John is gently kicking the ball against the wall, still a bit insecure after his long absence from the football team in Majengo, one of the many Nairobi slums. “Once recruited to fight in Somalia, you never come back to Kenya”, he says. “I had already been taken by al-Shabaab to the northeastern town of Garissa and was on my way to Somalia, but after Kenya’s intervention in Somalia last month al-Shabaab got nervous and sent me back.”
His coach Ochieng has welcomed John back, but not without a stern lecture. “I have been telling all of you in my team not to listen to these recruiters for al-Shabaab here in Majengo. They are cheating you, they are brainstorming you, and they don’t take care of you”. Little John grumbles. “It is not true, coach. These people of al-Shabaab gave us shelter in the mosque, they gave us food and clothes, and even some pocket money”.
Ochieng shakes his head. “These small kids don’t have brains, really”, he complains. “Shabaab, Shabaab, they cheer every day. But do they know about terrorism, about grenade attacks in Nairobi? Majengo is a fertile ground for recruitment into militia like al-Shabaab, but do these kids realise they will probably die soon?”
The coach is leading a campaign in Majengo against al-Shabaab recruiters. “It is very likely Shabaab will target me because of this”, he says, “because I am spoiling their business.” Sources in Majengo say about 80 to 90 youths have already left for Somalia.
New generation of terrorists
“An alarming trend,” said the UN in a report earlier this year about the activities of al-Shabaab-affiliated groups in East Africa. Hundreds of youths have already joined these militias.
When Kenya sent troops into Somalia, the government in Nairobi vowed to finish al-Shabaab’s activities in the neighbouring country once and for all. But the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants may pose a bigger threat at home.
The Kenyan al-Shabaab groups form a close network with cells in Nairobi, Mombasa, Eldoret and Garissa, according to the UN report.
After Kenya’s military offensive they came into action and, in an act of revenge, carried out several grenade attacks in the Kenyan capital. “These groups may be the new generation of terrorists in East Africa,” concludes the UN report.
Holier than the pope
Many of the recruits in Kenya are not ethnic Somalis, but members of other Kenyan tribal groups. They have denounced their original religious beliefs and become ardent adherents of radical Islam. They want to be holier than the pope, or so it seems.
Robert Omolo is the father of 16-year-old ‘lost son’ Victor. “He was such a lovely kid, a real family person,” Omolo says. But Victor changed. “He changed his religion and started visiting the mosque in Majengo. These kids spend their time in the mosque until deep in the night; sometimes they even sleep there.” When Victor did visit his family, he easily flew into a temper. He did not respect his father anymore.
One day father Omolo received a visit from Reagan, a well-known recruiter in Majengo. He offered Omolo money, if he would remain quiet about Victor joining al-Shabaab. “I refused the offer, but I am sure some other parents accepted it. The police keep their eyes closed about this recruitment.”
“That is it”, Omolo concludes abruptly. “I will not say anything anymore. I don’t want to end up dead. It is still too dangerous to talk about al-Shabaab here.” The recruiters seem to have gone underground for now; in any case they have all but disappeared from Majengo.