For a decade, Al-Shabab, a militant group of an estimated 5,000 men whose name translates as “The Youth,” has been fighting in Somalia and launching terror attacks in neighboring Kenya.
Al-Shabab was responsible for the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, that killed 67 people and the 2015 attack on Garissa University in Kenya that killed more than 120 people. Many of the attackers were Kenyans. In fact, Kenyans contribute more foreign fighters to Al-Shabab, than any other country.
With the help of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Special Correspondent Nick Schifrin met up with three of Al-Shabab’s Kenyan recruits, and in this report, we get insight into why young men join the group — and on an effort to get them out.
Note: Each of the three Kenyan Muslims interviewed requested their names be changed for this interview due to safety concerns.
In the Pumwani slum, on the edge of Nairobi, radicals find fertile ground — and willing recruits including these three Kenyan Muslims. Each requested we change their names and tape from the back or side. They fear the police, and Al-Shabab soldiers they used to fight with.
ABDUL: We’re supposed to, when we see a policeman, to kill him right there.
HASAN: You should die fighting for Islam.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Do you remember your first big battle with Al-Shabab?
MOHAMMAD: We carried out an ambush against Ethiopian forces near a river.
They were all praying the building towering over the slum — the Pumwani Riyadh Mosque…when in 2007, this man, Sheikh Ahmed Iman Ali, took power.
He was a young and charismatic Kenyan preacher. His followers embraced him…including Mohammad.
MOHAMMAD: Those two years that Sheik Iman was there, he woke us up.
In 2009, Sheik Iman left the mosque to lead Al-Shabab’s propaganda arm. But not before he had radicalized perhaps hundreds of Kenyans, with a message of economic empowerment…including Hasan.
HASAN: His preachings were popular. Most of the youths felt that he was genuinely talking for them and teaching them. He was preying on the most vulnerable people. Because most of the youths in Pumwani–they were, and they are still living in abject poverty.
Abdul says he too was enticed by money.
ABDUL: We were going sometimes hungry. My siblings were hungry.
As a teenager, he had become a thief to afford food.
NICK SCHIFRIN: What did you use to do on these streets right here?
ABDUL: We were mugging people like you. We were carjacking public vehicles.
After being arrested and jailed, Abdul learned about violent jihad from fellow Kenyan prisoners who’d fought with Al-Shabab in Somalia.
ABDUL: These people were returnees from Somalia. They started talking, how their business was good.
Their business was Al-Shabab. They convinced Abdul, a recent Muslim convert, that fighting in Somalia was lucrative. He was given $500 to join and $100 a week.
NICK SCHIFRIN: That was good money for you, right?
ABDUL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mostly what inspired me to go there was money and to be where the police of Kenya won’t get me. The police wanted to kill. I was their target.
That was Sheikh Iman’s second inroad: using propaganda videos to identify Kenyan police as oppressors.
PROPAGANDA FOODTAGE: If Muslim clerics in Kenya stood for truth, they should have announced jihad long ago, as Muslims were being oppressed.
This police officer—whom we granted anonymity—admits he stole from Muslims who couldn’t defend themselves… as a way to supplement low income.
POLICE OFFICER: Looting of property, extorting money from those arrested.
NICK SCHIFRIN: So you believe that your work increased radicalization?
POLICE OFFICER: Of course, it increased. Because it was like the government was targeting Muslims alone.
Al-Shabab portrays Kenya as a predominantly Christian nation that oppresses Muslims.
Sheik Iman promises revenge — in the name of Islam.
SHEIKH AHMED IMAN ALI ON FOOTAGE: The day they decide to come out for a face to face battle I am going to put away my AK-47 inside and take out my sword. These fellows know nothing about battle.
That message of revenge and empowerment lured Mohamed to join Al-Shabab.
MOHAMMAD: The oppression that was taking place could not be eradicated through words. The only response was to take up arms to fight the oppression.
NICK SCHIFRIN: This is called little Mogadishu?
ROBERT OCHOLA: Yeah…
Community organizer Robert Ochola heard about Sheikh Iman’s radicalization campaign and started a grassroots organization to fight it.
ROBERT OCHOLA: It’s a battle. It’s a battle of hearts and minds, and [it] depends on who will offer these people you are fighting for more.
All around him, he sees the incubators of radicalism: Muslims living with poverty, illiteracy, hopelessness.
ROBERT OCHOLA: When you have nothing, you don’t have anything to lose. When you’ve dropped out of school, probably in primary school, you know, your mind is somehow, it’s closed in a box. And then comes in somebody feeds and fills up your mind with some radical things.
Ochola hosts community events designed to combat Al-Ahabab’s appeals. Speakers discuss the value of honest work and moderate Islam. That message turned around Abdul before he could make it to Somalia.
ABDUL: That Imam was the one who made me leave all my burdens. I was telling him what we were taught. He told me that’s not Islam religion.
Ochola provides Abdul and other young men what this community often lacks: positive role models.
ABDUL: I thought he was somebody I can trust. Maybe I felt him in my heart.
ROBERT OCHOLA: [in radio studio] In 10, 20 years, we’re going to have so many mentors in the community that whoever comes up with a negative narrative will be hitting a wall.
Ochola hosts a radio show to reach these men and attract would-be mentors so fewer youth from Pumwani die fighting in Somalia.
ROBERT OCHOLA: We’ve lost people we know, not people that somebody else knows, people we literally interacted with. To us, it’s practical. It’s not theoretical. So we come from a ground point of view.
NICK SCHIFRIN: And not only is it practical, not theoretical, but it’s also literally life and death.
ROBERT OCHOLA: It’s life and death, yeah.
NICK SCHIFRIN: How many friends have you buried?
ABDUL: [at cemetery] More than 500. This is known as Abdul Aziz. There is another one there of my brother called Abdul Sanka.
Abdul’s final rejection of Al-Shabab came after burying one too many friends.
ABDUL: Sometimes I come here in this cemetery, and I just call myself lucky. Even now, even if I touch my heart, it’s running.
Mohamed says he left Al-Shabab when his leaders in Somalia withheld weapons from Kenyan fighters, treating them like second class recruits.
MOHAMMAD: There was no equality. I went thinking I would find justice. But that didn’t happen.
Today, more than six years after Sheikh Iman left, the Pumwani Riyadh Mosque is trying to erase his legacy.
A madrassa teaches elementary school kids mainstream religious lessons, a secular school teaches three-to-six-year-olds and a soup kitchen offers much needed, free food.
The mosque de-radicalizes with moderate preaching and job training.
Imam Juma Mohamed says they offer resources the government fails to deliver.
JUMA MOHAMED: The government is neglecting us. As if they were saying, ‘Because you are Muslim, if you want to die, you die here.’ They don’t support us.”
And that means even if the mosque no longer preaches violence… Al-Shabab can still exploit the same roads to radicalism.
ROBERT OCHOLA: All we offer them is hope — hope for a better future. The other side is giving them immediate gratification, giving them, providing for their food, clothing, shelter, comradeship.
HASAN: People are still vulnerable to recruitment, because it has moved from the mosque to internet. Like the other day, Mohammad Iman posted on YouTube, talking to the youths and telling them to join them.
NICK SCHIFRIN: And today that message of recruitment is still popular?
HASAN: It is. It is popular.