Engagement With Extremist Organizations: Putting Alshabaab into Context

Paper submitted to humanitarian and political dialogue for mass atrocity prevention: challenges and opportunities in dealing with violent actors roundtable session 18th May 2016 at Heron Portico Hotel Nairobi By Scofield Muliru

The international institute of Strategic Studies Armed Conflict Database estimates an average of 87 conflicts involving NSAG and over 58 million refugees. Conflicts and Conflict Systems are changing and the focus is shifting further to Intrastate rather that Interstate struggles. The internationalization of conflict is not based on the territorial dispute between the states but the internal functioning and interests within the state. The changing environment in asymmetrical warfare is making humanitarian work even more challenging and difficult. Recent engagement of Non-State-Armed-Groups (NSAG) and the tagging of extremist organizations under “Terrorism” wording/grouping makes the situation even worse. This is because of restrictive laws that make it even more challenging to engage under these definitions. In addition, the continuous suffering of civilians caught in between the conflicts between the state and the NSAG pose an even greater challenge in dealing with the situation.

Majority of the numbers mentioned by the database above are from the horn of Africa. These range from a humanitarian crisis, division of government and even the formation of new states as seen in the case of South Sudan. The changing geopolitics in the region has made it more prone to conflict putting in mind that the same region has in recent past celebrated the birth of a new state. Even with these issues, one of the most apparent threats that continue to plague the horn is the threat of dealing with Non-State-Armed-Groups (NSAG). International actors have different names given to this NSAG, but one name stands out; Terrorist Organizations. The horn alone can be said to harbor around four major terrorist organizations working in different spaces within the region. Various research documents have also mentioned or seem to agree that the horn of Africa may have been the source of global terrorism due to the services the region has provided to extremists. (Tim Docking, 2004) We should also take note that even as we talk of terrorist organizations; the term is skewed as it does not highlight all the NSAG present and within a particular space.

One NSAG that has been a significant regional threat is Alshabaab. Various reports mention the startup of Alshabaab enterprise to have originated from the more non-tolerant arm of the Islamic Courts Union as a reaction to the invasion of Ethiopia in 2006. Other reports indicate that this enterprise may have started earlier on around 1998 with Hassan Dahir Aweys as its leader. (Pantucci, 13 October 2009) There are yet other reports that move its origins way back to 1996 in Al-Huda training camps in Bakol state South Central. (Pantucci, 13 October 2009) All these origins and evolution documents indicate a process that the organization’s sort of either come to prominence or to stay afloat. A recent report by Matt Bryden for the Center for Strategic studies concludes with suggestions of various avenues that different initiatives should focus on in order to maintain the stream of success Amisom has had against Alshabaab. Some of the recommendations that he posits include the government providing genuine security in the ungoverned spaces, winning the trust of the different clans by providing an all-inclusive government in these regions while taking note of the soft target reaction expectations from the extremist organization. (Matt, 2014)

There has also been the question of countering/preventing violent extremist (C/PVE) initiative’s space in counter-terrorism (CT) activities considering most of the CT initiatives have been from the hard power component usually put forward with governments. In the case of Alshabaab, some areas have been seemingly secure under their “protection” due to the social services they provide after the collection of taxes from the residents. A blog by the crisis group also mentions the different interests that Alshabaab is tapping into at the community level and this is making them gain milestones. The blog mentions that the continuous fight for various interests by different parties including the various clans, government representatives, and even Amisom; is making Alshabaab flourish in these areas. (Khalif & Barnes , 2016) This can also be one of the attributing factors of the alleged support and harbor of Alshabaab during the El-adde attack in January 2016. International crisis group has also released a briefing mentioning the consideration of a political settlement that stems from the bottom up as a way of dealing with the threat of Alshabaab in the region. (Briefing, 2014) Some of the areas of focus look at both the commonality of vision at the national level in Somalia as well as National stabilization strategy, clan dialogue and finally legitimizing all the grievances. (Briefing, 2014)

In the recent times, there have been suggestions of engaging extremists as a way of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Examples have been given of cases where the successes of engagement have not only led to the saving of lives but also the creation of political processes that have been sustainable or restored a sense of peace. Some of these examples include the case of South Africa and the end of Apartheid, the discussions with the IRA and now the interest of Hezbollah and its need to be served with international support. The argument has been that some of these extremist organizations have come up as a result of the perceived violence within the states and/or them being “governments in waiting.”

