On January 15, Kenyans woke up to news of a deadly attack on a Kenya Defence Forces camp in El Adde, Somalia, in which our men and women in uniform suffered heavy casualties.
As Kenyans seek answers, our attention should focus on some fundamental questions whose answers may provide long-term solutions to the greatest security challenge of modern times.
What could have been the state of mind of the attackers? What motivates such young people to go into suicide missions? Is it possible that Kenyans recruited into al Shabaab could have taken part in the attack?
An inquiry should be set up to establish the non-military ingredients that make al Shabaab thrive, especially the ideological motivation that enables it to recruit fighters for such deadly missions.
We need to acknowledge that al Shabaab is a well-organised network and its military operations are sustained by a well-entrenched ideology that guarantees an inflow of fighters. For instance, political and military analysts of the conflict in Somalia have pointed out that the El Adde attack was planned and sanctioned by al Shabaab’s commander (Emir) Sheikh Ahmed Omar, also known as Abu Ubaydah. It would be in the best interests of Kenyan authorities to first understand the character of Abu Ubaydah and what motivates him.
According to a recent Al Jazeera report authored by a correspondent who was granted a one-on-one interview, Abu Ubaydah was the trusted lieutenant to Ahmed Godane, the former al Shabaab leader who was killed in a US air strike in September 2014. Before he was named Godane’s successor, Abu Ubaydah was the chairman of al Shabaab governors, commanding several thousand militants.
But Abu Ubaydah is no stranger to Kenya. After the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, Abu Ubaydah, like hundreds of thousands of other Somalis, crossed the border into Kenya, where he lived for several years, learned Kiswahili, and got acquainted with the behaviour of Kenyans. According to the Al Jazeera report, Abu Ubaydah knows Kenya like the back of his hand and, like other senior al Shabaab operatives, he is not just driven by ideology but also by bad experiences while living in Kenya, where he was often arrested by police, harassed and made to pay bribes to secure his release.
He developed a deep hatred for the administrative institutions and attacking Kenya became his pet project. By staying in Kenya as a refugee and knowing the country very well, Abu Ubaydah developed social networks through which he can recruit thousands of disgruntled young people.
This brief expose helps us answer the question: what motivates young people to join the likes of al Shabaab and be willing to undertake suicide missions?
For the past three years, understanding and seeking to address the issues that motivate young people, especially Muslim youth, to join militant groups has been one of the main missions of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims. Working under the aegis of countering violent extremism programmes, Supkem has established that bad experiences with government policies or institutions have caused a huge number of Muslim youth to hate their country.
This hatred, also occasioned by real or perceived socioeconomic and political marginalisation, has driven many Muslim youth into the hands of violent extremist groups. Many Muslim youth who go through such bad experiences are left with the feeling that the state is designed to discriminate against Muslims by marginalising them and treating them as second-class citizens. With this comes a sense of aloofness and lack of patriotism.
Aware of this desperate and hopeless generation of Muslim youth, extremist groups move in with irresistible offers of making the youth respectable masters of their own destinies in an Islamic state. This is where radicalisation and recruitment into violent extremism begins. But this is where Supkem’s counter-violent extremism agenda becomes relevant.
Under its CVE programme, Supkem has sought interventions geared towards ensuring that despite the desperate situations they may find themselves in, Muslim youth are well informed and empowered to resist the alternatives offered by extremist groups.
Last month, Supkem convened a national consultative forum where discussions focused on the role of the public sector in building resilience against violent extremism. It was pointed out that as much as government and civil society have pioneered countering violent extremism, the private sector has a critical role to play.
For example, it was deemed unacceptable for businesses to post huge profits every financial year, yet those profits benefit only a few privileged shareholders. In this regard, business leaders can be role models for the youth by offering mentorship and apprenticeship so that the youth feel and see themselves as contributing to and benefiting from the country’s economic growth. This helps to mitigate the sense of economic marginalisation and exclusion that many a youth feel.
The private sector can align its economic opportunities for the benefit of youth likely to be recruited to extremist causes. In doing so, it would contribute to ensuring that fewer and fewer youth are available for recruitment into violent extremism.
More robust efforts and resources should be invested in addressing the factors that pull young people to violent extremism. As Prof Noam Chomsky of MIT recently said during a TV interview with regard to ISIS: “We can scream at and bomb our enemies, but ultimately we shall have to use diplomacy to confront the underlying issues that cause people to embrace extremism.”
The writer is deputy secretary general of Supkem.