The impression most people have of youths who travel to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab is that these young people voluntarily ask to be radicalised for religious or other purposes.
Reports shared by many of those who have escaped from terror cells in the war-torn neighbouring country, however, indicate most are actually tricked into joining the terror group.
It starts with promises of well-paying jobs, occasional expensive gifts and mobile cash transfers.
Recruiters also profile young people who harboured dreams of joining military forces and prey on their dashed hopes to conscript them into training and radicalisation, in the hope that these youths would in future return to carry deadly attacks against their own country.
Most of the youths who were tricked into travelling to Somalia were shocked to find that they had been trapped into two-year mandatory training. Many of these are now escaping and returning to Kenya, where state agencies have set up rehabilitation centres for returnees.
Lured into joining Shabaab
Nassir Ali*, not his real name, is among 300 Kenyan youths who recently returned to the country after escaping the brutal world of terrorism in Somalia.
Ali, a Mombasa resident, recalls how he was lured into joining the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab militia group.
In 2005, Ali was idling away his time after completing his secondary education says.
“There was a National Youth Service (NYS) recruitment in Kwale County. I went for the interviews, passed and underwent training for nine months in Gilgil. I was later on posted to Tana River,” says Ali.
A year later, Ali left the NYS and travelled back to Mombasa, where he ventured into construction work.
Jobs were hard to come by, until his cousin offered to help.
“My cousin, who lived in Lamu County, approached me in 2014 and interested me in a construction project in the county which would supposedly pay good cash. I travelled alongside three of his friends,” narrates Ali.
The four were given Sh10,000 each as assurance they had landed jobs.
“My cousin assured us that our pay would be Sh40,000 every month. We were quite excited,” he told the Nation.
“We got into a saloon car and started the journey, sometimes cutting through forests. When we wondered why we were driving through thickets, we were told it was the easiest and shortest way to the site,” said Ali.
After two days on the road, they reached their destination in the evening.
“Upon arrival, we were shocked to see more than 200 people carrying machine guns and sporting military fatigues. It was a military camp!” Ali said tearfully.
Ali told the Nation that they were not allowed to rest. They were told to join the others for military training.
“I was asked whether I had ever done any military training before. I told them about my NYS training,” recalled Ali.
He and one of his cousin’s friends were to be recruited as part of the army, while the other two were posted to the kitchen department as cooks.
At the camp, they would wake up at four in the morning and embark on training until eight o’clock, when they took their first break.
“For one to be sent on an assignment they must have completed a two-year training at the camp.”
“The story changed from Sh40,000 per month. We were told all the money would be paid after two years of training,” narrated Ali.
It then hit the four that poverty, historical injustices and lack of jobs had been used to bait them into radicalisation.
Another recruit, Amani Said*, whose real name cannot be disclosed for security reasons, was recruited in different way.
The Form-Four dropout from Mombasa County was lured to join Al-Shabaab by one of his closest friends and former schoolmate.
His friend, a resident of Kwale County, had now moved to Lamu County after word spread that he was a well-known Al-Shabaab recruiter.
“When we were in school, I had confided to my friend that I longed to become a Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldier. I had no idea such a simple statement could change the course of my life,” said Said.
“Joining the KDF is still my dream, but I am not sure anymore if it is possible since all I do now is run from one hideout to the next,” narrated Said.
He had lost contact with his friend after school, but they later reconnected through Facebook.
“We started exchanging calls and messages and he promised to help me get a marine job. Things took an interesting turn when my friend sent a brand-new phone via bus courier service. He instructed me to be using the handset for all my communication henceforth,” Said explained.
Since he was interested in the marine job, he followed the instructions.
“He said he had good connections and, being my schoolmate, I believed him,” Said, who is now 24 years old, narrated.
Then the money started flowing in. His friend would send between Sh5,000 and Sh8,000 via Mpesa money transfer. He was also warned against communicating from cyber cafes, presumably to avoid being tracked by government officials.
His friend also kept sending photos of nice, big cars and wads of dollars stuffed in a box.
“I later came to realise it was a way of keeping me hooked. The transactions went on for weeks, then arrangements for me to travel started,” Said told the Nation.
Convert to Islam
He first had to convert to Islam, stay away from people and follow all other instructions given to him. His recruiters would sometimes call him to ask what he was doing at a particular place.
“In a few days, I was to be picked up by a boat in Old Town, Mombasa County, and head to Mpeketoni, where I was to meet up with my friend Kassim. From there, we were to travel to Lamu together for my job interview,” he said.
This was, however, not to be. His journey was cut short by his elder brother, who had by now grown suspicious of his new behaviour and money.
He immediately started receiving threats, which prompted him to share his entire experience with his brother, who also spoke to Nation.Africa.
The brother said the recruiter-friend had been raised in one of the terror recruitment hotspots in Nyali Constituency.
“With time, we noticed he was aloof. I managed to talk to him then he opened up,” says the brother.
Escape from Al-Shabaab
So, how do the returnees escape from the Shabaab training camp?
Ali told the Nation that when it became clear he had been tricked, he started thinking of ways to escape.
“In August 2015, we managed to find our way out of the camp through a route we had identified earlier. We walked for two days in a forested terrain,” explained Ali.
“We failed in our first attempt, when we came across manyattas inhabited by Somalis. They asked so many questions, which we failed to answer. They refused to assist us. We continued with the journey until we came to a small village,” he narrated.
An old man who offered transport services decided to help them.
They managed to cross over into Mandera County, boarded a lorry to Garissa and booked a bus that operated across the Coast counties.
“To date, I am still in hiding since my life is in danger. I have no idea what will happen to me next,” says Ali.
A recent report by the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) stated 300 youths have so far returned into the country after fleeing the Somalia-based al-Shabaab group.
Most of them are aged below 30 years.
Speaking in Mombasa, NCTC Director Njenga Miiri confirmed to the Nation that there are rehabilitation programmes for the returnees.
“I cannot divulge the numbers, but there is an ongoing programme,” he said.
Returnees in hiding
Most returnees are, however, in hiding due to fears of extra-judicial killings.
According to a report released last year by Haki Africa, a human rights organisation, six cases of extra-judicial killings were recorded in Kwale County.
Alfan Linuku, Usama Nasoro and Abdallah Nassir were among those who were abducted from Bongwe village before their bodies were found dumped at the Tsavo National Park.
“Extrajudicial killings have been the main stumbling block in cultivating good ties between the police and communities at the Coast,” the report seen by Nation.Africa said.