A youth recruited while watching football. A Catholic school graduate. Girls desperate for cash and jobs.
The al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgency is using unconventional accomplices to step up attacks beyond Somalia’s borders.
January’s assault on an office and hotel complex in Nairobi, was the first led by a someone not an ethnic Somali since al Shabaab began cross-border operations in 2010. Twenty-one people were killed.
The attack leader, Ali Salim Gichunge, nicknamed Farouk, was a 26-year-old Kenyan who attended a Catholic school and whose largely Christian Meru ethnic group has no ties to Somalia. He led four assailants, including one non-Somali used as a suicide bomber, Kenyan security officials said. All died in the attack.
They are among a growing number of Kenyans with no family links to Somalia drafted by militants, according to relatives, security officials and analysts.
Widespread poverty and unemployment mean al Shabaab can tempt recruits offering cash or promises of work, researchers who interviewed defectors said. Even small gifts lure some young men, families said.
The new recruits expand the militants’ reach and complicate efforts by Kenyan security forces to thwart them.
“In the past, security forces concentrated efforts in parts of the country that are Muslim majority, Muslim-dominated,” said Murithi Mutiga, a project director for the International Crisis Group think-tank. “Now it’s harder because al Shabaab has shown adaptability by recruiting outside traditional areas.”
At the same time, al Shabaab expanded operations from Somalia into East Africa, where it can hit high-profile targets, such as the offices of Western multinational companies.
FOOTBALL, DRUGS AND MOTORBIKES
Gichunge, the son of a Kenyan military officer, was radicalised at a hotel Internet cafe in Isiolo, his sister told Reuters.
“It started there. He was able to access new materials online, go to Facebook. He started studying Arabic language and all sorts of things,” Amina Sharif said.
His Muslim family sent him to a mission school in Isiolo, a dusty northern town gateway to three vast, arid counties neighbouring Somalia.
Many in Isiolo were reluctant to talk, fearing police attention. Some said al Shabaab recruiters targeted young, unemployed men outside the ethnic Somali community for years.
Abdi Bidu (53) said smooth-talking recruiters befriended his son Boru, then 20, three years ago while the young man was watching European football matches at video parlours. They offered cigarettes, motor-bike rides and khat, a mildly narcotic leaf, he said.
The Bidu family are ethnic Boranas, a religiously mixed community not associated with Islamist violence.
Police caught Boru trying to join al Shabaab near the Somali border in 2017, his father said. The young man went to court, but authorities inexplicably dropped charges.
His father keeps him at home now, forbidding him to use the phone. Bidu refused to allow Reuters to speak to his son, fearing a backlash.
“There is a big problem in Isiolo,” Bidu said. “Many have been persuaded to join the militants. Others were caught by authorities and returned.”
He knew three other families whose sons were recruited. Parents are angry and helpless and want government to step up security.
Martin Kimani, Kenya’s chief counter-terrorism official, said statistics on al Shabaab recruitment are classified.
A USAID-funded study in 2018, quoted in a local government strategy document, estimated the group had recruited about 200 young men in the county to which Isiolo belongs since 2013.
Another 2018 survey asked 190 young Kenyans and 23 community leaders about violent extremism in Isiolo, neighbouring Garissa county, the coastal counties of Kwale, Kilifi and Mombasa and Nairobi. Seventy percent of respondents had a family member, close peer or neighbour involved in such activities, including recruitment, the British-funded study found.
Al Shabaab grew out of a political movement that used Islamic courts to impose order on war-ravaged Somalia. US-backed Ethiopian soldiers defeated the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, but its youth wing split off and launched an insurgency.
Al Shabaab pledged loyalty to al Qaeda four years later, as the insurgency battled African Union peacekeepers in Somalia.
Kenya sent troops in 2011 after al Shabaab started recruiting and kidnapping in Kenya. Two years later, insurgents massacred 67 people at Nairobi’s Westgate mall.
As al Shabaab morphed from a nationalist insurgency into an al Qaeda franchise, it increased messaging to other nationalities.
The first outreach came after it killed 76 people watching the World Cup football final in twin suicide attacks in Kampala in 2010. Al Shabaab released a video threatening further attacks from militants who “speak your language and walk your streets”.
Since then, the group’s messaging has grown more sophisticated.
Kenya’s 2012 election was denounced in a press release and radio statement as a tool for infidels. Ahead of the 2017 election, the group released seven videos in local languages.
In one video, eight al Shabaab fighters from Kenya spoke about grievances specific to their ethnic groups, such as land-grabs on Kenya’s coast, according to a 2019 report by the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.
Other videos discussed the rising price of flour or used graphics and statistics to build an economic case for Kenyan troops to leave Somalia.
“Religious ideology is entirely absent,” the report said. “It seeks to relate to educated, non-Muslim audiences.”
Kenya launched counter radicalisation programs in 2014.
Reuters attended a meeting organised by a grassroots peace group two weeks after the January attack. Fifteen parents who feared their sons were recruited met at Isiolo’s dilapidated main police station. Organisers asked not to be named.
Over samosas, boiled eggs and milky tea, police explained they needed information to thwart the militants. Police were criticised after previous attacks for making mass arrests and hauling in suspects’ families for questioning. This was a softer approach.
“These meetings encourage us. We are not alone,” said a mother whose son disappeared three years ago. She is furious at Islamist recruiters she blames for targeting her son.
“We don’t know them. If we knew, we would lynch them,” she said.
About two hours drive west from Isiolo, officials in Nyeri say al Shabaab recruiters penetrated one of its biggest slums.
The central Kenyan town, far from traditional militant hotspots, is a staging point for Mount Kenya hikers and home to the grave of Boy Scouts founder Lord Baden-Powell.
“It is not only people of Somali origin; we also have Kikuyu who have become members of the al Shabaab movement,” said Fredrick Shisia, the county commissioner.
Recruiters are mainly local Kikuyus converted to Islam two intelligence sources in Nyeri told Reuters.
Shisia declined to provide recruitment figures but confirmed promises of cash and gifts are made, some under false pretences.
A female recruiter in Mombasa approached a tailor struggling to feed her family and offered her 30,000 shillings ($300) to make dresses, according to a 2018 study by Fathima Badurdeen, a researcher at the Technical University of Mombasa.
When the woman went to deliver the dresses near the Somali border, she was seized and taken to an al Shabaab camp in Somalia, the report said. It did not say what happened next or how she escaped.
Others were lured to Somalia for as little as 3,000 shillings ($30), said Badurdeen.
The first female-led attack in Kenya came in September 2016. Three women entered a Mombasa police station, stabbed an officer and set off a petrol bomb before being shot dead.
Gichunge’s wife, Violet Kemunto, was another non-traditional recruit.
The Nairobi-born woman from the mainly Christian Kisii ethnic group described herself as an al Shabaab bride on social media. Police believe she fled to Somalia.