Youth Radicalization in Kenya: Tough Economic times or decay in Societal Values and Morals?

By Joy Murugi

Recruitment of youths into extremist groups and in particular, Al Shabaab has become common in Kenya. This has caused instability and sense of insecurity and has negatively impacted Kenya’s economy . In 2018, a study funded by USAID showed that more than 200 young men had been recruited into Al Shabaab from Isiolo county alone.  Internet and social media have made recruitment even easier as Al Shabaab has been systematically and intentionally using the internet to spread Jihadist propaganda.

On 15th January 2019, Dusit 2 hotel and complex was attacked by terrorists, leaving 21 people dead. A few hours into the attack, Al Shabaab claimed responsibility of the attack. Investigations by the police showed that the suspected team leader, was a 23-year-old from a middle-income family in Isiolo. Three of the other attackers identified were below 28 years. Kenyan security agencies made dozens of arrests, a large number of those arrested been youths.

The 2015 Garissa University attack, second bloodiest attack in Kenya that killed 148 people, mainly students is another example of how youths are now more engaged in terrorist activities. The four gunmen that carried out the attack were killed by security forces and arrests were made with three of the coordinators of the attack been youths.

Recruitment into Al Shabaab has greatly been associated with poverty, unemployment and political marginalization. Things are however shifting as recruiters are targeting youths from all backgrounds; both the rich and the poor. According to Guilain Denoeux and Lynn Carter, authors of “Guide to Drivers of Extremisms”, extremist organizations are adept at targeting different youth groups from with different promises.

This begs the questionis poverty and the tough economic times fully to be blamed? or is there a decay in societal values and morals?” Negative social cultural factors have now become the key drivers to youths joining Al Shabaab. Peer pressure, typical teenage rebelliousness, romanticizing of extreme jihadism, prospect for glory, strong sense of craving brotherhood and belonging, seeking revenge, reputation building and pressure from family and social institutions are now the trending reasons why youths are opting to join extremist groups. In Al Shabaab controlled areas, those that do not join Al Shabaab are seen as weak and considered to be supporters of Transnational Federal government of Somalia and are belittled. Some youths of Somali nationality are seeking revenge and protecting themselves and their family against the bombardment caused by United Nations peacekeepers in Somalia. They are encouraged by their family members and religious leaders to safeguard their identity from foreign invaders. The strong sense of brotherhood along with the respect and power those recruited get, strengthens their self worth, identity and collectiveness, making it easier for them to be willing to sacrifice their dreams and lives for the sake of religion.

Is there hope for redemption or is it too late? does the society have a role to play in ending this crisis or is it just the government’s responsibility?

“Projects to dissuade youths from joining extremist groups need to be set up. You cannot confront radicalization directly; you need different agencies and approaches.” Said Abdikadir Sheikh, who works with a sustainable support and advocacy program.

Capacity building on early warning signs needs to be established. Both government, society and family need to build ego and psychic strength for youths. There is a need for guiding & counselling and establishing capacity building programs on early warning signs, mainly targeting youths. Initiatives such as Amani (Peace) Clubs by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and the Ministry of Education, which aim to promote good relations and peaceful co-existence among students, would play a key role in helping reduce students if well utilized. Kenyan government on March 2017 formed a committee that would spearhead a campaign on preventative, mitigation and rehabilitative measures to complement the already existing counterterrorism efforts and in 2018, the committee began to work with ministry of education on a school program countering violent extremism.  

Parents must take up their parenting roles as absence of cohesive family ties attract youths into these subversive groups. The community and learning institutions are more aware of the situation and must therefore be more engaged in influencing the choices of youths. As a community, we must understand that youths have so much power to promote a peaceful co-existence culture as they have the strength and possess a talent for communication and mobilization. This is also in alignment with sustainable development goal 16 that calls for effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels and finally, there’s need for concerted national, regional and international cooperation.

Short Bio

Joy Murugi is an International Relations student at United States International University Africa, majoring in Diplomacy and Development. As a firm believer of the necessity of peace for any form of development to take place, Joy is enthusiastic about the role played by youths and works with them to free them from radicalization into extremist groups. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking and doing other outdoor adventurous activities.