Understanding Radicalisation



In Kenya, terror threats have reduced all places where we gather to get services or buy goods into potential scenes of mass murder.

Thus in Nairobi, stingy people can no longer meet their elected leaders freely near and around the two Parliaments. Nor are motorists allowed to use the streets neighbouring the August Houses or State House.

Gone are days when university and college students could enjoy the mischief of their youth unhindered. Even the lackadaisical Kenyan hawker has lost steam. Today, even the mobile trader is not bold enough to confront any luggage-carrying persons approaching bus termini in any urban centre for fear of bumping into terrorists who may be laden with explosives.

Now experts caution that this worrisome situation might hang around for a long while unless leaders – and government in particular – stem these threats by preventing and stopping radicalisation of youth who end up becoming terrorists.

Last year, the South Africa based Institute for Security Studies released a report titled: Radicalisation in Kenya, Recruitment to Al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC). The report pinpointed who among the youth in Coast and North Eastern regions is most likely to be radicalised into terrorists. It outlines various issues that make it easy for youth, especially in the coastal region, vulnerable to radicalisation.

The study, which is authored by Ms Anneli Botha, interviewed 95 Al-Shabaab and 45 MRC members in confidence.  The researcher says: “While Al-Shabaab pursues an Islamist terrorist agenda, the MRC pursues a secessionist agenda but the latter have not carried out terrorist attacks.” 

The report claims Muslim youth join extremist groups as a counter-reaction to what they (the youth) see as Government-imposed “collective punishment” driven by the misguided perception that all Somali and Kenyan-Somali nationals are potential terrorists. 

Botha opens her report with a damning waning. “As long as Kenyan citizens exclusively identify with an ethnic/religious identity that is perceived to be under threat, radicalisation will increase.”

Based on the answers provided by her respondents, Botha establishes, empirically, that middle-born children are particularly vulnerable to radicalisation. It was also realised that although respondents from both organisations came from very similar family structures – most came from relatively small families – a number of important differences could be noted. 

Firstly, 31 percent of MRC respondents grew up with a father figure as compared to only 18 percent Al-Shabaab members interviewed. This is particularly interesting since a number of security experts whom the author interacted with were under the impression that growing up without a father is one of the single most important factor that facilitates later radicalisation.

Secondly, more MRC than Al-Shabaab respondents informed their families of the central role religious figures played in their radicalisation process. Generally all Al-Shabaab and MRC respondents leaned either towards a religious (for Al-Shabaab) or an ethnic (geographical) identity (for MRC). This differentiation was also reflected in the reasons for joining the organisations, as well as the distinction made between “us” and “them” that presented clearly defined in- and out-groups. With reference to “them” (opponents), both organisations identified “the government”. Although Al-Shabaab respondents firstly referred to other religions and secondly to the government as “them”, the majority of respondents identified the government as being behind the threat to their religion when asked if they considered it to be under threat and to identify the of threat.

Respondents for both sides said the government, and the way it has responded in the past to both Al-Shabaab and the MRC, is their most important unifying factor. They said political factors have pushed Muslim youth to join the two outfits.

Similarly, the parents of MRC respondents were more active in discussing politics with their children and were aware of their children’s decisions to join the MRC. This indicates the active role parents played in the political socialisation process in establishing an active ethnic identity as coastal people who had a history of being marginalised by “other Kenyans”. 

Too, peers took over from parents as other socialisation agents, further inflaming MRC members’ political ideologies. 

Al-Shabaab respondents also conceded that they would take advantage of the polarised political viewpoints of MRC members to recruit them (MRC members) into their (Al-Shabaab) fold as a counter-reaction to what they see as “collective punishment” that is driven by a misguided perception that all Muslims are terrorists or potential terrorists. 

In addition to their religious identity, Kenyan Somalis, as an ethnic group, have also been historically marginalised, and make for easy recruits of Al-Shabaab.  


Point of convergence

“As a result, a convergence of religious and ethnic identity provided a bridge between Al-Shabaab and the MRC, especially in the coastal and north-eastern regions,” writes Botha.

She continues: “This convergence did not start when Kenyan troops entered Somalia in 2011. Instead, ethnic marginalisation among Kenyan Somalis can be traced back to the Shifta War, which gained momentum following growing economic and political marginalisation of coastal people.

“At the same time, it is important to remember that the MRC is multi- religious, although the majority of members are Muslim. Religious identity, however, became increasingly prominent following the anti-terrorist campaign after the US embassy bombings in 1998, as a way of meaningfully and nonviolently attending to the problems thrown up by this context. 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 no trust with reference to both religious and ethnic differences, as described by Al-Shabaab and MRC respondents.”

“The greatest threat to stability in Kenya will be if extremists succeed in dividing the country between Muslims and non-Muslims, or between the coastal people and those from upcountry. Addressing and breaking these perceptions extend well beyond the responsibility of the police – the process requires the entire Kenyan government to initiate dedicated strategies to build national identity in a country that is religiously and ethnically divided. As long as Kenyan citizens, especially those on the fringes of society, exclusively identify with an ethnic or religious identity that is perceived to be under threat, radicalisation will continue to increase.”

In addition to the political circumstances, relative depravation in Coast region may have played a prominent role in the radicalisation of MRC respondents. It is, however, important to emphasise that it was not poverty that drove respondents to the MRC, but rather evidence of inequality based on ethnicity and geographical location. Access to basic services, especially education, directly contributed to marginalisation, which later facilitated radicalisation. Al-Shabaab respondents were, however, better off in comparison to their MRC counterparts in that more individuals attended secondary school – 45 per cent versus 24 per cent respectively, considering that a further 67 per cent of MRC respondents only attended primary school.


This difference might also serve as a reflection of the agenda and driving force behind both organisations: whereas the MRC has a domestic agenda, Al-Shabaab is driven by a radical interpretation of Islam that has an external origin where developments beyond Kenya influence its overall agenda.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here