Inside deadly Al-Shabaab recruitment cells in the country

Sunday February 3 2019

Al-Shabaab fighters

Al-Shabaab militants training in Somalia. Recruitment in Kenya to group has now changed from being conducted in mosques to being done in “discreet” places. PHOTO | FILE | NMG 

MOHAMED AHMED
By MOHAMED AHMED
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When authorities raided four mosques in Mombasa following their links to radicalisation of youth in 2014, police said they had made a “major” step in the fight against terrorism.

The mosques – Masjid Musa, Masjid Sakina, Masjid Swafaa and Masjid Mina – located in Majengo and Kisauni were then temporarily shut down and opened later after an agreement between security agents and local Muslim leaders.

By then, police believed they had dismantled terror cells that were the breeding grounds for terrorists. It was after the raid that hundreds of youths from Mombasa who had been radicalised were forced to flee to hideouts.

The radical teachings had by that time spread to Kwale County where a number of youths were also recruited.

Many, according to police reports, ended up in Somalia to join the Al-Qaeda affiliated terror group Al- Shabaab. After a few years of training, the recruits, most of whom are well educated ,sneaked back into the country to lure their peers into the group.

It was not until the recent Dusit complex terror attack in Nairobi, which claimed 21 lives, that Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU) officers affirmed that the war on terror was far from over.

After the attack, a series of arrests of suspects believed to be planning to join the terror group were made across the country.

CHANGE TACK

There was a raid in Kitui County where four suspects, among them three foreigners and a Kenyan, were arrested in two hotels over terror-related suspicions.

Also arrested were 12 suspects including a New Zealand national and another foreigner in possession of an Ethiopian passport. The two were arrested near the Kenya-Somalia border.

The other 10 suspects were arrested during an operation at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Garissa County. Others in the list of the arrests are 17 youths arrested at a house in Samburu, Kwale County. Police say they had lived in that house for a few weeks.

The 17 youths arrested included  two women. Recruitment, according to intelligence reports, has now changed from being conducted in mosques to being done in “discreet” places.

“The cells are currently active especially in Majengo (Mombasa). Only that the recruiters have changed tack but that is where activities are going on,” said a security source.

Majengo is the place where the Nairobi attack suicide bomber Mahir Khalid Riziki comes from. Police said he was radicalised at Musa Mosque.

Our source said three other cells; two in Likoni and one in Kisauni are the only ones that are currently inactive.

Police believe the returnees are the operatives spreading the recruitment gospel by all means especially in Mombasa and Kwale counties.

RELIGIOUS STUDIES

In September last year, Sunday Nation learnt from security sources in Kwale that a number of youth were recruited with a promise of being taken to madrasa.

The new way of recruitment involved the youth aged between 15 and 24 to collect letters of “consent” from their area chief for them to proceed for “religious studies.”

“Recruitment has been on and it is now worse here at the interior parts of Kwale. A group of youth were lured into joining the terror group by false promise of being taken to madrasa. To date their parents have not heard anything from them,” said our source.

The new recruitment strategy which was discovered later by both the area chiefs and parents after the youth had been recruited was conducted in Mwaluvamba and Mbita villages in Kwale.

Among other ways that the recruitments are being done is through social media and disguise of businesses.

Investigators of the Kwale arrests, for instance, said the youth had been assembled at the house with a promise of being offered "sales person jobs".

"Some of those arrested are as young as 17 years-old and you wonder what kind of jobs they were being offered. The probe is still on, we are sure we will get crucial leads on this," said an officer privy to the investigations.

The promise of lucrative jobs has been top on the list of ways of luring potential recruits into joining the terrorists group.

COMBAT TRAINING

In a past interview, an Al-Shabaab returnee who spoke to the Sunday Nation on condition of anonymity said that recruits were only given transport money to facilitate movement to the "workplace". “The big salary you had been promised remains a dream,” he said.

While at the camp, the returnee said, youths are taken through paramilitary training for two years before "graduating" and going to war.

They would wake up at 4am and end the day at 5pm every day. He said the recruits are trained on how to operate firearms and grenades.

On Tuesday, the Sunday Nation learnt, top security agents at the Coast met at the Uhuru na Kazi offices to discuss how to counter the threat. 

They discussed how to destroy the cells which, sources said, have been "active and operational."

Meanwhile, on Monday, the government said it was focused on the war on terrorism.

Government Spokesman Eric Kiraithe said the government would seal all loopholes exploited by the radicals.

MADRASA

Mr Kiraithe said the country will only defeat terrorism if vigilance from the community to the government level is seamless.

“Efforts to eradicate terrorism must continue. The multi-agency approach is bearing fruit and everyone should be on the lookout. Nobody should be complacent as we are dealing with a wicked enemy,” he said.

He said Kenyans must be vigilant and have zero tolerance for this crime in order to end it.

His remarks came a week after President Uhuru Kenyatta directed county commissioners to ensure every county launches and implements a “County Action Plan for the Prevention and Countering of Violent Extremism”.

The commissioners are expected to report on the progress of their collaboration with civil society groups, religious leaders and other stakeholders, to ensure radicalised Kenyans and those who sway them are quickly detected and dealt with.