In an article, Andy Carl and Sophie Haspeslagh talks of the court decision on the Holder Vs. Humanitarian where the prohibitions of communication with the so-called terrorists are included. (Andy & Haspeslagh, 2010) It is evident that the double standards that exist on wholesome inclusion in the political settlement vs. noncommunication to terrorist organizations are making the process of countering violent extremism impossible. From this background, there are a couple of questions that this paper will seek to answer; Do extremist groups present a paradigm shift in the global effort to prevent mass violence, or have new labels simply been applied to long-standing security challenges? What are the opportunities available to humanitarian and political actors engaged in dialogue with violent extremist organizations? What are some of the constraints they face? At which phase of the conflict cycle is engagement most effective? Can humanitarian dialogue serve as a starting point for the political transformation of extremists? Can humanitarian dialogue represent the first step to other forms of political engagement?

The relationship between extremism, extremist organizations, and terrorism; has been blurred, as there are no definitions that are agreed internationally by their associations. Terrorism has been defined as, any act which is a violation of the criminal laws of a State Party and which may endanger the life, physical integrity or freedom of, or cause serious injury or death to, any person, any number or group of persons or causes or may cause damage to public or private property, natural resources, environmental or cultural heritage. (Unity, 1999) This relates well to some of the objectives depicted by extremist organizations at the violent stage of its enterprise development.

According to a research document from the Rand Corporation, most of the terrorist organizations that began with violence, 43 percent came to an end through the transition to political engagement, 40 percent through policing, 10 percent because they had achieved their narrow objectives and only 7 percent due to use of force. ( Jones & Libicki, 2008) Based on this analysis, it would be imperative to understand the process through which these organizations transition into political involvement and how different actors can be engaged to exploit the windows of opportunity and make a difference. Terrorist and Extremist organizations are not a monolithic, static entity but an ever-changing entity whose goals and objectives keep on shifting. (Donohue & Cristal , 2011) This alone should be the stimuli to incorporating dialogue in engagement with the NSAG. A case in point is that of Israel’s negotiations with Hamas since it won the 2006 Palestinian elections. (Donohue & Cristal , 2011) To be able to further understand the opportunities and challenges available in the engagement with extremist, it would be better to have an approach that looks at both the advantages and disadvantages of engaging with NSAG.

I would like to start with the disadvantages that have majorly focused on the moral component of engagement. Some have also termed this as a way of legitimizing the use of asymmetrical violence as a way to gain power or a place in the political confines of a state. Jonathan Powell in his book is talking to terrorists; highlights an average of six reasons that may seem to justify why we should not engage extremist organizations leading with the thought of discussion or negotiation will mean that the government is weak. (Powell, 2015) To elaborate further, the anti-terrorism law adopted in 1996 and amended to the Patriot act in 2001 in the United States that creates a 15-year penalty to any training or activities towards a terrorist organization even if it is geared towards peaceful engagement. The same also applies to the UK Terrorism act of 2000 that has a caveat on genuinely benign meetings but still prohibits general support and managing meetings to the terrorist organizations. (Andy & Haspeslagh, 2010)

In addition, are a lot of protocols that seem to be reinventing the wheel, and the other thing that is holding back some of the activities include the ratification of certain protocols and making it difficult to move. Out of the 15 member states, Kenya, Nigeria, and Somalia have not ratified the Algiers protocol. (Allison, African Union and the Scourge of Terrorism, 2016) According to Article 1.3 of the Algiers Convention, the AU defines a terrorist act as (a) any act which is a violation of the criminal laws of a State Party and which may endanger the life, physical integrity or freedom of, or cause severe injury or death to, any person, any number or group of persons or causes or may cause damage to public or private property, natural resources, environmental or cultural heritage and is calculated or intended to: intimidate, put in fear, force, coerce or induce any government, body, institution, the general public or any segment thereof, to do or abstain from doing any act, or to adopt or abandon a particular standpoint, or to act according to certain principles; or disrupt any public service, the delivery of any essential service to the public or to create a public emergency; or create general insurrection in a State. (b) Any promotion, sponsoring, contribution to, command, aid, incitement, encouragement, attempt, threat, conspiracy, organizing, or procurement of any person, with the intent to commit any act referred to in paragraph (a). This may be a good definition that will remain just that, as it seems not to be working. (Allison, Good talk, not enough action The AU’s counter-terrorism architecture, and why it matters, 2015)

Apart from the various legislations, the AU adopted the African Model Law on Countering Terrorism. Chapter one part 9 indicates that any association with terrorism whether for peaceful engagement or otherwise is considered an offense and will depend on the penalty specified under part 5 of the same model law. (Union, 2011) In the horn of Africa, other laws are present also hinder the process of engagement. According to an article by Prof. Kagwanja, governments hastily introduced counter-terrorism legislations as curbs against terrorist incursions. In 2002, Tanzania ratified seven of the twelve international counter-terrorism instruments and passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act which criminalized support for terrorist groups operating within its territory amid fierce protests by human rights activists and opposition parties. Uganda ratified all the twelve international conventions and protocols on terrorism and enacted the Anti-Terrorism Act (formerly known as the Suppression of Terrorism Act) in May 2003. While the legislation imposed a mandatory death penalty for terrorists and the potential death penalty for their sponsors and supporters, it has been accused of prioritizing local rebellion over the international terrorist threat. Kenya also ratified all the twelve international counter-terrorism conventions and protocols and published the Suppression of Terrorism Bill on 30 April 2003. (Kagwanja, 2006)

