Apr 26, 2017

Behold, I was lost, but now I am found! Confessions of an Al-Shabaab recruit

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Capture.PNGWhat do you do if you have an interesting story to tell but fear the repercussions? You tell it anyway, and if you fear you might not have the spine to take the backlash, you hide your identity. That is exactly what I am going to do, because I have a story that I can’t keep bottled up inside me any more. I have agreed to have my pictures used alongside this story, but they, too, will not reveal my identity. Excuse me.

I was born in 1985 in Ziwani, Nairobi. I come from a family of three; the elder of twin brothers — my parents separated in 1993. I sat my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exam in 1999 and scored 420 marks. I could not proceed to high school though, so I sought a livelihood on the streets and alleyways of Ziwani, and soon I was selling bhang.

The business, if I may call it so, gave me enough money to feed and clothe myself, as well as something for the occasional partying. I was at one of those parties when I met a girl with whom I started cohabiting in 2002.

A year later we bore a son, but the elation turned into self-doubt soon after when I realised I could scarcely feed the expanding family. To supplement my income from the bhang business, I started mugging people, but this new venture was quite risky. On the day my son was born in 2003, for instance, I was beaten senseless by a mob that caught me mugging a woman. I lost some of my teeth and they broke my chin.

As I recovered at Kenyatta National Hospital, where I took four days to regain consciousness, I reasoned that I needed to arm myself if I were to keep mugging people safely, and so, soon after I was released from hospital, we ganged up with colleagues in the crime business and acquired a pistol from a supplier in Kayole at a cost of Sh78,000. A few days later, we snatched two guns from the police, bringing our illegal arms stock to one pistol and two rifles.


Then we graduated from mugging to hijacking matatus in Eastleigh, Huruma and other parts of Eastlands in early morning raids. We targeted night clubs too.

In 2005 I stopped partying and scaled down the armed robberies, concentrating instead on the bhang business because a lot of my friends had been killed, probably by the police.

In 2006, I got arrested with two kilos of bhang, charged in court but managed to sneak away from the police as we left the courtroom, in handcuffs.

I was rearrested two weeks later, charged afresh an sent to jail in Nairobi’s Industrial Area Prison because I could not afford the Sh300,000 fine. My wife moved back to her parents while my mother, who had bought a plot in Kitengela, struggled to bail me out after depositing her title deed with the courts.

I had spent two months in jail by then, and by the time Mum risked her Kitengela plot to set me free, something had changed inside me. Since I am a Muslim, I was accommodated in Block L12 at Industrial Area Prison, and it was here that I met a man we called Mohammed who told me stories of war and why it was good to be on the “frontline”. He spoke in a coded language, always dropping such words as “further studies”, “battlefield” and “destiny” in his sentences. By the time I left, I had become quite interested in this “destiny” talk.

In 2009, I ran into the man I had met in jail on the streets and he asked me again if I was willing to go to the “frontline”. He was in the company of another man whom, I would later learn, had been released from Shimo la Tewa Prison a while earlier and was living in Majengo, Nairobi.

The ex-Shimo la Tewa detainee had also become some sort of a religious celebrity in Majengo because he had helped fundraise for the building of our mosque.

The mosque had been the centre of a political battle between the old and young clerics, and after the new facility was put up, the old folk were ejected and forced to worship at a nearby social hall.

Nobody really knew where he got the money, and months after we met I learnt he was also in charge of recruiting those willing to go to join a fighting force Somalia. He gave me $700 (approximately Sh70,000 at current exchange rates) and told me to think about his cause, and then he disappeared. I was excited about this new opportunity to earn a living, and — don’t ask my why, or how; when you are young, broke and barely literate, rational thinking is scarcely your forte — I thought he was recruiting on behalf of the Somali military.


A few weeks later he showed up and found me eagerly waiting for the journey to Somalia. We drove from Nairobi to Garissa in a pick-up truck, then at Garissa we boarded an old white van with tinted windows that took an earth road and headed into the bush.

After travelling through the night we arrived at a camp in the middle of nowhere, far away from civilisation. As I stepped out of the van I noticed there were other young recruits here too. We were gathered and informed that we would stay here briefly for “further studies” before going through military training.

We were ordered to obey instructions, pray regularly and stay physically fit. We took porridge every morning and ate ugali with beans every lunchtime and evenings, except on Mondays and Fridays, when the cooks varied the menu with ugali/beef and rice/beans, respectively. It wasn’t a comfortable existence, but we were assured that it was worth the sacrifice as would soon become “angels”.

