Above: A Kenyan policeman patrols the streets following the Al-Shabaab attack on the Dusit hotel compound, in Nairobi, Kenya Jan. 15, 2019.
Senior Programme Manager, PROACT
13 January 2021
Radicalisation to violent extremism has long been among the major peace and security concerns in East Africa. Al-Shabaab alone has been responsible for the deaths or injuries of at least 3,000 Kenyans in 538 terrorist attacks in just under a decade, according to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI). Based in Somalia, the group has historically targeted Kenya’s diplomatic and tourism sectors in retaliation for the country’s involvement in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), exploiting the long, porous border between the two countries as well as corruption within security agencies.
New ISD digital analysis has exposed how the group has exploited the COVID-19 pandemic by targeting youth through increased radicalisation and recruitment efforts. Preliminary findings uncover how al-Shabaab has harnessed fear and discontent around COVID-19 measures to reinforce civilian perceptions of corruption, inaction and weakness at Kenyan government levels and thereby advance jihadist narratives of the subjugation of Muslims in East Africa by ‘Christian’ governments. Through its online propaganda machine, Al-Shabaab has seized upon public health measures such as the closure of places of worship and partial lockdowns of Nairobi’s Eastleigh district and Mombasa’s Old Town as examples of the targeting of Muslim communities. Not only does the study warn that al-Shabaab’s operational capacity has expanded rather than contracted during the pandemic, but that its efforts to propagate divisive and radicalising narratives online have gone largely unchecked.
It isn’t only Muslims that are now being targeted; al-Shabaab is increasingly targeting disillusioned non-Muslim youth for recruitment on- and offline. Agility and adaptability have long been key parts of the group’s playbook with devastating consequences. It has managed to penetrate all parts of Kenya harnessing existing vulnerabilities and grievances, and is also increasingly using radicalised non-ethnic Somalis, as seen in the DusitD2 attack in Kenya in 2019.
One effort to stem this trend is ISD’s PROACT initiative – a community-based intervention programme launched in 2019. PROACT draws heavily on the SCN’s ‘local prevention network’ model to ensure community-based interventions are multi-sectoral and rooted in human rights-based frameworks. Through this model, PROACT has been supporting the implementation of County Action Plans (CAPs) for P/CVE in Kwale, Nakuru and Isiolo counties.
In 2020, we undertook a baseline assessment of the CAPs in these three counties, with findings shared through an 11-county exchange initiative in Nakuru in November. With evidence that al-Shabaab has established local cells of Kenyan fighters, our partners across the counties launched a joint communique on the need for robust collaboration and coordination on CAP roll-outs between National and County Governments and civil society organisations. The communique also called for the mobilisation of national government agencies such as Uwezo, Youth Enterprise Development, Women Enterprise, National Government Affirmative Action Social Development Funds to help address structural vulnerabilities faced by young people.
Historically, grievances have centred on the marginalisation of Kenya’s Muslim minority in the face of mass arrests, extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances. A 2017 UNDP study emphasised excessive law enforcement tactics targeting Muslim populations, especially youth, functioning as a ‘tipping point’ in the pathways of those joining terrorist organisations. Al-Shabaab recruiters have consistently leveraged these grievances in both on- and offline radicalisation. Unemployment also features heavily as a push factor for young Kenyans. Training youth with practical skills like masonry, plumbing, IT skills and commercial agriculture could go a long way in disrupting extremist recruitment efforts. Likewise, education initiatives – particularly those focused on critical thinking skills – can help young people unpick and question dangerous and exploitative recruitment narratives.
“Not only does the study warn that al-Shabaab’s operational capacity has expanded rather than contracted during the pandemic, but that its efforts to propagate divisive and radicalising narratives online have gone largely unchecked.”
One of the central good practices that has emerged as a result of the Kenyan experience with local action plans is their focus on sharing local knowledge and bringing together grassroots partners as a critical resource in preventing radicalisation. They have demonstrated not only that local solutions are necessary if we are to address complex, localised problems, but that they can generate real change. If local action plans are enshrined within existing policy and legal frameworks, they can greatly aid efforts to enhance local ownership and long-term sustainability.
Time and again, local strategies have proved comparatively low cost to implement and, more importantly, are perceived as legitimate and credible by the local communities they serve. They are informed by a rich, contextualised understanding of the historical development of radicalisation as it pertains to specific localities, and are better able to shape interventions to their communities.
In calling for the redoubling of coordination efforts between government, county and civic stakeholders and fresh mobilisation to tackle longstanding structural vulnerabilities, our Kenyan partners have a unique opportunity to make a tangible difference to the security and wellbeing of communities across the country at a critical time.