Violence won’t win radicalisation fight

What you need to know:

  • Youth join terror groups for two main reasons: Economic benefits and religious convictions.
  • Taming these will need a shift in governance, role models, synergies with religious systems and not violence

A close look at the names of youth involved in Al-Shabaab networks reveals they are not all from Somalia. Neither are all of them from the Somali ethnic community.

In their group, one finds names such as Kariuki, Omondi, Gitonga, and many other non-Somali names implying Al-Shabaab has recruited from other Kenyan communities.

The majority within the ranks of Al-Shabaab, however, are Muslims — Kenyan and non-Kenyan Muslims. On basis of religious identity, the Somali are evidently the majority, with a few members from other communities and races.

At the same time, those who have died in Al-Shabaab attacks in Mandera, among other places, included youth from other parts of the country.

They went to Mandera to seek economic refuge. They are economic migrants. In fact, some travelled back to Mandera after the first attack because they had said the county had better economic opportunities for them than what was available in there home counties.

The profile of the membership of Al-Shabaab and those who have died in Al-Shabaab related attacks reveal two things. There are those who join the outfit on religious grounds. And there are those who join for economic reasons. The non-Somali’s joining Al-Shabaab appear to do so for economic reasons. To do so, however, it seems they are first required to convert to a new faith before they gain membership and identity.

The Kariukis, Omondis and Gitongas who have joined Al-Shabaab are not any different from the Kariukis, Omondis and Gitongas who went to Mandera for economic reasons. Both are motivated by economic reasons. Both types of youth are victims of economic circumstances in their home areas. They are in search of income opportunities.

Review of media reports citing what the Al-Shabaab recruits are promised to earn upon joining the militia show figures close to the monthly earnings by those who died in quarry works in Mandera. The earnings range between Sh20,000 and 40,000 a month. This is quite a substantial amount. Some youth may therefore risk their lives because they have no opportunity for such incomes.

Those recruiting the youth into the militia sometimes promise more than these figures. They promise about $1000 (Sh102,000) a month but there is no evidence that anyone got this amount. They receive less, if they are paid at all.

And of course once you are radicalised to think about your new religion as the only pure religion, you tend to forget the money. You have new heavenly promises pre-occupying your mind.

Those joining the militia for economic reasons are fewer than those joining for religious reasons. At least research findings show that less than 20 per cent do join these groups for economic considerations.

Religion and attendant radicalisation is the main motive for joining the militia. Those joining for radical reasons tend to have grievances with the other religious groups; grievances with the government; or grievances with history. They have grievances with the society in which they live. They are bitter with one thing or another.


The youth joining the militia for economic motives are the most dangerous because they are drawn from Kenyan communities. Some of them get radicalised and therefore take extremist positions and perspectives on the society they live in.

In fact, they become bitter with the society in which they live particularly because they see the world as unjust to them. The forms of impunity that characterise administrative life of the society in which they live makes them hostile to public and private institutions.

Those educated and without a decent job, or those who dropped out of school for lack of school fees become bitter with the society that reproduces these conditions of life. They see the society as unjust and unfair to them.

But how the society is governed also help these youth to adopt extreme view points. When they see the rich breaking the law without any consequences, they become bitter. When they see politicians stealing public funds without consequences they become bitter. They begin creating images of a society that is unjust to the poor and biased in favour of a few — the rich.

On the basis of real life situations, they develop new and radical views about the society they live in. Unfortunately, they live in our midst. The youth that are not members of the militia, are also radicalised in different ways. The forms of impunity that characterise public life helps in distancing the poor youth from the society.


Unfortunately the strategies evolving around the fight against terrorism do not recognise the different motives that give rise to extremist groups. Counter-terrorism strategies are generally focused on security, and disrupting the operations of the militia group in a violent manner.

The strategy appears based on the understanding that the group is itself violent. It can only be disrupted through similarly means.

But counter-radicalisation strategies are rarely prescribed. Security dimensions have come to occupy a central place even in counter-radicalisation debates. At the same time, counter-radicalisation approaches have tended to pay attention only to ‘religious’ aspects of the problem. Rarely have they appreciated the need to examine the economic roots and origins of the radical youth.

Although these are complex issues that require complex solutions, there are a few important steps that can be taken to address important aspects of the problem.


First is the issue of governance. Some of the youth recruited into the militia accept to do so for economic reasons. They are helpless. They do not see a bright future life ahead. They are disillusioned by how people access employment opportunities.

They cannot afford to raise bribes that the youth give to join the police service commission or to be employed as teachers or to be employed as clerks in parastatals. They have neither the money nor tall relatives to induce their employment.

Streamlining access to opportunities is perhaps a policy issue to pay attention to. And the poor are known in all villages. They include those who did very well in school but did not further their studies because they lacked fees. They include those who have been getting genuine support through school bursary programmes.

Streamlining access to opportunities is a governance issue. It requires political and bureaucratic commitment. It requires political direction in the form of making a bold decision to punish the members of cartels that distribute ‘public jobs’ for a pay.

But the cartels are usually very powerful. They have the ability to bring down anyone messing with their incomes. The answer to their powers and influence lies in commitment to the rule of law. This of course is a dream that may not be lived this soon.

The on going investment in infrastructure projects across the country by both the county and the national government are absorbing many of the unemployed youth.

The National Youth Service (NYS) projects are quite visible in some of the counties where they are doing feeder roads, opening drainage systems, and undertaking other public works.

The numbers of youth involved in NYS and non-NYS related projects are many. They are a relieve in some ways because they are providing some form of ‘occupation’ to the youth.


These interventions alone will not address the problems that have contributed to the radicalisation of some of the youth, and the Muslim in particular. How they get citizenship documents and how the counter-terrorism police treat them and other Muslim constituencies and institutions must change for them to fill as part of Kenya. How they acquire citizenship documents make them feel excluded.

Policy and administrative prescriptions that are inclusive and transparent in this regard should be prioritised. Resources must be spent to fix the process of acquiring these documents.

Working with diverse group of Muslim leaders to address some of these challenges is usually omitted in policy considerations. There is a tendency to usually focus on clerics yet not all Muslims go to the mosques.

Winning back our youth is governance problem that requires a governance solution. Evolving strategies that make everyone feel part of the society is critical in this regard.

Prof Karuti Kanyinga is a researcher at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi, [email protected]


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