How poverty and search for identity drive youth into terrorism

The Riyadha Mosque in Majengo, Nairobi. A UN report claimed it was used as a recruitment ground for Al-Shabaab. PHOTO | BILLY MUTAI |

What you need to know:

  • More recent terrorist acts in Kenya have brought home the reality of domestic extremist violence.
  • Thousands of young Kenyan men have made the short journey across the border into Somalia and, in the process, often, a giant leap into violent extremism.

Tom Otieno, 18, was an unlikely terrorist. Although he grew up in a poor slum in Nairobi, he was born and raised in a Catholic family that traces its roots to Kisumu, western Kenya.

He did not fit many of the stereotypical and xenophobic descriptions of terrorists in Kenya, which can roughly be summed up as a young poor Muslim of Somali origin.

Recent terror attacks attributed to the Somali extremist group Al-Shabaab, including the one on Westgate Mall last September, have only cemented the stereotypes.

However, more recent terrorist acts in Kenya, including those in Mpeketoni that President Kenyatta said were carried out by locals at the instigation of the government’s political rivals, have brought home the reality of domestic extremist violence.

Otieno is one of a growing number of young Kenyans joining groups with an ideology of extremist violence. His family lives in Majengo, the sprawling slum in Pumwani District in the outskirts of Nairobi, where the family patriarch settled three decades ago.

It is a grim place. Tiny mud-and-wattle houses lean against one another and residents jump over sewage and other forms of filth to get from one miserable place to another.

As the afternoon sun gives way to the musky evening, several women of the night emerge from siesta in their tiny, one-room shacks and, sitting in different alleys, they can be seen applying scents and lotions, refreshing and recycling their wares in preparation for take-off — flightless human birds of prey.

From many spots in Majengo you can see Nairobi’s central business district, with its tall buildings. But the most distinctive structure here is a new mosque, completed a few months ago, which is over four storeys.

According to a UN report, the mosque served as a recruitment ground and fund raising channel for Al-Shabaab. Officials connected to the mosque deny any link to the militant group but there is no doubt that Majengo is one of the main recruitment grounds for young Kenyans into extremism.

In August 2011, Otieno announced to his family that he had converted to Islam. That was not entirely unusual in a neighbourhood with a large Muslim population, and his two sisters had converted too.

However, as Otieno’s brother, Markkas Odiko, says, strange things started happening. Many of the boy’s friends, who were all Muslims and had attracted him to the religion, started disappearing from around July 2012. In August that year, Otieno disappeared.

The family had heard reports that young people were being recruited to go to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab. “I know more than 100 youths known to me personally who went to Somalia,” Odiko says.

Two weeks after Otieno disappeared, his family reported to the police. His picture was sent out across the country and his mobile phone was traced to Mombasa, where many recruits assemble before making their way north into Somalia.

After its informers within Kenyan police informed Al-Shabaab that Otieno’s disappearance had been reported, he was stopped from crossing the border and told to return home. Three friends he was travelling with sneaked across into Somalia and a waiting party of Al-Shabaab fighters received them.

Otieno was the one that got away. Thousands of young Kenyan men have made the short journey across the border into Somalia and, in the process, often, a giant leap into violent extremism.

The exact number is hard to tell, but many sources say the recruitment started as far back as 2006 when young Kenyans were given a chance to go and make some money fighting alongside different clan factions in Somalia.

This recruitment escalated around 2008/9 when, with the knowledge and often involvement of Kenyan security officials, as many as 3,000 young men were taken into training with promises of thousands of US dollars to fight in Somalia.


Some, like Otieno, were reeled in over several months. In some cases, however, recruitment happened much faster. At the offices of Youth, Arts, Development & Entrepreneurship Network (Yaden) in Pangani, Nairobi, Sami Gathii, the head, tells the story of a young man nicknamed “12 O’clock to 1 O’clock” after he was recruited to go to Somalia in an hour.

