Al Shabaab militia group continues to pose a threat to Kenya’s security fours years after the Kenyan Defence Forces crossed borders into Somalia in pursuit of the terror outfit.
The militants still target disillusioned young Kenyans, promising them good money for their families back home and a place in paradise if they die shahid (as martyrs).
Al Shabaab has also been luring the youth by promising them scholarship opportunities to Islamic colleges and universities in Somalia and the Middle East.
However, when these youth arrive in Somalia, they are forced to train as mujaheed (those who fight for the sake of Allah and Islam) fighters.
The Star has established that key individuals, who were recruited to join the group between 2006 and 2009, are the ones who have been planning and participating in the terror attacks, especially at the Coast and Northern Kenya.
These individuals played a major role in waging terror attacks in Kenya between 2012 and 2014 — their aim being to start an Islamic caliphate in coast region.
Our extensive interview with al Shabaab defectors exposed a wide local network that continues to expose the country’s soft underbelly.
The network is still active and recruitment is taking place under the nose of security agents in parts of Lamu, Kwale, Mombasa, Tana River, Malindi, Nairobi and other major towns in Kenya.
At least 700 Kenyans, who had gone to Somalia, have quietly returned home after quitting al Shabaab.
Most of these returnees came back after they were disappointed in Somalia because life there was not as rosy as they had expected. Others came back to recruit more youth by acting as the terror outfit’s point men in Kenya but later changed their minds.
In an in-depth interview, five al Shabaab returnees told the Star that radical preachers, including the slain controversial cleric Aboud Rogo, brainwashed them to join the terror group.
The lectures of these radical imams played a major role in convincing them to abandon their families and travel to Somalia to join al Shabaab.
These preachers had openly declared allegiance to al Shabaab before they were killed.
Rogo was shot dead on August 27, 2012 near Jomo Kenyatta public beach on the new Mombasa-Malindi highway. His wife and daughter were with him at the time.
He was on the United States and United Nations sanctions lists for alleged support of terrorism.
The returnees we talked to also revealed the name of a trusted al Shabaab recruiter and financier operating at the Coast.
He recruited hundreds of youth from south coast who are part of al Shabaab’s Jesh Ayman, operating from the Boni forest. They spearheaded attacks in Lamu and Tana River counties. They were recently flushed out from the forest and are thought to have crossed over to Somalia.
He would later be gunned down last year.
According to the returnees, killing controversial preachers is counterproductive in the fight against terrorism. “Many youth crossed over to Somalia to be trained so as to come and revenge on behalf of these individuals,” Ali, one of the youths we talked to, said.
The returnees said the killings of the preachers ignited the forceful takeover of mosques in Mombasa and killing of moderate Muslim imams perceived to be government sympathisers.
The ‘revolution’ led to the killing of Sheikh Mohammed Idris, the chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, by hooded gunmen near his home in 2014.
“I was among those approached to take over the pulpit at a controversial masjid at the Coast, but I was reluctant,” says Abubakar, one the returnees.
Last month, the Kenyan government released names of wanted terror suspects, and appealed for public support to help arrest them.
The suspects named include Abdifatah Abubakar Ahmed and Ahmed Iman Ali.
Some of the radical clerics fled to Somalia and still pose a major security threat to Kenya, says Abubakar.
Al Shabaab has imposed a strict version of Sharia in areas under its control, including stoning to death of women accused of adultery and amputating the hands of thieves, say the returnees.
The latest report from a local NGO say almost 80 per cent of radicalised youth in Kenya have been traced to the Coast, mainly Kwale, Mombasa, Lamu and Tana River.
It notes that 20 per cent are mainly Muslim converts, who hail from other parts of the country including Nairobi, Nyanza, Northern Kenya and Western region. “Out of the 80 per cent recruits from Coast, about 55 per cent are from Kwale county,” says the organisation, which has been advocating for peace and security for development at the coast.
Kwale county commissioner Evans Achoki says the introduction of amnesty by the government is working in dealing with violent extremism.
He says the returnees have been sceptical about the government’s initiative, but are slowly coming out after they were assured of their security. “The amnesty programme has been successful and has significantly assisted in reducing incidents of crime. Many returnees, who had previously engaged in armed robbery, are now engaged in meaningful economic activities,” says Achoki.
Achoki says the government changed tack by fighting the extremism ideology, instead of using excessive force. He said a good number of al Shabaab returnees have been enrolled in the amnesty programme where they are helped to reform before they are reintegrated back to the community.
He said returnees have to be vetted and profiled and their details shared among the security agents so that they are not arrested or shot down by security officers. “Parliament must however pass legislation to make the amnesty part of our laws and to allocate funds and establish clear framework about the programme,” Achoki said.