These laws already undermine the unstable political situation as far as engagement and dialogue are concerned. With the changing political environment, the various examples seen including the case of South Sudan; continuous blacklisting of organizations to avoid communication and dialogue is not bearing fruit but instead making the situation worse. These examples have also shown that peace processes have been able to increase pro-dialogue within a group and isolate the violent members. Though the laws are not friendly, there can be an opportunity for engagement from the NGO’s but with support from the international organizations and governments. Petraeus summed up his view that in Iraq; “we would not be able to kill or capture our way out of the industrial-strength insurgency that was tearing apart the very fabric of Iraqi society. (Powell, 2015) In 2011, Somali Prime Minister, Abdiwali Ali, in an interview with BBC stated that the government was willing to have negotiations with Alshabaab. (Online, 2011) It should be noted that the activities of the government are also advised with various international policy directions and actors mentioned above and therefore their openness to want a dialogue process as a government may be hindered by the international laws, policies, and interests.

Secondly, there are instances where engagement with the NSAG may result in some legitimacy being conferred to these organizations. This may cause a lot of backlash on governments and other international organizations. On the other hand, the engagement is usually to seek legitimacy and buy-in from the members of the community supporting NSAG or who are under the terror by the said groups. Therefore, though that seems to be one of the challenges facing this process, some organizations are already working with NSAG to ensure reduction on casualties of civilians. An example is ICRC in the Philippines that is offering capacity building support training involving International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in NSAG controlled territory, (Hofmann, 2012) and Geneva Call, a Swiss NGO, established in 2000, that attempts to persuade NSAGs to adhere to universal humanitarian norms by signing, unilaterally, its Deed of Commitment. (Geneva Call , 2002) Also, there are fears of non-supervision of the engagement which in other cases may be instrumentalized by the NSAG especially in areas where there are initiatives that are active and can be played off one another. In practice, states, international organizations, and Humanitarian non-governmental organizations use different approaches in similar locations and at the same time. ( Keating & Lewis, 2016) This creates a lot of duplication and other unintended consequences that would otherwise be avoided if there is improved communication, coordination and collaboration. In Summation, we need to recognize that terrorist groups are defeated in negotiation rather than in conflict.

There has been some form of engagement that has taken place in the past but for the sake of assisting in humanitarian aid in different regions. Humanitarian negotiations with Alshabaab in Somalia report mentions various instances where aid workers have been forced to pay Alshabaab so that they can ensure entry to territories that they control. (Jackson & Aynte, 2013)Though this practice is happening, it is not easily talked about. On the contrary, these efforts have been watered down with the inclusion of military strategy when implementing these activities. An example can be seen in August 2003 when a bomb exploded outside the UN compound in the Iraqi capital, killing 24 humanitarian workers and injuring another 150; and in October the same year at least 12 were killed at the ICRC office in Baghdad. In the following month, 29-year-old Bettina Goislard was murdered while on duty with UNHCR in Afghanistan. In December 2007 two car bombs UNHCR and other UN offices and the city’s Constitutional Council building. More recently there have been targeted attacks on aid workers in, for example, Syria, 26 Afghanistan,27 Pakistan 28 and southern Sudan. 29 Each of these attacks was targeted and intentional. None was a case of ‘wrong place and the wrong time,’ ‘caught in the crossfire,’ or just unlucky. The UN and its agencies, the ICRC and many other humanization organizations, are being targeted by NSAGs precisely because they are providing humanitarian aid or protection. ( Keating & Lewis, 2016) As a challenge, limited trust is created due to lack of courage, patience, careful communication and delicate judgment. Some of the preconditions for the discussions should include the process of de-listing as a starting point to create the trust among the members present in the dialogue.

Due to the limits in trust mentioned above, different contexts and parties can be called upon in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and engagement with NSAG as seen in the case where the aid provided by the west is often seen in-genuine. In such instances, the use of aid organizations from the middle east; for example, may be used. The issues of religion have also been associated with being partial especially when the discussion is to an Islamic NSAG, and a Christian actor is running the discussions. Most of the times this actor is usually associated with the enemy as seen in the case of Alshabaab and the anger directed to the US and other western country actors. Remaining impartial and adhering to international humanitarian laws poses another challenge. An excellent example of this can be seen in the case of Rwanda and the genocide.

