Some 40 Al-Shabaab returnees in Kilifi County have been taken to various rehabilitation centres in Mombasa, the government says.
Kilifi County Commissioner Magu Mutindika said: “Most of the returnees who surrendered themselves to the government are youth from Malindi, Mambrui, Kilifi Town and Mtwapa.”
Speaking to the Nation on the phone, he said: “We do not intend to prosecute them since they have come to us for help.”
Mr Mutindika said most of the returnees have combat trainings. The young men and women were lured into the terror group in Somalia with the promise of a good life, he said.
The county commissioner said the government had offered an amnesty to Shabaab returnees who surrender to the police or other government officials for counselling. They would then be reintegrated into society.
The amnesty started in 2015 but most returnees have ignored for fear of reprisals.
Some of the returnees escaped killings in Somalia after falling out with Al-Shabaab leaders while others have run away from increased African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) operations.
“We have not heard cases of notorious returnees who surrendered themselves but later turned to be dangerous,” Mr Mutindika said, adding that some of them were in the list for most-wanted criminals.
Kilifi resident Joseph Yeri said most of the returnees hide in Malindi to avoid arrest.
“Malindi is a safe haven for wanted terror suspects and the problem is some parents protect and defend their children even if they know very well they are criminals,” he said.
Many young people in Shella and Mambrui in Kilifi County abused drugs and ended up in terrorism and crime.
On January 20, 2016, police shot dead four most-wanted terrorists at Kwachocha near Malindi International Airport and recovered a pistol and five hand grenades.
Those shot dead, include Suleiman Mohammed Awadh, on whose head police had put a Sh2 million bounty.
Several arrests in connection to terrorism have been made in Malindi and the whereabouts of those arrested are unknown.
Human rights organisations dealing with terrorism, including Haki Africa, have stopped handling the returnees.
Most youth who joined Al-Shabaab after being promised greener pastures were said to have sneaked back into Kenya but do not want to surrender after two human rights groups at the Coast refused to deal with them.
In 2015 the government blacklisted Haki Africa for allegedly supporting terrorism. Its accounts were also frozen.
“But we no longer deal with such human rights activities due to many factors. We used to de-radicalise and re-integrate them back to the society, help them when they want to surrender.
“But [we] stopped such activities due to suspicion by both the government and returnees,” Haki Africa Chief Executive Officer Hussein Khalid said.
He said the decision was arrived at after the government tagged the lobby group a Shabaab sympathiser.
“We optimally and consciously decided not to deal directly with issues to do with returnees because there is no clear legal framework of dealing with them. There was amnesty, which was unclear,” Mr Khalid told the Nation on the phone.
“Second, it’s the government. When you work with them (returnees) you are tagged as a sympathiser by the government.
“Third, should anything go wrong with the returnees, such as a mysterious death, you are suspected of working with the government and thereafter the returnees may tag you as the person selling them out.”
Mr Khalid said the lobby group is now purely dealing with human rights issues.
Last year from January to December, Haki Africa documented 17 cases of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances of men aged between 21 to 55 years.
“Kwale has more than 900 returnees according to an international organisation dealing with terrorism. Mombasa, Lamu, Kilifi and Tana River are among counties with the highest returnees,” the activist said.
Other security sources who talked to the Nation said the existence of Al-Shabaab returnees in areas earmarked for the ongoing multi-agency security operation Linda Boni in Lamu, Tana River and Garissa Counties, was a challenge.
They said hundreds of returnees have secretly returned to their counties without notifying authorities.
The officials said the war on Al-Shabaab in Boni Forest and other counties could have ended long ago if it were not for the returnees.
“It’s a challenge to fight and end the war on Al-Shabaab if there is presence of returnees who are acting as spies for the militia.
“In fact, the existing returnees are the ones aiding Al-Shabaab in conducting attacks in areas like Bodhei, Ijara, Wajir, Garissa and other areas bordering the Boni forest.
“The war will only succeed if the returnees present themselves to authorities for rehabilitation or if the government eliminates them completely,” said a security officer.
A senior administrator in Lamu was suspicious the returnees were secretly regrouping, recruiting and training youth.
He said new recruits are used to launch attacks in remote parts of the county.
The administrator urged families of Al-Shabaab returnees to surrender them to authorities for rehabilitation and amnesty “so that they become fully integrated back into the society.”
He cautioned the families against hiding the returnees.
“The move by family members to hide the returnees makes security agencies suspicious that they are up to some dangerous plans. The government amnesty is still open. Let the returnees surrender and register themselves at the various government offices so that rehabilitation measures and procedures can be initiated,” said the administrator.