As East Africa Community countries absorb the shocking Kampala twin bombings this week, a report unveiled in Kisumu recently reveals that three Kenyan counties, including Busia on the Kenya-Uganda border, are new hotspots for recruiting young people into terrorist groups.
The other counties classified as terrorist breeding grounds are Bungoma and Kakamega, also in Western Kenya, where groups like Al-Shabaab are said to be radicalising the youth.
Other low-key areas listed as recruitment hotspots are Siaya, Nakuru, Kisumu, Vihiga, Homa Bay, Kisii, Migori and Nyamira, raising concerns for authorities.
The findings, contained in the report Emerging trends on counter violent extremism in Western Kenya 2021, came out of a study carried out between February 2020 and March 2021.
The report shows that terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab have changed tactics and are recruiting in new regions outside the traditional Coast, North Eastern and Nairobi areas.
Siaya is slowly becoming a major concern for authorities because of its location as a transit point on the route to the Ugandan border.
“Some of these people have been recruited from Bondo and Nyadorera and taken to Mombasa while others from Kisumu to Mumias. This informed a conclusion that counties in Western are not immune to terrorism,” said Dr Tom Mboya, a lecturer at Maseno University who conducted the research.
The report was presented at a forum in Kisumu on preventing and countering violent extremism in Western Kenya. Participants included Nyanza Regional Commissioner Magu Mutindika, Kisumu County Commissioner Josephine Ouko, and Njenga Miiri, the secretary for prevention and resilience at the National Counter-Terrorism Centre.
It was launched by Champions of Peace and other organisations.
The report also cited poverty and unemployment as major drivers of youth recruitment into violent extremism.
About 19.8 per cent of people believe in having a better life rather than to continue living in abject poverty.
“Most of the recruits say in Swahili, ‘Heri maisha fupi matamu kuliko maisha marefu ya dhiki na shida’ (Better a short happy life than a long life of penury and drudgery),” said Dr Mboya.
Some young people, he said, are paid as much as Sh100,000 to join terror groups.
Lack of trust between the community and police is also a contributing factor, as well as access to the internet, which exposes young people to terror activities.
The Islamic State and Al-Shabaab terror networks have extended their recruitment activities to Western Kenya, the gateway to Uganda and other East Africa nations that face constant threats of attacks.
Dr Mboya made the shocking revelation that about 11 per cent of young people don’t have a problem with people their age joining terror groups.
“While 55 per cent do not support (joining terror groups) and would alert authorities about any recruit, of concern is the five per cent the report reveals would support a decision of potential youth being recruited to Al-Shabaab and six per cent who will just look and not interfere with the individuals,” he said.
Mr Elly Opondo, Champions of Peace programmes director, said the major challenges facing young people need to be addressed.
Exploiting the vulnerabilities
“Terrorist groups are exploiting the vulnerabilities of the youth in high schools and tertiary institutions. This is why we are training chiefs, their assistants, teachers and the community on how to detect suspicious characters and prevent attacks,” he said.
Mr Mutindika, the Nyanza regional commissioner, asked chiefs, ward administrators and peace committee members to be the community watchdogs and report the activities of suspected terror groups to the relevant authorities.
“Kenya has become a primary target for terrorists. These young people, if not handled properly, might just fall into the wrong hands and that is why we need to be vigilant,” he said.
Ms Ouko, the Kisumu county commissioner, said the community today is a mixture of locals and foreigners here for work or business, urging individuals to take their security seriously.
“Living amidst us are foreigners who are in our homes as house helps, security guards or simply neighbours, which makes us vulnerable. Everyone should start telling each other that security starts with an individual,” she said.