Al-Shabaab returnee tells of fear after escape from Somalia

Wednesday March 18 2020

When John (not his real name) completed training at the National Youth Service (NYS) camp in Gilgil, Nakuru in 2005, he was sent for attachment to Bura in Tana River County as was the requirement of the programme.

His presence in Bura, where he spent one year, helped him familiarise himself with the place.

Eight years later, he was at the same place together with a friend, this time, not as an NYS intern, but an escapee.

He had, together with his friend, escaped from an Al-Shabaab camp in Somalia.

“When we got to Bura, I [breathed] a sigh of relief because when we left the camp we did not know where we were heading to,” says John who is among hundreds of Al-Shabaab returnees who have slipped back into the country.


Three years since he sneaked back into the country, John has been living in fear of both the government and the militants.

When he returned Kenya, the government had issued an amnesty to the returnees.

But John says he has no faith in the amnesty.

“I do not trust anyone. Not even you. I am here just because of my uncle. I don’t know even how safe I am here,” he tells me.

To demonstrate his fear, when we got into a restaurant for this interview, the first thing the 33-year-old father of one did was to lift his chair and repositioned it to face straight at the entrance.

“I have been keen with my life,” he says as he stares at me directly in the eyes.


According to a report on the analysis of the government amnesty to Al-Shabaab returnees authored by Dr Hassan Mwakimako and Prof Halim Shauri from Pwani University and which was released in 2016, some returnees feared presenting themselves to the police because there were no clear guidelines on how they would be treated.

“There is a big gap between the people and security agencies. Most families fear for the worst once their children surrender,” reads the report which indicates that more than 500 youths from Kwale County crossed to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab by 2016.

John is among them.

John left for Lamu in 2014 after his cousin invited him for a “job”.

This was after spending at least seven years working as a casual labourer.


“My cousin who was living with his family in Lamu knew that I was jobless and was hustling around. He called and asked me to visit him so that he could offer some well-paying job,” he says.

John then 29 left for Lamu where he spent three months.

“Later my cousin linked me with three other youths and gave us Sh10,000 each,” John says.

The four got into a private car and started a journey to their “new place of work”.

The new place of work, John later realised, was Somalia. They had been promised to work as constructors and earn Sh40,000 monthly.

“Two weeks later [I came to realise] that this is the place that people have been talking about. An Al-Shabaab camp with more than 200 youth,” he narrates.


Here, the youths were going through paramilitary training where they would train for two years before they would graduate and go to war.

The training would require them to wake up at 4am and end the day at 5pm daily. They were trained on how to operate firearms and technical steps on how to handle a grenade.

“We were also required to lift some 50kg bags filled with sand as part of the training. We could spend the whole day training. One would be required to train whether they liked it or not,” he says.

On one fateful day, John says a commander at the camp required him to lift a 50kg bag and when he resisted his senior attempted to stab him.

“I got hold of the knife and this scar here is what reminds me of the pain that I was going through at a place that I had not wished to see myself,” said John as he showed me his left hand where the knife scar is.


A month after this incident, John says with his friend they planned to slip out of the camp.

He says, they made the decision having in mind that they did not know where they were running to.

In August 2015, the two sneaked out of the camp at around 10pm and embarked on their journey back home.

“We left knowing that if we were found we would be killed by either our colleagues or security agents but we said we had to move as we could no longer bear the harsh conditions there. We decided to go,” he says.

They left their two other friends with whom they had joined the camp as they had been taken in as cooks. This was after they failed to go through the training.


The duo left all their belongings at the camp and trekked through forests for more than 60 kilometres.

After two days, they met an old man who helped them to get to Mandera Town.

“We got to Mandera after a three-hour drive on a lorry which took us to Garissa. That is when is when I got to know we were finally in Kenya as I had visited the place before during my attachment as an NYS recruit,” he says.

From Mandera, John and his friend, who is currently in Kilifi County, took a bus to Mombasa and alighted at Bondeni.

“We went through Tana River and got to Malindi before we finally arrived in Mombasa” he says.

He is now settled with his wife doing a small business.

He says he does not involve himself in a lot of activities.


Asked if he would heed to government amnesty to surrender for rehabilitation, John said he would not as he fears the security personnel will kill him. He also fears being followed by Al-Shabaab.

He says apart from his family, most of Kwale residents did not know he had joined Al-Shabaab, adding that unlike some of the returnees who had engaged in crime, he would not do so.

According to intelligence sources, at least 140 Al-Shabaab returnees had slipped back at the coast by April 2017.

They include those who went three years ago.


Police sources revealed that a number of those who have returned are based in Kwale, Mombasa and Malindi in Kilifi County.

“Kwale leads in the whole region and they are the same people who have been carrying out attacks targeting police officers,” revealed the source.

Outgoing Coast Regional Police Boss Larry Kieng said some of the returnees have integrated with locals making it difficult to deal with them.

He said they have been working closely with the locals to get information on the suspects who have not shown interest in the government’s amnesty.

“There are those who do not want to take advantage of the amnesty and those are the ones we want to deal with. We believe they are part of those terrorising people in the county,” said Mr Kieng.

Police sources linked the returnees to some of the attacks which happened in Kwale, a fact that John acknowledged.

“When someone comes from Somalia he must have all the skills. Not anyone can wake up and know how to operate a firearm,” he says.