Even with the said disadvantages, various findings have concluded that government has now come to realize that groups engaging in violent attacks against innocent civilians may not be stopped any other way. (Cronin, 2010) That said, the engagement with the terrorist organizations including other NSAG should be based on the question of forgiving and forgetting the past but holding a pragmatic position for the future. (Eban, 1967) Also, we are now starting to realize that we cannot kill them all and we need to start the discussion. The best approach of study would be the Dunes approach, which understands that; though the entities seem to have not affiliations, mono-directional communication commands, limited territorial hold but rather a global reach need an alignment to regional conflicts, these same entities still adopt a dune-like evolution that moves towards political activity. (Yong-Sik & Park, 2007) According to Gray and Ariss 1985, terrorist organizations have a cycle that can be modeled into four stages. These include the conception and development stage, commercialization stage, growth stage and finally the stability stage. (Gray & Ariss, 1985)

The various stages of the organization can serve as an opportunity to engage and also win the hearts and minds of not only extremist organizations but also the dormant extremist who are at times considered non-violent radicals. In the Horn of Africa, and using this approach, Alshabaab can be dealt with and sustainable solutions found. At the incubation stage, it is very difficult to have negotiations with the leaders are trying to foment a culture and ideology within its recruits. Alshabaab can be said to have been at this stage from 1996 to early 2005 when it was forming its ideology and purpose for existence.

The second stage is the commercialization stage where the organizations go into the marketplace and try to assure its funders that it can deliver on its targets while also luring in more supporters into the fold. (Levine, 2009) It is during this period that the organization begins implementing the use of violence to achieve its goals. For Al-Shabaab, this period can be seen as beginning in 2006 with the fight against the Ethiopian invasion and an attempt to connect its cause to a broader jihadist movement through the attraction of foreign fighters and promoting a relationship with Al Qaeda. (Page, 2010) It is also during this period that most of the foreign fighters from all over the world came to support the call by Alshabaab against the invasion. One prominent example of fighters includes the case of Omar Hammami aka Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki from the United States calling others to join the cause. (Pantucci, 13 October 2009) Even though it is still possible, the best channel would be the back door channel and through individuals; specifically, the probable recruits. This stage can also be put together with the growth stage which is the third stage in the evolution of the organization. It can be said that Alshabaab has the growth stage as an ongoing process based on the increase in the numbers. Reports suggest that the numbers of the extremist organizations range from; 2008: 6,000-7,000, (Pantucci, 13 October 2009) 2013: 5,000, (Council, 2013) and 2015: 7,000-9,000. (News, 2015) These are still rising which begs the question of how the organization is still managing to improve in recruitment. At this level, negotiations can still take place in three forms; the tactical negotiations that involve strategic extortion, commercial negotiations which involves intervention opportunities during the buying and selling of the ammunition and back-channel negotiations which may involve humanitarian assistance.

The 2014 document on Alshabaab documents and provide answers to the reinvention of Al-Shabaab. In the document, Matt tries to analyze whether this is a strategy or a choice for Alshabaab. He the hostile takeover by Godane around the early years of 2009. The politics around the various factions within the organization while also facing the challenges of Amisom in 2011. (Matt, 2014) These issues are also expanded by the action by Mukhtar Roobow allowing for safe passage of several lading TFG leaders from his clan in 2009. (Matt, 2014) The infighting within the organization is due to polarization on its long-term political goals. Some within the organization subscribe to the notion of having a global jihad call but other do not want a relationship to that and choose not to link up to ISIS but rather focus on dealing with issues in Somalia. (Oladipo, 2015) This is the fourth stage of the organization can be categorized as the Strategic Political Violence Stage. At the politically violent and political transformation stages, they adopt a more prominent political mission and open to negotiations. The gains made by Amisom in Somalia need to be strengthened by an open channel for negotiation that will provide an opportunity to have some of the grievances addressed from the bottom up. The political settlement at this level can be beneficial and long-lasting. This is because, around the same time when there was a conflict between Roobow and Godane, Roobow is head in an interview with Aljazeera mentioning the objectives of the organizations falling within the direction of political settlements and ending oppression in the country Somalia. (Mansuur, 2009) This has been seen in the case of Hezbollah as it seeks to participate and be engaged by the international community. (Dr. Krista , 2009) An article in Foreign affairs states that the need to negotiate with the extremist organization in this case Alshabaab has been in the minds of the TFG as the tactical gains through external military minimal gains may not be sustainable. The article goes ahead and quotes that there are leaders within the organizations who are willing to have a political settlement it the door in this direction can be opened. (Elmi & Aynte, 2012)

