There has until now been very little research into why young Kenyan and Somali men join al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC). This has led to limited understanding among government and Kenyan society of the roots of radicalization and terrorism.
But to deal with terrorism you have to understand where it comes from. I recently concluded independent academic research, in two different studies in Kenya and Uganda, followed by a third study in Somalia in partnership with Finn Church Aid, which I hope will contribute to that understanding.
In the Kenyan research, with the assistance of the Kenyan Muslim Youth Alliance, we interviewed 95 people associated with al-Shabaab, 45 associated with the MRC, and relatives of people associated with the organizations.
We found that many Muslim youths joined extremist groups as a reaction to the Kenyan government’s collective punishment or assassination of their religious leaders. It is clear, therefore, that government anti-terror strategies based on mass arrests and racial profiling are counterproductive and may drive individuals to extremism. Unless government changes its approach, there is a real risk it will inspire a new cycle of radicalization and violence.
The MRC is often mistakenly associated with al-Shabaab, but our research showed very clear differences in the type and motivation of people who join the two organizations. The MRC is driven by ethnic and economic factors, while al-Shabaab’s core is radical Islam. The two have a common enemy in the Kenyan government, but it would be a mistake to place extremists from both groups under one banner.
Violent extremism in Kenya has since the 1990s lost its exclusively foreign character, and national and regional extremism has expanded. While al-Shabaab’s roots are in Somalia, growing acceptance of al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab’s philosophy in traditional African communities has allowed it to spread through the broader region, including Kenya.
The most dramatic manifestation of Al-Shabaab’s abilities to strike beyond Somalia came when it successfully executed suicide attacks in Kampala, Uganda, on 11 July 2010, and the attack on the Westgate shopping mall on 21 September 2013 in Nairobi. Al-Shabaab was also implicated in smaller attacks where Kenyans were the targets of improvised explosive devices and hand grenade attacks.
In addition to being the victims, Kenyans and Ugandans were directly involved in recruiting their fellow nationals to join al-Shabaab, some of whom were used to execute attacks in their own countries.
“These radicalized individuals are identifying with something other than being Kenyan. It shows that radicalization will increase as long as Kenyan citizens identify with an ethnic or religious identity that is perceived to be under threat.
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