At least 700 Kenyans, who had gone to Somalia to join al Shabaab, have quietly returned home after quitting the militant group. In this special report, our writers CALVIN ONSARIGO and CHARLES MGHENYI spoke to Ali, Juma and Abubakar who narrate their experiences in Somalia and how they are trying to rebuild their lives
Ali (not his real name) had always wanted to join al Shabaab since he was in high school. Upon completion of his secondary education, Ali, who hails from Coast region, joined the Coast House Alliance, a secret group claiming to be fighting and advocating against land injustices at the Coast.
Later, he went to join al Shabaab in Somalia. While there, he studied at a college in Afmadow, graduating with a certificate in Islamic law.
Donning an Islamic headscarf (Arafat), Ali says he was among 20 local youth who were recruited to join al Shabaab during their time. Through a local network, Ali and his friends were helped to cross over to Ras Kamboni in Somalia through Lamu in 2006 to go help fight the Somali Transitional Federal Government.
He was posted to Afmadow then Baidoa after undergoing a three-month compulsory paramilitary training deep inside the war-torn country.
“I was enticed with salary payments of between US$150-200 (Sh15,000 to Sh20,000) a month. I was also told I will get a senior position after attaining my Islamic law certificate,” says Ali.
However, one year after graduating, he was posted to fight alongside other East African recruits.
After sometime, life became extremely hard and he and four other Kenyans decided to sneak back into the country. But the Kenya Navy officers in the Indian Ocean caught them.
“We were arrested, but after interrogation they left us to continue with our journey after convincing them we were local fishermen,” he says, adding that their fluency in Swahili helped them.
“Imagine, after two years in Somalia I was only able to save US$350 (Sh35,000) only. I had to hide this money in between my buttocks when the navy officers arrested us,” he says.
Juma (not his real name) attended a primary school in Kwale and later pursued secondary education in Mombasa county.
“Marginalisation of the coastal communities is what made me want to join al Shabaab. I really wanted to fight the government of the day,” he says.
Juma joined the Somalia-based militia group in 2006.
“Our journey started in Mombasa to Lamu before we crossed over to Somalia. The group is so well organised and we made it through to Somalia unnoticed,” he says.
For three months, he underwent an intensive paramilitary training inside the Somalia forests.
“I was however disappointed since we were not being paid as promised. In 2008, I asked for permission from my seniors to come and take my wife with me and I was allowed,” he says.
He says together with two other Kenyans, they were escorted to the Kenyan-Somalia border where they sneaked in through Lamu county.
However, towards the end of 2008, he went back to join al Shabaab.
“My friends who were still in Somalia were telling me how things have changed and life has become better. I decided to go back after convincing a few others,” he says.
Later in 2009, he made a comeback to Kenya after witnessing discrimination, hard life and in-fighting among members.
“They looked down on us because we are not of Somali origin. Life became hard and I had to sneak back to Kenya. This time round I didn’t ask for permission,” he narrates, saying it was a risky move, but he managed to get back home.
Reintegrating into society was however challenging as they are considered murderers and terrorists.
“We tried as much as possible to live a secret life. I have witnessed some of my close friends, who are also Shabaab returnees, being killed by security forces,” he says.
Juma says when the government amnesty programme was announced earlier this year, he was sceptical but decided to give it a try.
“I have been assured of my security for denouncing the group. However, among the al Shabaab family and sympathisers I’m seen as a betrayer,” he says.
Abubakar (not his real name) had been living in Baidoa deep inside the war-torn Somali for one year.
He had been promised between US$400 and $2,000 (Sh40,000 and Sh200,000) a month, but since he was not paid for almost six months, he decided to work for timber and charcoal businessmen, where he was paid between $10 and $50 (Sh1,000 and Sh5,000) in a day.
Back in 2008, before leaving Kenya, Abubakar was an imam.
A member of the defunct Union of Islamic Courts, which ruled Somalia before it was overthrown, had asked him to join them in teaching a religious course inside Somalia. His vast experience in religious education was considered an added advantage.
Abubakar was recruited into al Shabaab’s religious wing, which is responsible for the spread of radicalisation and extremist ideologies among the youth in the East African countries and abroad.