Yaden, which uses music, art, drama and skills training to keep youths away from Al-Shabaab recruiters, operates in a former condemned building once occupied by street children. From the white square tiles, Gathii’s tiny office must have been a kitchen or a bathroom.

A few metres away is the spot where a bomb went off inside a matatu last December, killing at least four and injuring several others.

“Everyone is recruiting in this area,” Gathii says, “from mosques, churches, Al-Shabaab, Kenya Defence Forces to the major political parties.”

Radicalisation, he says, often happens on the way back from Somalia, when young men move from fighting for what they see as a grand cause and return to their miserable and inconsequential lives.

The returnees either turn to crime or become easy target to those that use the victimisation narrative to preach extremist ideology.

In nearby Eastleigh, Robert and Abdi, both volunteers with the Youth United for Social Mobilisation, say they have seen about 30 young men who have returned from Somalia.

Some were recruited by KDF, promised as much as $3,500 (Sh305,000) and trained but returned when they were paid less or grew weary of the vagaries of war. Others were recruited by Al-Shabaab, offered Sh100,000, and promised more.

In the absence of a de-radicalisation programme, many slip back quietly often to find that they are stigmatised and ostracised. The local mosques, always welcoming — and with recruiters always lurking — often become a sanctuary.

Kenya’s response to the threat of violent extremism and radicalisation, for instance, as seen in the raids on Eastleigh early this year targeting illegal immigrants from Somalia, has often followed the narrative that frames it as an externalised problem.

A more nuanced understanding of the problem, particularly one that asks the right questions, might lead to more appropriate responses.

A 2009 USAid-commissioned study into the drivers of violent extremism found that a lot of the conventional wisdom about what turns ordinary people like Otieno into willing suicide bombers is not always accurate.

For instance, while many recruits are usually poor and attracted by offers of jobs and money, organisations that promote violent extremism rarely dwell on issues like poverty, unemployment, services or economic opportunities.

Instead, the study shows, they are usually pre-occupied by emotive triggers such as identity, existential threats, perceived humiliation, cultural domination and oppression.


Kenya’s response to the rise of violent extremism has followed a take-no-prisoners approach. Besides the raids on Eastleigh, it has been characterised by what appears to be targeted assassination of radical preachers such as Sheikh Aboud Rogo and others at the coast, mass arrests of young men at mosques, forced deportation, and other strong-arm responses.

It is too early to tell how effective this response will be, but the USAid study found that countries that protect civil liberties and political rights are less likely to produce violent extremism.

In addition, the study identified the following key political drivers of violent extremism: harsh rule and violation of human rights; widespread corruption and impunity for well-connected elite, poorly governed or ungoverned areas, protracted and violent local conflicts, and previous government support to these groups.

A close reading of these drivers suggests that political reforms, including resolution of deep-seated grievances in north eastern Kenya and at the Coast, are likely to be as effective, if not more, than midnight raids on Eastleigh.

This is not to say that promoters of the ideology of violent extremism should be ignored. The study notes the “potentially crucial” role the appeal of particular leader or inspirational figure plays.

It argues that deep-seated issues “may not actually lead to violence in the absence of political entrepreneurs, ideologues, and/or organisations that can frame and channel the relevant grievances in violent directions”.

The response to such ideologues, however, should be within the confines of the rule of law lest it reinforces the victimisation narrative and further radicalise those who look up to them.

“Conditions are ripe for insurgency,” says a Kenyan scholar who has researched on extremist violence in northern Kenya and at the Coast, speaking off the record at a closed-door seminar on insecurity. “Some 3,000 or so militia were trained to go fight in Somalia and Jubaland; where are they now?”

Although Otieno is reunited with his family, his mind is still far and he keeps mostly with his friends from the mosque in Majengo, his other family according to his brother.

He has found a job selling wares in a nearby jua kali market, but he lives from hand to mouth. He is yet to be fully accepted by his neighbours, who are suspicious that he might be part of a sleeper cell.

*Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the sources.