NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — In Kenya’s coastal region, interfaith efforts to slow down or end youth recruitment into the militant Islamist group al-Shabab are gaining progress, with some recruits abandoning the extremist group’s training grounds in Southern Somalia to return home.
The group — al-Qaida’s affiliate in East Africa — had stepped up secret recruitments in the coastal and northeastern regions since 2011, when the East African nation’s military entered southern Somalia. The radicalized youth, many of them younger than 30, were often sent across the border to train as jihadists.
But now, the activity has slowed down, partly due to efforts by the interfaith groups. More than 300 such youths who had traveled to Somalia for training as jihadists had been rescued and brought back to the country.
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The reports attributed to security officials last week indicated that the youths will be vetted and de-radicalized before being reintegrated into their communities.
Shamsa Abubakar Fadhili, the chairperson of the Mombasa Women of Faith Network, a branch of the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya, has been leading interfaith efforts to resettle the returned former militants. The Inter-Religious Council of Kenya brings together Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.
“We need to bring them back to the communities,” said Fadhili. “We use the youth to find others who have been led away and try to change them. Some have police records, or pending court cases.”
“I applaud the efforts. Something is happening and I think there is hope that those who have been recruited into militancy can be rescued,” said retired Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu of Mombasa, who is involved in peace efforts in the coastal region.
Although the recruitment has slowed, there are still thousands of Kenyans fighting alongside al-Shabab. In 2015, the government announced an amnesty for those who had joined the group. Some of the recruits returned home, but human rights organizations raised concerns over the returnees’ disappearances and extra-judicial killings.
Clerics familiar with the matter have described the efforts as a balancing act, using faith to combat hopelessness, marginalization and unemployment while working with government authorities. “It’s a delicate matter, but I think what we need now are closer collaborations, even with the security agencies,” said Kalu.
According to the Rev. Stephen Anyenda, a Baptist who is the chief executive officer of the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, youth are recruited through a gradual process in which recruiters offer incentives and make promises until the targeted youth acquires full trust.
“Many of them are unemployed, so they are vulnerable to recruitment. They see little meaning in life. They also feel bullied by the society and start engaging in unhealthy activities, sometimes due to peer pressure,” said Anyenda. “Recruiters targeting the youths may offer money for a new lifestyle or even support the families to start small businesses.”
According to Fadhili, many of the young people have no spiritual nourishment and are therefore susceptible to radical political ideas.
However, said Fadhili, “Many of them are eager to change, so we stay with them.” She said she had recently rescued 12 youths who had already started their journey to Somalia to join al-Shabab.
Fadhili has been helping the youth start small businesses, giving them seed capital so that they can improve themselves and avoid the lure of criminality.
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According to Fadhili, the work has also reduced crime in the most dangerous areas of the city of Mombasa by 45%, in addition to helping slow al-Shabab recruitments.
At the same time, she fears that limited resources may force her to stop, and she fears for the worst when that happens. “I am concerned the youths will simply slide back,” said Fadhili.