“I found everything very religious, I thought life will be smooth and we will all live like brothers. This was the first impression I got on my arrival,” narrates Abubakar, adding that he was in the company of 18 other youth.
They had to bribe several Kenyan security officers stationed at key roadblocks along the borderline. All through the journey, from Mombasa to Nairobi to Garissa to Juba and finally to Baidoa, his travel was facilitated by different agents, working with a very well coordinated plan.
On arrival, the recruits were forced into a compulsory three-month military training before anything else, he explains. Thereafter, each decided what they want to be.
“I wanted to be a religious teacher, but this was not to be as I was on several occasions taken to fight alongside other recruits,” he says, adding that he met several Kenyan youth, mainly from the South Coast, Mombasa, Lamu, Tana River, Nairobi and Bungoma.
The battalions are named after prominent Islamic Sheikhs, Islamic towns or places from where majority of the youth came. Abubakar’s battalion, based in Baidoa, was called Khalid bin Walid. There was also a battalion named Kwale.
According to government reports, about 80 per cent of al Shabaab recruits from Kenya are from Kwale. Abubakar explains that most of them were lured by the promise of good money and military skills they could later use to liberate their land from land grabbers.
In Somalia, Abubakar learnt sophisticated military skills, including assembling AK47, making Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and petrol bombs and using grenades.
Abubakar left Somalia in December 2009, two years before the KDF incursion after increased waves of terrorism attacks in Lamu and in the North Eastern region.
Before leaving Somalia, Abubakar witnessed some fierce battles between al Shabaab and the Burundian, Ugandan and the Ethiopian soldiers, under the African Union Mission.
“I asked for permission from my masters to come back home. But, I was told to wait for some few days,” he says.
He and three other Kenyans were escorted by al Shabaab fighters from Baidoa to the Kenya-Somalia border, where they were dumped and told to find their way home.
“We had very little money left; food and drinking water were almost finished and we had been left somewhere we do not know,” he narrates.
They had to walk to Garissa town without any food or water. Along the way, they were forced to consume their own urine because of thirst.
It was by sheer luck that they met one of the lorries transporting cargo from Garissa to Nairobi and they asked for a ride.
“The drivers of Somali-origin were kind to us and took as all the way to Nairobi’s Eastleigh, where we stayed for a few days, before heading to Mombasa,” he continues.
Back at the Coast, Abubakar lived in fear of being arrested.
“Security officers were looking for these people from Somalia and as one of them I was forced to run to Tanga in Tanzania,” he says.
After a short stay in Tanzania, Abubakar came back home. On arrival, he heard that the government had launched a crackdown on al Shabaab returnees. After witnessing his colleagues gunned down in Kwale, he opted to sneak back to Tanzania before going further into a third country.
He later quietly returned to Kenya and in 2012, after the death of a controversial preacher in Mombasa, Abubakar was approached by the Muslim youth to take over the leadership of the mosque.
“I was reluctant because I was afraid the government would come for my head. As I was still thinking about it, another preacher was endorsed to take over,” he says.
He says Rogo inspired him to take up the radical and the extremist religious teaching.
“The marginalisation of the people from the Coast made us believe jihad is the only way for us to liberate our region,” he says, adding that the extra-judicial killings of several radical preachers also led Kenyan youth to join al Shabaab.
Abubakar is now under the Kenyan government amnesty programme for al Shabaab returnees and sympathisers. He says more needs to be done to counter the extremist ideology that has sunk so deep in the marginalised coastal youth.
He is however afraid of al Shabaab sympathisers and returnees, who might see him as a traitor.
He says many returnees are willing to come out and help the Kenyan government fight extremism and radicalisation, but they need to be assured of their security.
“We need empowerment projects. We need to be assured of our security before we can come out and help the government fight this menace together,” he concludes.
Ali, Juma and Abubakar are three of about 120 youth from the Coast region who have joined the government amnesty programme.
Non governmental organisations say this is a good idea, but a lot needs to be done.
“We need a national policy that should be passed by the Parliament on guidelines of how the project should be,” says a senior official of a local NGO who sought anonymity.
The official says the programme is a good approach to counter the radicalisation and extremism among the youth.
“Youth, especially al Shabaab returnees, are sceptical of working with the government, but with proper national policy, many will come out and help fight the menace,” says the official.