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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.


Engagement With Extremist Organizations: Putting Alshabaab into Context
Community Together Initiative (CTI) Project Review

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