Non-State Armed Groups need to be engaged as the control or impact on access to territory in which people in need of assistance or protection find themselves. The traditional perceptions of neutrality have been undermined by the continuous use of humanitarian assistance as a military strategy. Humanitarian space such as in the case of the Natural disasters can be the starting point of engaging the NSAG due to their neutrality nature. (MacLeod, Hofmann, Saul, Webb, & Hogg, 2016) The enormous contribution of NGOs cannot be understated as they have been able to outweigh the shortcomings and limitations of the state actors. This has been done in a couple of ways including; the supplementation of official policy: This is through the adherence to the IHL by negotiating for refugees, provision of food and in some instances provision of other emergency aid, adopting the tasks that would otherwise be problematic in the case for International organizations or state. A good example is ICRC with the IHL and by developing Policies and Providing Early Warning by anticipation of “windows of opportunities” are very easy and this allows them to change with the developments as they occur. (Hofmann, 2012)

The NGOs’ sort of autonomy from the state may confer some form of authenticity and increase credibility from the armed groups and encourage participation. There is a myriad of reasons that Hofmann states that dialogue should be on the table with extremists but with specific actors at the driver’s seat. (Hofmann, 2012) To start with, she proposes NGO’s lead the process and they have a tendency to maintain communication with conflicting parties and to involve multiple stakeholders in their engagement is often perceived as an attempt to tailor solutions to a conflict based on the ideas of the conflicting parties only. This perception is supported by the lack of leverage – compared with that of states and international organizations – that NGOs have to put pressure on parties.Second, the reliance on dialogue, cooperation, and voluntary concessions provides strong ownership to conflicting parties in finding acceptable and sustainable solutions. Third, contact between NGOs and NSAGs is very often personal in nature. Empathy and understanding; but not necessarily agreement, individual reputation and personal integrity are often the core of the relationships between NGOs and such groups. This allows NGOs and private actors to develop a position of trust that enables them to facilitate, mediate, negotiate, counsel and persuade. Finally, to support their reputation as knowledgeable, competent and trustworthy, NGOs often hire individuals with experience in government-level negotiations. (Hofmann, 2012)

In conclusion, this document contributes to a report developed by Dr. Afyare Abdi Elmi and Abdi Aynte in January 2012 that gave four reasons why negotiation with Alshabaab is of critical importance now, and by the TFG. The report summarizes the reasons into four categories starting with the fact that negotiated agreements have seen some form of success in recent times for civil wars and Somalia can adopt this as a mechanism. Secondly, he mentions that the military setbacks to the organizations have pushed the extremist group out of its strongholds and this can be used by the government to start negotiations from the point of power and influence. Third, the report also mentions that the implementation of the national strategic plan can be more robust through dialogue with the hardliners as this will seek to lessen their stand on various contentious issues. He also mentions the opportunities that abound through these negotiations as some leaders of Alshabaab have shown the interest to negotiate, but the international interests and the needs mentioned above have made it difficult. (Dr. Afyare & Aynte, 2012) One of these needs has been the removal of the organizations from the terrorist list as it not only makes it difficult to negotiate with them at the government level but also extremely difficult to offer humanitarian support to those affected by the organization. The proposal would, therefore, be to have organizations that have expressed an interest in having discussions for a political settlement be removed from the terrorist list and to be referred to as Non-State Armed Groups instead of Terrorist organizations. This call is also tied to other international initiatives that are currently being led by the US. Internationally, calls are being made to have allocations that will ensure the process of negotiations start if a sustainable end to the terrorist threat from Alshabaab is to be achieved. (Pelton, 2012)



In international relations, facts indicate the datum that extremist organizations are in competition with one another for recruits. This competition can be said to be the reason why Al-Shabaab is a bit sluggish or unable to fully declare allegiance to either one international extremist organization or the other. What the extremist organizations agree on however, is the need to provide sustenance to their activities especially through the engagement of more recruits and passing off propaganda that has formed the core of their narratives. Every extremist organization is in one way or the other seeking more foot soldiers to advance its activities across the regions. That said, this research piece covers an overview of extremism globally and focuses its lenses to the Horn of Africa region; with a more specific focus on Kenya, looking at the radicalization processes leading to the challenge of terrorism in learning institutions. It illustrates that radicalisation leading to terrorism among the youth in schools may be somewhat similar with the youth above the age of 19 years and out of school. However, peer to peer engagement, peer pressure and identity crisis play a major role in the process. It also covers examples from the field, insights as to what happens in schools with recommendations to counter the process.


