Kenya's new terror hotspots raise alarm

Terror hotspots.

Terror hotspots.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Two of the terror convicts that had escaped from Kamiti Maximum Security Prison have once again cast the spotlight on the shifting nature of violent extremism and terrorism.

With a new study now showing that radicalisation has been happening in non-traditional recruitment areas for more than a decade, the involvement of Musharaf Abdalla Akhulunga and Joseph Juma Odhiambo in terrorism activities is telling.

The non-traditional regions include parts of the Rift valley, Western and Central Kenya, with Marsabit, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kakamega and Nyeri towns emerging as some of the hotspots that security agencies have to keep a keen eye on.

Though the country has remained largely peaceful with minimal cases of terrorism in the recent past, it remains on high alert as studies show that al-Shabaab militia have learnt to either remain dormant, become thinner or fragmented into small parts that have since spread around non-traditional zones of radicalisation and recruitment in order to escape scrutiny.

“In their newly settled areas, some individuals took on new roles in business and religious teaching, while well-known al-Hijra operatives, who had been arrested and convicted became active within Kenya’s prison system, allegedly targeting vulnerable young men for radicalisation,” observes the new report by Reinvent.

Planning attacks

The study notes that violent extremism in Marsabit County has been associated with members of the Da’wah group, which is reported to have expanded its influence in Marsabit town via a pastoral preaching initiative in schools, mosques and Madrassa between 2009 and 2012, and through the publication of pamphlets expressing support for militant jihad and al-Shabaab.

With time, however, most of their associates have been arrested, killed or fled to Somalia.

Among those arrested was Sheikh Guyo Gorsa, who was seized at Madrassa Toba in Marsabit town while preaching.

He was accused of being in communication with al-Shabaab militias in Somalia and in the country, with whom they were planning attacks and recruiting youth, including an operative known as Mbaraka Ali Huka who was killed in Isiolo around the same time.

“The case of the Marsabit Da’wah group presents the most compelling evidence for past and ongoing VE (violent extremism) activities in Marsabit County. While the activities of these individuals are now the subject of ongoing police investigations, the potential for future (clandestine) recruitment exists, as was suggested by respondents,” the study notes.

However, over time, community resilience levels are reported to have increased as evidenced by the eviction of propagators of extremist views from Masjid Jamia, the county’s main mosque, as well as a strong Christian-Muslim association.

A number of isolated individuals suspected of being involved in violent extremism and who hail from Nakuru County have attracted the attention of prevention and control officers.

These include the case in January 18, 2019, where 17 individuals were arrested in a two-room house in Samburu, Kwale County, with their identification cards showing they were from Nakuru.

On February 22, 2019, Mr Mohamed Nurrow Mohamed was arrested in Moyale and charged for the January 26, 2019 explosion on Latema Road that happened days after the Dusit hotel, attack.

Around the same time, the report notes an al-Shabaab cell that was in constant communication with the coordinators of the DusitD2 attack based in Jilib, Somalia, was plotting to abduct foreigners in Naivasha.

The most curious case to authorities, however, remains the arrest of Mr Javan Morton Murai alias Jamal by Kenya Wildlife Service rangers at a borehole in the Jaldesa Community Conservancy in Marsabit County.

Mr Murai, who hails from Vihiga County, was then a final-year law student at Kabarak University and a rugby player with Nakuru RFC. He had converted to Islam while in Nakuru, where he lived with his brother as he attended university.

Criminal activity

Though Nakuru is currently facing an acute rise in criminal activity, the report states that the locals have been unable to quickly pick out violent extremism from crime or politically instigated violence, and when they attempt to, they lack the evidence linking the alleged crime to VE.

“The rise of criminal gangs in Nakuru suggests the prominence of problems driven by a youth bulge in a town that is quickly urbanising. Combined with the inability of local state-citizen security structures to address or prevent regular crime, the slow emergence of an ideological rift amongst Nakuru’s Muslim community (with older versions of Muslim belief clashing with reformist and fundamental ideas) may serve to tilt sections of local Muslims towards more extreme views and actions in the future.

“If not properly detected and promptly addressed, an infrastructure of radicalisation and recruitment may emerge that local community, and community-state structures, will not be able to demobilise,” the report adds.

In 2015, Nixon Kipkoech Ruto alias Salim, then a third-year university dropout, was linked to radicalising youths in a local Madrassa. In 2017, he was arrested for leading a gang that robbed M-Pesa shops in Machakos, Nakuru, Kakamega and Kitale counties.

He hailed from Mwanzo estate in Turbo, Uasin Gishu, an area that local authorities identified as then experiencing an influx of Somali migrants from northern Kenya after the 2007-08 post-election violence that saw targeted businessmen vacate the area.

“This recently-settled Somali population was described by some respondents as a strongly bounded and exclusionist group, but it was also clear that there were levels of anti-Somali/Muslim rhetoric and suspicion in the town, leading a respondent to state that ‘their (Somalis/Muslims) lifestyle is unique; they bring their own people, engage in their own businesses, and are very difficult to engage’,” the report notes.

Online platforms

The report states that violent extremism actors and holders of extremist views in the country were found to have alienated themselves from the wider public and are yet to stake a claim in local politics or control Eldoret’s existing Islamic institutions.

“The nature of VE radicalisation and recruitment in Eldoret and other parts of Uasin Gishu County suggest that VE actors in this location have either established their own places of worship (without attempting to take over existing ones), or are working through other covert infrastructures of recruitment, fundraising and communication, perhaps involving the use of online platforms,” it says.

In Western Kenya, specifically Kakamega and its environs, the study notes, there are examples of covert infrastructure of recruitment, fundraising and communication especially across Busia, Bungoma and Siaya, with operators attempting to take over a number of local mosques in Mumias, where the two Kamiti escapees hail from.

Odhiambo, who was arrested on November 22, 2019 alongside Idris Wesonga by Somali National Army (SNA) soldiers after crossing the border, was linked to Masjid Furqan in Lukoye, Mumias. Locals said they suspect that the operators of violent extremism in the area may have fragmented and gone under to establish covert channels.

The Matungu area in Mumias, however, has experienced a rise in criminal gangs owing to the collapse of the Mumias Sugar factory, with locals shifting from the more lucrative sugar cane farming to maize cultivation.

The informal estate of Majengo in Nyeri became infamous after the DusitD2 hotel attack in January 2019 after it was established that one of the suicide bombers, Ali Salim Gichunge, had visited the area. Controversial Mombasa Muslim cleric Aboud Rogo was also said to have visited Majengo where he held several meetings with the youth.

Owing to its proximity to Isiolo and the North Eastern region, Nyeri is believed to be a transit point for terrorists and a recruitment hub for gullible youth lured with the promise of money and jobs outside the country.


The study notes that an “externalisation” narrative dismissing local drivers of violent extremism was deployed by senior government officials, despite evidence that an East African cell of Al-Qaeda had inserted itself among local communities in Kenya as early as 1993.

This, therefore, calls for the government to address unemployment, a leading vulnerability exploited by perpetrators of violent extremism to recruit members, as a strategy to curb it.

Additionally, government agencies are advised to educate the public on the complex nature of violent extremism.

“This is because VE usually includes a host of other political, cultural, societal and religious factors, and is not purely driven by strict criminal motivations, or other instrumental and financial factors. Related to this, P/CVE (prevention and countering of violent extremism) interventions in these locations should be incorporated into wider peace-building initiatives,” the study proposes.

The National Counter-Terrorism Centre has since developed 47 county action plans to prevent and counter violent extremism and trained more than 100,000 Kenyans on their role in security in intelligence-informed radicalisation hotspots and risk areas.