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Radicalization of children and youth in Kenya: A new challenge to child protection

The war in Somalia pitting the Al Shabaab against the Somalia Federal Government and the forces of the AMISOM is spilling over into many neighbouring countries with Kenya being one of the affected countries. Terrorist attacks have increased in Kenya in recent years. Looking at the years between 2011 and 2014, there have been more than 70 grenade and gun attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa and Garissa counties[1]. The most brutal attack occurred on the 2nd of April 2015, when gunmen stormed the Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya, killing 148 people and injuring 79 or more. The incident at the Westgate shopping centre in September 2013, which left some 70 people killed and more than 200 injured, is also another significant manifestation of the growing threat of terrorism and violent extremism in Kenya. Besides the attacks and killings, it also appears that Al Shabaab is seeking to radicalise and recruit children from various communities in Kenya.

This article, therefore, focuses on this recent phenomenon of radicalization of children in Kenya into Islamic extremist groups. The article attempts to briefly explore the impacts of radicalization of children in Kenya as a new challenge in relation to the discourse of child protection. With a view of curbing the harm on the lives, well-being, survival and development of children in some parts of Kenya, the article also includes general remarks to be considered in the fight against radicalism.

Radicalization of children in Kenya: aggravated vulnerability  

Children in African societies are amongst the most vulnerable segment of the civilian populations during conflicts and crises. Wars and conflicts put children in a situation where every right of a child could be violated. Children are killed or injured, usually in the context of clashes between opposing forces, and children have also been directly targeted in many cases[2]. In the chaos of war and other crises, many children become separated from their families, which results in loss of parental care and protection at the time when they most need it. In the context of conflicts, children are exposed to the risk of abuse and exploitation and their very survival is threatened. Children also face the threat of being recruited as soldiers not only by terrorist groups but also by other armed actors including the forces of the state.

Recent trends in armed conflict have resulted in new challenges for the protection of children. Previously armed conflict involved confrontations between states, whereas currently intra-state conflicts are more frequent. As battle lines become blurred and fragmented, armed groups increasingly rely on improvised explosive devices and suicide missions, as well as the use of children to carry out attacks. Both boys and girls have been targeted for recruitment and use by such groups, which indoctrinate and manipulate in order to coerce or force children to participate in hostilities, including acts of extreme violence. Girls and boys are often unaware of the actions or consequences of the acts they are manipulated or coerced to commit, which explains the current situation in some parts of Kenya.

Radicalization in Kenya is a real threat with the target group for the militants varying in age. There are reports that a swoop carried out in Mombasa’s Musa Mosque by security agents rescued over 200 children as young as 12 years said to be undergoing radicalization[3]. A report by Regional News Service (June 2015) estimates that 255 persons have left to join the terrorist group since 2013. Other reports may however give an indication that this figure could be higher as in Isiolo County in Eastern Kenya alone, an estimated 200 children were reported missing since 2014 and assumed to have crossed over to Somalia[4]. The target group for the recruiters are children and youth between ages of 15-30 and mostly boys.

Children and young people can be drawn into violence or they can be exposed to the messages of extremist groups through a range of means. These can include exposure through the influence of family members or friends and/or direct contact with extremist groups and organisations or, increasingly, through the internet.  Children are easily vulnerable to exposure to, or involvement with, groups or individuals who advocate violence as a means to a political or ideological end[5].  Looking at the case in Kenya, a number of interrelated social, political and economic factors are fuelling the radicalization of children. Geographically, the epicentre of radicalization appears to be the Northern Province of Kenya which is dominated by ethnic Somalis, and by most accounts, it is considered to be the worst victim of unequal development[6]. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the Northern Province has a history of insurgency, misrule and repression, chronic poverty, massive youth unemployment, high population growth, insecurity, poor infrastructure and lack of basic services, which resulted in the bleak socio-economic and political conditions. The rate of poverty is significantly higher in the areas where radicalization of children is rampant, thus the vulnerability of children and young people being lured to join these groups. Moreover, the unfolding conflict in neighbouring Somalia has also had a largely negative effect on the province. Reports also reveal the existence of a high level of small arms flow across the Northern Kenya, which provides a conducive environment for the extremists to easily arm their recruits. 

