoing recruitment of youths.

“I am not aware of any agencies recruiting youths into joining militant groups from this region,” Mr Otieno said.

The regional security boss said no single report of a missing person linked to a militia group outside the country has been made to his office.

Even so, a family in Mandera has been fundraising to have their kin back home from Libya

Governor Abdullahi made the revelations over the weekend when he launched the first phase of the Kazi Mtaani programme, aiming to clean the Wajir Town Municipality, clear bushes, and unclog drainage post-El Niño rains.

“We'll employ our youth through Kazi Mtaani to address the aftermath of the El Niño rains, which has led to overgrowth of bushes and excessive plastic litter in town,” he stated.

Part of the clean-up effort, he explained, includes collecting plastic waste to be deposited at the site earmarked to construct a recycling plant.

“We are setting up a plastic factory, which will be a recycling plant that will convert all the plastics into building and interlocking blocks and cabro for paving the roads,” he revealed.

The clean-up exercise is part of the county’s goal of making Wajir Municipality plastic-free and improving sanitation to combat mosquito-borne diseases.

The clean-up, road clearing, and plastic collection will span 30 days, providing youth with employment and incentives while reducing crime.

He instructed the county sports department to expand youth sports programmes to ensure year-round engagement and support for participants.

“We believe it will keep a lot of young men and young ladies off trouble as they will be kept busy and also allow them to earn incentives in a proper manner,” he said, adding that the mop-up exercise will be devolved to sub-county headquarters.

To deter youth from extremist groups, the county will sponsor sports activities, providing uniforms, equipment, and prize money.

“This initiative aims to keep our youth occupied in constructive activities, preventing them from falling prey to radicalisation,” the governor said.