by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens
The author will be speaking about his fieldwork in Kenya when presenting ICSR’s latest report — ‘Lights, Camera, Jihad: al Shabaab’s Western Media Strategy’ — in London THIS Wednesday 21 November. For more on this event, please click here.
A bomb attack in Nairobi yesterday killed six and injured around 30. It is the latest in a string of attacks carried out by sympathisers and members of the Somali jihadist militia al-Shabaab.
This ICSR Insight provides an overview of al-Shabaab’s strategy in Kenya, its recruitment efforts, and the reasons that prompt young Kenyans and Kenyan Somalis to join the group.
What is al-Shabaab’s strategy?
The attack took place on a bus in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, which is home to a large portion of Kenya’s Somali diaspora population and is also one of Kenya’s biggest slums.
Al Shabaab has overseen a campaign of terror since the Kenyan army entered Somalia in October 2011, with most of the attacks aimed at churches and non-Somali Kenyans. The group’s objective is to stoke latent tensions between Kenyan Muslims and Christians and exploit the ensuing sectarian chaos.
ICSR sources have confirmed that riots have broken out in Eastleigh since yesterday’s bombing, leading to fatal attacks on Muslims by Christian youth.
As al-Shabaab suffers losses against African Union troops in Somalia, our assessment is that the group will continue to attempt to broaden the conflict by launching attacks in neighbouring countries, especially Kenya.
Who is recruiting?
The roots of al-Shabaab’s recruitment in Kenya lie in the slums of Nairobi and Mombasa, where jihadist sheikhs have recruited openly for the group since around 2007.
In the Nairobi slum of Majengo, these efforts were led by a group called the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC) whose leader was a Kenyan preacher named Ahmed Iman Ali. Known for his charisma and financial generosity, Ali successfully recruited hundreds of young Kenyans to travel to Somalia and help al-Shabaab in its efforts to take control of the country.
In 2009, Ali himself travelled to Somalia to take command of a force of Kenyan and other east African al-Shabaab members.
When Kenyan forces entered Somalia in October 2011, Ali’s sermons started calling for direct attacks on Kenyan targets:
So many of our brothers suffered and others were oppressed by the Kenyan government. Their recent invasion of Somalia is clear evidence of their enmity towards Islam and Muslims…
He also claimed that the Kenyan government is a proxy for America and ‘the Jews’, and that Kenya should therefore should be considered Dar-al-harb, a land in which Muslims are obligated to fight a defensive jihad:
Raise your sword against the enemy that is closest to you. Jihad should now be waged inside Kenya which is legally a warzone.
According to Kenyan government sources, Ali has overseen terrorist plots in Kenya from his base in Somalia, and continues to send Kenyan fighters under his command back to Kenya in order to carry out terrorist attacks.
Why do people join?
Based on our fieldwork with former al-Shabaab members in Kenya, about half of the people we interviewed were motivated by financial rewards. The other half were taken in by the teachings of Ali and other jihadist preachers.
Youth unemployment in Kenya is currently at 75 percent, and even higher among Muslims. In Garissa, for example, a predominantly Muslim town near the border with Somalia, it stands at 90 percent.
Al-Shabaab recruiters promise monthly salaries of 40,000 Kenyan Shillings (500 USD, or four times the national average), which many see as an opportunity to earn quick money. According to one of the people we interviewed, ‘I needed money to continue my business and was promised 1000 US dollars. That’s 500 dollars a month.’
Equally important, the culturally transcendent jihadist ideology of al-Shabaab has offered Kenyans an alternative identity, which many have embraced after growing weary of old tribal tensions. Recruiters like Ali claim that Somalia is a battleground for the very survival of Islam, and teach that Kenyan Muslims have an obligation to take part in the fight.
According to another person we spoke to, who was recruited by Ali: ‘He made me feel like I was so behind. I didn’t feel like a proper Muslim. They made me feel so guilty for doing nothing.’
All of the people we interviewed left the group after becoming disillusioned: either because the money they were promised never materialised, or because they realised that al-Shabaab’s actions were against their religious beliefs.