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Reasons for radicalisation

Moved by a Somali mother’s puzzling dilemma as to why one of her sons went on to join al-Shabab but the other became a police officer, Dr Anneli Botha of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Pretoria, has done extensive—yet by no means exhaustive— research across east Africa to find empirical answers to the question. The former police officer from South Africa, who self-financed the Kenya leg of her PhD project (which also covers the Finn Church Aid-funded Somalia component and research in other east African countries), presented her work at the ISS’s Nairobi office on 15 October at a heavily attended seminar.

For her quite thorough and remarkable doctoral study of why people in Kenya join groups like al-Shabab and the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), Dr Botha interviewed 95 individuals associated with al-Shabab, 45 with the MRC, and 46 relatives of individuals who had either been arrested or investigated or killed for association with al-Shabab or five relatives of Mombassa Republican Council (MRC) members—all of them Kenyans of Somali ethnicity. The comprehensive range and scope of the questions asked approach the problem from as diverse angles as emotional reasons, such as fear and anger for signing up, to educational levels of the conscripts to these groups. The study report also looks into the role of family, ideology and identity—who is ‘us’ and who’s the ‘enemy’—as well religious socialisation and socio-economic drivers of recruitment to these groups.

All this work has led Botha to reach an ominous conclusion:

Muslim youth have joined extremist groups as a counter-reaction to what they see as government-imposed “collective punishment” driven by the misguided perception that all Somali and Kenyan-Somali nationals are potential terrorists. As long as Kenyan citizens exclusively identify with an ethnic/religious identity that is perceived to be under threat, radicalisation will increase.

One of the many instructive findings presented by Dr Botha underlines the weak sense of Kenyan national identity or citizenship among those who are—or may once have been—associated with the two groups generally seen as the twin threat of Islamic radicalism to Kenya’s national security. She went to great lengths to make the point that al-Shabab and the MRC are two different phenomena with different agenda, characteristics and profiles.

“Although the MRC is often mistakenly associated with al-Shabaab…there are very clear differences in the type of individuals who join al-Shabaab and the MRC and their reasons for doing so,” said Dr Botha. Some other differences in the profile of recruits—such as 67 MRC members only attended primary education while 45% of al-Shabab had secondary education—also explain the different nature and agenda of the organisations—MRC’s local, secessionist objectives versus al-Shabab’s global ideological network. Still, they share an almost absolute lack of allegiance to the Kenyan national identity and, in equal measure, a lack of faith and trust in the ruling political classes.

A strong perception of physical threat as well as the notion that their “religion is under threat” by an array of enemies—especially the government of Kenya and other rival religions—also figures prominently among the several factors that interviewees from both groups cited as reasons for their actions.

The reports notes that “despite the fact that the two organisations, influenced by different histories, contest different areas (the MRC focuses on land issues and is a secessionist movement while al-Shabaab stresses Islamist extremism), the question is whether they tap into the same frustrations and grievances.”

Religion, ethnicity and inequality

A key element of this complex picture that distinguishes MRC from al-Shabab is the leaning of their members towards religious and ethnic identities: a predominantly ethnic, geographical coastal identity for the former while a stronger sense of religious identity in al-Shabab’s case. “A convergence of religious and ethnic identity provided a bridge between al-Shabab and the MRC, especially in the coastal and north-eastern regions,” observes Dr Botha as she notes that this convergence is not new and did not start with Kenya’s decision to send its forces into Somalia in 2011 but goes back many decades to the Shifta war of the 1960s.

“It is apparent that Kenyans are extremely divided. While diversity can be celebrated when mutual respect exists, it can also destroy a country from within when there is not trust with reference to both religious and ethnic differences, as described by al-Shabab and MRC respondents,” concludes the report.

The report also clarifies the oft-cited linkage between economic poverty and violent extremism by observing that “it was not poverty that drove respondents to the MRC, but rather evidence of inequality based on ethnicity and geographical location.”

“When access is on based ethnic, cultural or religious differences between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, economic conditions can contribute to radicalisation and instability,” says the report.

Even though, observes Dr Botha, the majority of both al-Shabab and MRC respondents attended public schools, the level of integration and contact with individuals from different ethnic and religious background needs attention.

Botha believes that tackling the problem of radicalisation requires “the entire Kenyan government to initiate dedicated strategies to build national identity.”

Crime and terrorism

The report is particularly critical of Kenya’s counterterrorism measures and policing methods. The number of convictions, not arrests, is the real indicator of performance, remarked Br Botha, who emphasised the harm done to the Kenyan society by mass, indiscriminate and arbitrary arrests in the wake of acts of terrorism.

Responses to terrorist attacks, Botha emphasised, should be intelligence-led and targeted, and not random or based on profiling of ethnic or religious groups. Such measures will only increase the incidence of radicalisation as fear and anger among more youth and families rise.

Arrest the criminals who perpetrate these attacks, identify those who plan and finance these attacks, says Botha, and have them convicted for their crimes. These policing failures to properly investigate and resolve crimes result in the kind of responses that have been seen in Kenya, with hundreds and thousands Somalis rounded up indiscriminately and confined to a stadium in Nairobi.

“Of even more concern are claims of extrajudicial killings of problematic individuals, most notably Muslim scholars,” says the study as it states that such perceptions has radicalised and recruited dozens, if not hundreds, to the ranks of extremist organisations.

The report recommends that an ‘effective counterterrorism policy and strategy should appreciate the broader context in which violent actions or attacks occur and seek to meaningfully and nonviolently attend to the problems thrown up by the context”.


Summarised by Najum Mushtaq 

Anneli Botha, “Radicalisation in Kenya: Recruitment to al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republication Council,” ISS Paper 265, Institute of Strategic Studies, Pretoria, South Africa (September 2014). The full report is available here

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