The growing nature of democracies in Africa and the continued militancy wars facing its people seem to provide an avenue for extremist organizations to flourish. The factors leading to terrorism through the process of radicalization still continue to expand, with more challenges facing the people within conflict ridden states. These terrorist organizations have global links courtesy of the call to action for the global “jihad” as seen in the case of motivated religious extremism. The terrorism index 2015 indicated that there is a sharp increase in terrorist activities of an average 80% with an estimated 14,574 deaths recorded in 2013 to 2014ii. Currently, these organizations are using children to do their bidding. Even more critical is the recruitment process, engagement policies and the target population participation shifts. A 10-year-old Kazakh boy using a gun to execute for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the twin suicide bombings in the northern part of Nigeria, involving three girls, who appeared to have been only 10 years old, a nine-year-old girl and, an Afghan Taliban commander detained and confessing of being forced to wear a suicide belt; are the many indications that the use of the youth who are in / or who should be in schools, by extremist organizations. This is a reality that we have to deal with locally and globallyiii. The so-called cubs of ISIL have been used to commit atrocities internationally and an affiliation of a 14-year-old child as a suicide bomber in a wedding in Turkey that left 51 individuals dead and scores of others injured; is prove enough that we are in crisisiv. General scholarship had always focused on the political, economic and social drivers to terrorism, but the participation of school going youth in extremist organizations calls for a closer look at the role of education and the institutions, to radicalization and recruitment.v


Across Africa, there is a lot of data and segregated documentation indicating the participation of youth in school and their links to terrorist activities and organizations. Most of the youth in schools are either; lured, abducted, or smuggled into terrorist organizations. The Lord’s Resistance Army is estimated to have captured over 100,000 children from 1987 to 2012 and displaced over 2.5 million people according to a United Nations report.vi There are different data sources pay tribute to the process of joining with indications that some of the Chibok girls from Nigeriavii were abducted and were served to be wives to the terrorists. Some of the children are also sold by unknowing parents to extremist organizations in the pretext that the buyers would provide these youths who are supposed to be in school; with the Qur’anic teachings in better learning institutions, like in a case in Mali.viii

As an added twist the nexus between education and radicalization with Algeria and Tunisia as examples, can be discussed as a comparison between the concept of patriotism vs. the linkage to the colonial power. In the countries mentioned above, there is evidence that a closed system in one created a breeding ground for radicalization while the other; the open system provided more insights into the learning process. Conventionally, education may oblige as a de-facto source of radicalization. However, when delivered with sincerity to ideas and the identities of those to whom the system desires to educate, it can also aid as a deterrent.ix That said, we should take note that the latter can only apply in situations where radicalization processes relate more to the economic, social, and political gripes rather than interpretations of religious texts that may lead to violence.x In the Horn of Africa and closer home (Kenya), available data suggests that the use of youth who are supposed to be in school as child soldiers is witnessed by Al Shabaab and other extremist organization. Most of the children who have been detained by the Puntland government in Somalia are estimated to be between 10 and 15 years of age. According to a CNN article on child soldiers, 60 to 100 are currently participating in Al-Shabaab activities.xi

This study utilized mixed methodology to collect data from the field. A total of 57 respondents from Nairobi and 80 respondents from Kakamega; of the anticipated 160 respondents in total, participated in the study. The difference in numbers was as a result of the difficulty in getting information from schools especially in Nairobi, who have faced victimization from authorities in relation to extremist activities. The research also covered 30 KII from both Nairobi and Kakamega with 6 FGDs focusing on the teachers, students and other stakeholders within the education system.


The 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi was a targeted attack against the western interests in the region. Kenyan casualties were collateral damage and not necessarily the major goal of the attackers. In recent times and with the foothold of KDF in Somalia, Al-Shabaab declared war to the western interests and also to other allies of Amisom including Kenya. In an article by the Crisis group, Al-Shabaab declares that they are already in the country Kenya, and even the setup of security apparatus including the wall will not protect the nation from its activities.xii Scholarly data has indicated different origins to the most dangerous extremist organizations in the Horn of Africa. The latest book by Stig Jarle Hansen; Al-Shabaab in Somalia, depicts the origins of this organization to be around the UNISOM II (1993-1995) due to the jihad fights that instigated for the protection of the Muslim Umma against the western interests.xiii Other scholars have moved the history to a much later date of around 2003 for a meeting in Hargeisa.xiv To date, predictions have been made suggesting the demise of the organization that seems to flourish even with the pounding they received from the Amisom activities in Somalia and the takeover of their economic base in the port of Kismayu.xv

Apart from the attacks recorded in Somalia from Al-Shabaab, Kenya has witnessed a lot more attacks than any other country in the Horn of Africa from the same extremist organization and its affiliates. Various reports indicate that the recruitment processes are now taking root in Kenya, with Al-Shabaab becoming smarter in its processes of engagement. Also, Kenya is one of the countries that have contributed more young people into to the organization. A story by CNN on the state of affairs in the region paints a bleak future for the various agencies and institutions dealing with the process of de-radicalization in Kenya. In an article titled; One year after Garissa, schools are recruiting grounds for extremists,xvi various organizations claim that radicalization is happening in different high schools in Kenya.