We were told that Islam was under threat, that we needed to stand up for our fellow Muslims, and that we will all receive great rewards — and virgins — should we die while defending it. That sounded convoluted, by I reasoned that maybe my faith was not strong enough.

You see, I am a Muslim, but I was not born one. My parents were Christians and I only converted to Islam after dropping out of school. My best friend — with whom I mugged and robbed several people in Ziwani — was a Muslim, and he told me it was a great faith. I believed him, partly because I desperately wanted to find my true religious north.

After two months of religious studies in the forest, we graduated into weaponry classes, which were to last for two more months before we were to be sent to Somalia for “further teachings” and “accrued payments”.

By then I had befriended one of my fellow trainees, a young man of Somali descent who, like me, had started questioning the ideologies and dogmas we were being taught.

It was that young man who helped us sneak out of the camp and into the forest a few days before graduation. We then hiked a lift to Garissa, and onwards to Nairobi. The other trainees, we would later learn, were moved into Somalia.

After a few months, some of the trainees started streaming into the Majengo neighbourhood of Nairobi, loaded with money and weapons. One of them asked me whether I could store his guns in my house and I told him yes, for a fee. Then the rest followed him, and soon my house had all manner of guns, magazines, bullets and grenades. I charged them about Sh20,000 for the favour.

My constant interactions with these young, very rich boys made me start rethinking my decision not to go into Somalia, and one day I summoned the courage to call the recruiter and ask for another chance. He laughed me off, saying I was a coward and a let-down.

On Sunday, September 8, 2013, my friends and I went to Kasarani stadium in Nairobi to watch a football match between Harambee Stars and Namibia. After the match (we pipped the visitors 1-0), we hired a taxi to take us to the CBD. At Muthaiga we slowed down to let traffic from Kiambu Road join the road. At about the same time, a group of heavily armed police officers in civilian clothes blocked our car and started shooting in the air. We had been cornered, and we had to surrender.

We — four men and two women — were ordered out of the car and bundled into a police truck. As we lay on the floor of the truck, the police called out the names of two of my friends. They said they were interested in those two but would also interrogate the rest of us. We were taken to different police stations for interrogation, tortured with all manner of stuff, and then released days later after someone bonded us out.

After a few days of freedom, one of my friends brought me Sh20,000, which he called “compensation” for going through the “nightmare at gunpoint”. I have never heard from my two friends again.

Towards the end of 2013, Ziwani hosted the Koth Biro football tournament. As usual, I packed my bhang and headed to the venue, hoping for brisk business. Towards the end of the tournament, however, something happened that changed my life completely. It was something simple, yet so important: I met a childhood friend called Robert Ochola.


Ochola, whom we referred to simply as Robo, had grown to become the executive director of Street Radio while the rest of us gambled with petty and serious crime. He started asking me too many questions — about my family, work, future, studies — and I told him I was unemployed. He told me he knew me, that he wanted me to keep of crime, and was willing to employ me as a security guard. I agreed.

In 2014 Robo organised a forum called ‘From Graves to the Ground’, the title inspired by our childhood days when we played football near Kariorkor Cemetery, and so the ball would keep straying into the graveyard.

The forum, co-hosted by Umeme Sports, had handled matters of youth crime initially, but as terrorism and radicalisation cases rose, they ventured in violent extremism. Often, they invited religious leaders, government officials, police officers or former criminals to mentor people. I attended the forum, and the teachings convinced me I had made the right decision to shun terrorism.

Later, Umeme Sports helped me buy a juice blender, a bag of sugar and a sack of passion fruits, and then taught me how to make fruit juice. That’s what I do now, that’s what keeps me going. The pay is not much, but at least it is legitimate. Legal.

I will be lying to you if I told you I don’t keep watching over my shoulders any more. Thirty of my childhood friends have died since 2010, killed in mysterious circumstances that no one can explain. I feel like I could be one of them, and now that I have confessed my sins, I fear somebody who knows me well might come for me.

It was worth it, though, because I hope that, in giving my story, I will change the trajectories of others who might be on the verge of making the mistakes I made. My wife left me, my mother risked her piece of land for me, I was almost killed in a police operation, and I have lost the best years of my youth.

In the end, it wasn’t worth it.


