Somalis fleeing the civil war are crossing the frontier into Kenya at a rate of 7000 a month.
That has piled pressure on the government and aid agencies to shelter them, and has also seen the emergence of groups that local security officials say are linked to Somalia’s rebels.
Police said 10 young Kenyan men were arrested last month after being recruited by two bogus charities to go to Somalia and fight for al Shabaab militants. Washington describes al Shabaab as al Qaeda’s proxy in the failed Horn of Africa state.
Somalia’s UN-backed administration is battling several insurgent groups including al Shabaab. It controls just pockets of the central region and a few parts of the capital Mogadishu.
Sheikh Abdullahi Dahir Shurie, a respected Muslim cleric in northeastern Kenya’s Ijara district, said it was upsetting that so many Kenyan youths had been “misled” into believing fighting for the rebels in Somalia was a religiously sanctioned jihad.
“Some have been recruited, others were killed there,” he said. “We must protect those who remain and stop these lies.”
A Kenyan intelligence officer who declined to be named said last month’s arrests in Eastleigh, a mainly Somali suburb of the capital Nairobi, were made after months of investigation.
He said the officials in charge of both “charities”, which purported to provide humanitarian relief in Somalia, had fled.
“We took our time, gathered information in Kenya and Somalia and interviewed communities who are supposed to be assisted (by the charities),” the officer told Reuters.
On the Somali border, where the Kenyan authorities have boosted their security forces, Sheikh Shurie said he and other moderate clerics were embracing a government programme to try to stop al Shabaab’s ideology from gaining a local foothold.
The plan was launched in August by Kenyan Defence Minister Mohamed Yussuf Haji, a local member of parliament, and involves the sheikhs making sermons condemning the Somali rebels at the province’s mosques and religious schools.
The clerics have also called on the authorities to monitor closely the work of all non-governmental groups in their area.
“The officials who allowed the agencies to operate that were later found recruiting youths must be arrested. They received bribes, no doubt,” said Shurie’s colleague Sheikh Mukhtar.
“Evil designed as holy war”
Haji, the defence minister, told Reuters the government would help educate young Kenyans.
“We will tell them the truth the conflict in Somalia is not a holy war, it is evil work and evil designed as a holy war,” Haji told an audience in the northeast last weekend.
But in the dusty border town of Mandera, where unemployment is high and successive droughts have made life even grimmer than before, the cash offered by militant recruiters can be hard to resist.
One local teacher, Ibrahim Mohamed, said al Shabaab had growing influence in the region, and that his father and other elders had chosen not to denounce them.
“Teachers in Mandera are worried. Al Shabaab stormed a school last month and lectured the pupils,” he said. “They told them to quit formal education and join the jihad in Somalia.”
Not everyone who takes the money has gone on to fight.
One young man who now drives a taxi in Garissa town said he was approached in 2007 by a heavily bearded recruiter.
“He gave me 50,000 shillings ($650) just a day after we met. The elder who introduced him to me was very sincere. He told me I was to fight in Somalia,” the taxi driver said.
“I gave the elder half the money, threw away my phone, enjoyed myself, chewed khat and paid fees for driving school.”
Pic: Somali militants