The National Intelligence Service has stated that this extremist organization has added; Rift-Valley, Western, and Nyanza to its original Coastal, North Eastern and Nairobi interests, as recruitment areas.xvii An intelligence report warns that terror groups are now targeting university and secondary school goers to create a pool of radicalized youth, who could easily be deployed. “A protracted state of instability, long porous borders and coastline have made Somalia a haven for international terrorist’s recruitment, training and launch pad for conducting operations across the region,” observes the 42-page State of National Security Annual Report to Parliament.xviii Al-Shabaab has unquestionably penetrated Kenya’s institutions of higher learning, radicalizing and recruiting students. There are reported cases of parents especially in the border towns complaining of the actions and the pain they have faced after losing their children to Al-Shabaab. One parent called Halima Hassan stated that her son requested her for around $40 for a school trip and that was the last time she saw her son.xix She is one among many parents who have complained about the impact of the extremist organizations in the areas of Isiolo Kenya. Some of them have categorically mentioned that their sons arrested by law enforcement agencies en-route to joining Al-Shabaab, while others have received phone calls from their lost sons claiming that they are okay and are with the extremist organization.xx The same article indicates that an average of 200 young school going youth/children are missing and have allegedly joined the extremist organization.

In 2010, the Daily Nation published an article indicating that the law enforcement agencies in Kenya were now aware that the target population for recruitment by Al-Shabaab extremist organization included the youth in schools.xxi In this article, they mention police reports indicating an arrest of two young men from secondary education with a Nigerian, in Kizingitini Lamu county; while trying to cross into Somalia.xxii In August 2015, the same media daily published another article stating that at least six learning institutions had been in the limelight for having students quit to join extremist organizations both in Somalia and Syria. The institutions included; Isiolo Boys High School with 10 of its students quit to join Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Marsabit Mixed Secondary School and Moi Girls Secondary in Marsabit, Koseka Secondary, Birunda PAG Primary and St Patrick’s Bumula Secondary School in Western Kenya.xxiii The article identifies Abdalla Bin Abdalla alias Maalim Burhan and Hassan Omondi Owiti alias Budalang’i and Tawfiqa Dahir and Salwa Abdalla as male and female respectively students who have joined extremist organizations.

The capital city has not been left behind as reports from the National Intelligence Service in Kenya indicated that some schools within the nations’ capital were recruiting grounds for Al-Shabaab in Kenya. It also extended examples of other schools in the coastal part of the nation too. The schools mentioned included; Moi Forces, State House Girls’, Limuru Girls, Nairobi Technical School, Highway Secondary, Eastleigh High school, St George’s Secondary, Aga Khan and Sheikh Khalifa in Mombasa.xxiv In the month of October 2015, reports emerged of a 14-year-old boy registered to sit for his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, who was rescued from the recruitment ring that was operating near his home in one of the leafy suburbs in Nairobi. The boy also mentioned that 20 other young children had already crossed to Somalia after mastering the minimal training.xxv


Research also shows that the youth in schools consider the approval of their peers at this stage in life more than that of the adults in their lives.xxvi It makes them more susceptible to its influence peer pressure and the search for identity. I argue that peer pressure and the identity crisis within the school system accounts for radicalization into terrorism in schools in Kenya and by a large extent in Africa. Radicalization and recruitment into extremist organizations is a complex phenomenon that has a myriad of drivers and factors to explain it. Apart from the effective recruitment of children into the ranks of Al-Shabaab through kidnapping; the extremist organization has also seen the recruitment through the component of indoctrination, peer pressure and the filling the gap in the search for identity.xxvii

1. Peer Pressure in Radicalization and Recruitment:

The first time for the peer radicalization documented in 2015 included six members of the same Somali community arrested on charges for joining ISIS, and the FBI were quick to point out that the group “recruited each other” in what is known as radicalisation by peers.xxvii Hostile environments have created an outcome largely driven by underground key figures in recruitment seen as an activist rather than the self-styled imam or the radical organization that has been the norm. The end game of this new shift has developed a horizontal as opposed to the top-down process of recruitment through an entrepreneurial type peer group leader who recruits on their initiative among family, friends, members of the social network and in this case, schools.xxix

Innumerable reports indicate that the process of radicalization and recruitment has taken place with the aid of individuals known to the participants. These people included the teachers, parents, family members and other peers who impact pressure to be part of something within the environment that the youth engage. Even though “some youths living in poor neighbourhoods gain attraction to the promise of money and material reward; others believe in the jihadist ideology, some have lost faith in dysfunctional politics, others look for adventure and for a clear set of rules and norms to follow, and yet others join because of peer or even family pressure.”xxx Peer influence in the process of radicalization and recruitment, consequently, plays an important role as the youth in school needs approval both at the institution level and at the broader community level. Peer pressure and/or influence also contribute to the dynamics of the individual from self to group. A study, produced by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Science (ICSR) indicates that local networks, friendships, and social circles were the “decisive influence” in radicalizing young men and women to join Islamic State (also known as ISIS, or ISIL) for the British youth.xxxi In an article about the sustenance of the terrorist rhetoric, Gina states that psychological factors play an important part in determining the success and prevalence of terrorism. Some of these factors include group dynamics, pressure from peers, fear of isolation, and the quest for significance; which contribute to the greater goal of violent extremism.xxxii It consequently, is a clear indication that involvement in violent acts is not necessarily premised on or driven by adherence to radical beliefs, but either motivated by personal or group loyalty or peer pressure. Therefore, radicalisation takes place in smaller groups where bonding, peer pressure, and indoctrination gradually change the worldview of an individual through a process of cognitive opening as seen in most of the psychosocial theories.xxxiii It can be analyzed in to find out why youth in schools join extremist organizations.