Deradicalisation programmes still a hit-or-miss affair


The confession of the young man on these pages is a chilling reminder of how young men and women are recruited into terror groups, and there are many more others like him who are dying inside. Take Elly Mutunga, for instance, who, after converting to Islam, adopted the name Ahmed. He is a talented footballer and spends his time juggling between his kiosk and a local field in Ziwani, where he trains with a local non-league team.

At 5 ft 4, he spots a bushy beard and is wearing tight jeans and second-hand rubber shoes on the day we sit down to talk. Aged 22, he grew up yearning to be a pilot, but he also came from a family of 12 and parents struggled to get him through school. After high school, he dropped out and started running a kiosk.

Ahmed, like our hero in the main story, was recruited to become a terror merchant in 2013. A man who coached them football at school turned out to be an Al-Shabaab agent, and so the talk started to veer off football and ventured into “vision”, “destiny” and “faith”. Things went so fast that Ahmed does not clearly remember how he got himself supporting what he calls “weird ideas” about life.

His only luck was that the man who had prepared to take them to Somalia never finally turned up on the day they had agreed to. The recruiter probably got killed while in Somalia, but he had left in his wake potent material in the form of radicalised youth.

“There are many young people in the slums who are just lying idle, waiting for instructions,” Robert Ochola, who runs a rehabilitation programme for former hard-core criminals — called Graves to Grounds — told DN2 last week.

Things changed after 2012, when parents in Ziwani, Majengo, Pumwani and nearby areas started reporting to the police that their children had been disappearing mysteriously. Those who returned behaved weirdly.

“We never understood it initially because we were targeting criminal groups, not terrorists. There are mothers who turned up at police stations saying they couldn’t tell where their sons had gone. Others claimed their daughters no longer wanted to watch television and termed it evil,” explained Malcolm Ngari, who works on the programme with Ochola.

Through Graves to Grounds, Ochola and his team started to gather people in the community to attend public discussions on security and religious radicalism. Their programmers are partially supported by an EU-funded organisation called Royal United Services Institute. Ms Martine Zeuthen, who heads the counter-violent extremism project at the Institute, said working with local organisations and the government helps to understand the reasons for joining Al-Shabaab.

“We do this, first to better understand why a small number of people are turning to violent extremism, and second, to trial methods and activities which can prevent radicalisation and stop it getting worse,” she said. “We are looking at how global and local extremism and recruitment is linked and seeing who might be vulnerable, and where. There are many different reasons for people to join violent groups, and activities must be tailored according to the profile of the individual or group,” she said.

The organisation says peer mentorship programming, radio debates, and dialogue workshops between different faith communities are important to remove suspicions and discourage people from joining terror groups.

But this also represents a challenge: “Since everyone is welcome, you never know who is coming to gather information for Al-Shabaab, and many of the youth here do not trust the government,” she said.

“Our strategy is to have security officers tell it like it is; that terrorism is bad, it will get you killed. That you may have to be stopped by the police and be checked, and that has nothing to do with your name or tribe. It has worked well.”

Those who have turned the back on Al-Shabaab claim many of their friends may have returned to Kenya, but have not renounced the group. Some experts believe there is a flaw in the way counter-terrorism programmes are designed.

“There is a gap in designing CVE (Counter-Violent Extremism) programmes because most of them are not based on research to inform interventions, but random assumptions,” Ms Hawa Noor, a researcher at the Institute of Security Studies in Nairobi, told DN2 last week. “This field is relatively new and so stakeholders are still understanding the kind of programmes that work well compared to others.”

“It (deradicalisation) is about changing perceptions, and so programmes must be strongly based on the drivers of extremism in particular contexts. The best-practices approach certainly won’t work; instead a lot of sensitivity needs to be exercised,” Ochola adds.

Part of the problem is the fear of being victimised when you turn yourself in. Many youth fear they may be jailed or killed if they confess their wrongs. Others refuse to renounce the group because they are still on Al-Shabaab payroll.

Ochola claims some parents who had complained of missing children kept quiet after they were reportedly paid huge sums of money.

President Uhuru Kenyatta admits there is a radicalisation problem in the country, but argues his government knows the strategy to counter that.

“Let’s put it that, first and foremost, there may be genuine grievances… but then on top of it you’ve got this group of radical preachers who come and give a very warped view of religion, you know, on Fridays at mosques,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recently, “this is what we’ve really got to focus ourselves on. How do you make this not so attractive?”

Source: Daily Nation

Article Categories:
Al-Qaeda · Kenya

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