Impact of radicalization on the rights and welfare of children

Radicalization affects the life of children in many ways. It results in grave violations of children’s rights including killing, sexual violence, displacement and denial of health services. Particularly, its impact on education has become a worrying trend as children are being denied the chance of going to school and tragically the number of reported attacks on educational facilities is rising. There are indications that in some places schools are closed down for considerably long time as parents have stopped sending their children to school for fear of attacks by Al Shabaab[7]. These are wide-reaching implications for children in the North-eastern part of Kenya that are not even the target of radicalization efforts.   There are students who have not reported to schools for long time and no one seems to know their whereabouts. As captured in the continental study on the impact of armed conflict on children in Africa, by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC), in Isiolo county of Eastern Kenya, at least 200 children had not reported to school in 2015[8].

Besides its impact on education, there are alleged reports of detention of children suspected to be radicalized. A Human Rights Watch report (2014) indicated there was strong evidence that Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit had carried out a series of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances[9]. In 2007 and 2008, Human Rights Watch and Muslim Human Rights Forum separately documented the involvement of the unit and other Kenyan security forces in the arbitrary detention and unlawful rendition of at least 85 people including 19 women and 15 children from Kenya to Somalia[10]. Besides, during the raid of Masjid Mosque in Mombasa, reports indicate that at least 30 children who were rescued during this operation were detained and then placed in remand homes. This act of arbitrary detention is clearly contrary to international and national laws which prescribe every individual’s rights to liberty and the security of his or her person.

Towards a Kenya fit for its children

Radicalization of children in Kenya is increasingly causing harm to children and this is seriously compromising, their lives, wellbeing and survival and development from a number of different angles. The Kenyan experience of radicalisation of children is an eye-opener to the new challenge of child protection facing Africa and should therefore receive close attention by African States in general and the Government of Kenya in particular. The challenge calls for the need to develop a more hands-on approach by the Government of Kenya through the relevant ministries in dealing with radicalization. There is a need to have a well-coordinated approach in the fight against terrorism and radicalization. Moreover, there needs to be a mechanism to address the long-standing grievances held by marginalized groups or communities and enhancing the inclusion of these groups in socio-economic and political activities.

More importantly, formulating and executing sound counter radicalisation and de-radicalisation policies before it is too late must be a priority. In this regard, due reference, inter alia, should be made to the Principles and Guidelines on Human and Peoples’ Rights while Countering Terrorism in Africa. These Principles and Guidelines were adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights during its 56th Ordinary Session in Banjul, Gambia in April 2015[11]. The Principles and Guidelines include a set of fourteen general principles, such as prohibition of arbitrary detention and guidance on specific issues that the Commission regarded as being particularly relevant to the protection of human rights while combating terrorism, which could also be applied on matters related to children’s rights accordingly.

Ayalew Getachew is Child Rights Legal Researcher at the Secretariat of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (African Union). He may be reached at


[1] Wafula, Paul. ‘Kenya faced 133 attacks since Somalia intervention’. Horn Affairs (English).

[2] United Nations. Report of the UN Secretary General. Children and Armed Conflict. Pp. 25-26. 2014.

[3]Continental study on the Impact of armed conflict on children in Africa, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, unpublished, Pp. 47 (2016).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bailey P ‘Guidance for Working with Children and Young People who are vulnerable to the messages of Radicalisation and Extremism’. Metron Safeguarding  Children’s Board, Pp. 5, (2015)

[6]Kenyan Somali Islamist Radicalisation, International Crisis Group (2012).

[7] Continental study on the Impact of armed conflict on children in Africa, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, unpublished, Pp 48-49  (2016).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Human Rights Watch, ‘Kenya: Killings, Disappearances by Anti-Terror Police,’ Human Rights Watch,

August 18, 2014,

[10] Ibid.

[11]The Principles and Guidelines on Human and Peoples Rights while countering terrorism in Africa, African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (2015).

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