2. Ideology and Identity Crisis in Radicalization and Recruitment:

Data also points to the fact that Islamist radicalisation is related to identity dynamics where the process of search for identity through understanding radicalisation dignity and meaning to perceived discrimination, grievances and pressure on Islam which induces receptiveness toward the radical worldview of militant Islamists.xxxiv The potential to resort to violent means is an inherent possibility in all forms of collective identity where its prominence forms around the belief that it is overwhelmed by an existential threat resulting to culture and survival crisis.xxxv An article in the journal for strategic studies depicts the importance of social identity in the whole process of radicalization. The author states that; identity stands at the fore of the radicalization process where its success or failure lies partially in the recruiters’ ability to provide the radicalized individual with distinctive identity that is based on a puritanical interpretation of the religion and imbued with a sense of moral and spiritual superiority, that sets him/her aside above the rest of society.xxxvi This argument can be used to support the process of recruitment of children from schools into Al-Shabaab that is on the rise with the recruiters preying on their feeble minds to impact their ideology.

The European committee on social affairs health and sustainable development report takes note of the fact that “an increasing number of children and young people being drawn into extremist movements in their search for identity and a meaningful place in society.”xxxvii In an interview, Ms. Farah Pandith indicates that in the 80 countries that she traveled to as a special representative, her consistent finding was that the Muslim millennials are having a crisis of identity. She states that most youths are asking questions about culture versus religion, being modern and Muslim; and the people who are answering their identity crisis questions are not parents or family or community voices that in the past may have helped young people navigate their identity.xxxviii Her interview clearly highlights the gap that lies among the youth and specifically children as they seek to belong. A research report by Anneli Botha also contributes to the discussion around identity and the process of radicalization into the extremist organization. In her report, she points out the internal factors that lead young people to the extremist organization. The concept of identity search becomes central in the whole process as those young people who are unsure of their identity can easily be manipulated. It then makes it easy for the identity of an organization; in this case extremist organization, can become the identity of an individual; with the feeling of belonging to the terrorist group becoming the most important component of the Individual.xxxixMembership to an organization provides some form of identity especially to those whose base identity is flawed.xl Also, the need for belonging can be used to analyze the various components of self-radicalization process found in schools in Kenya.


Fieldwork data indicates that a larger percentage of the youth in schools are radicalized and recruited due to peer pressure and the need for identity as indicated by over 30% of the respondents in both Nairobi and Kakamega area. Two students were mentioned in Kakamega county and the linkage to organized crime group; Gaza, in both sites indicates a need to provide more guidance to the students in schools. This crime group also has linkages and activities in the informal settlements of Mathare in Nairobi county. Over 29% and 25% of those interviewed in the different institutions did not have some anchoring identity factor. In their response, they did not have anything that they could identify with within the institution or the education system. This showed a worrying trend as it provided an avenue for easy influence and manipulation. In addition, 61% of the respondents in schools in Nairobi and Kakamega know of a group or an affiliation with their learning institution. When asked to name some of the organizations, the respondents mentioned the following; Gaza Group, Al-Shabaab and 225 group (from a Girls School). 23% of the students mentioned that radicalization and recruitment may be taking place in their schools yet the administration may not be aware of what is happening.


  1. Provide capacity building to the teachers to enable them to understand some of the behaviour changes; including identity crisis, that may relate to radicalization and recruitment in schools.
  2. Provide guidance on the type of religious education curriculum to be used in the learning institutions
  3. Encourage guidance and counseling sessions in learning institutions from specialized doctors or hospitals to ensure a public health perspective in dealing with terrorism in schools.


This research paper looked at the identity crisis and peer pressure as some of the drivers to terrorism. These two factors do not work in isolation; in fact, data indicates that they work with together with other factors including; poverty as seen in the case of lack of fees, social media engagement and the need for justice to the ills of society. All the different factors should, therefore, be considered when developing a P/CVE strategy for the education system.

Excerpts from this research paper have been used to develop a “Youth led Guide on Prevention of Violent Extremism through Education” Published in 2017 by the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development.