Is poverty and search for identity driving youths into radicalization

Ahmed Khalifa, 18, (not his real name) was an unlikely terrorist. Grew up in one of the Nairobi slum, born and raised in a African inland Church christian family that traces its roots to Makueni, western Kenya.

Community Development Initiative (CODI) participants in their annual Talent festivals that teaches and empowers youths within the community on the need to say no to violent extremism                                                                                                                                                                                                PHOTO/ERIC BOSIRE

As a young adult Khalifa with his friends enjoyed the company of his friends most of them from the Somali origin having grown up together with them.He did not fit many of the stereotypical and xenophobic descriptions of terrorists in Kenya, which can roughly be summed up as a young poor Muslim of Somali origin.

Many of the terror cases reported in Kenya, arise from organized gangs and vigilantes whose main aim is to maim and kill others as well.  Politics notwithstanding as the gangs are tools of hire for revenge missions, have brought home the reality of domestic extremist violence.

In 2015,  the highest number of cases of radicalization was reported in Kenya with many of the cases touching on Urban slum youth and the rural not forgotten. Globally, radicalization is characterized as an extreme violence based on different ideologies including nationalism, anarchism, separasim and right wing political-wing ideas.

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Khalifa is one of a growing number of young Kenyans joining groups with an ideology of extremist violence. His family lives in Majengo, the sprawling slum in Pumwani District in the outskirts of Nairobi, where the family patriarch settled three decades ago.

His childhood friend Salim Mutinda who is now reformed and started a his journey in Music says that they have come along way with his friend.Since both of them are deadlock they say at times the authorities  mistakenly arrest them with a notion that they are up to something.

Salim and Khalifa though they are now living differently, each has his own side of life regarding radicalization. With each understanding it in their own ways.


According to a recently released UN report, Majengo mosque the biggest in Eastlands has in the past served as a recruitment ground and fund raising channel for Al-Shabaab.  However, officials connected to the mosque deny any link to the militant group but there is no doubt that Majengo is one of the main recruitment grounds for young Kenyans into extremism.

Some of the youths who turned up for Community Development Initiative (CODI) in their annual Talent festivals that teaches and empowers youths within the community on the need to say no to violent extremism PHOTO/ERIC BOSIRE

Immediately after finishing his KSCE examinations, Khalifa with the help of friends joined converted to Muslim leaving Salim who says he wanted to be a Musician. But due to his poor background and being a first in a family of five he had to look for ways to fend for his family.

The neighbourhood having a large Muslim population, and having her younger sisters who had converted, Salim would later too convert to Muslim.

Holiday seasons

Every Holiday season, a local Comunity based organization called Community Development Initiative- CODI with the Help of local artists, organizes for forums to train and empower teenagers and other youths on radicalization and its negative effects to the community.

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With the Help of Banks like  and other CBOS, CODI has been able to organize and sensitize close to 50,000 youths within the region in the past few sessions

According to California Chief S. Mwangi many cases of disappearance of children from their families has reduced due to the awareness that has been created by organizations like CODI.

Dennis Okido who is now a musician says that some of his friends male and female have found themselves in the trap leaving their families devastated to either being recruited to go to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab or Join local vigilante groups.

“I know more than 100 youths known to me personally, we grew together who went to Somalia,” Okido says.


Thousands of young Kenyan men have made the short journey across the border into Somalia and, in the process, often, a giant leap into violent extremism.

Though its hard to tell the exact number, sources say the recruitment started as far back as 2006 when young Kenyans were given a chance to go and make some money fighting alongside different clan factions in Somalia.

The Daily nation reported that this recruitment escalated around 2008/9 when, with the knowledge and often involvement of Kenyan security officials, as many as 3,000 young men were taken into training with promises of thousands of US dollars to fight in Somalia.


Officials at the Community Development Initiative (CODI) who annually organize Talent festivals  to teach and empower the community on the need to say no to violent extremism say that the only way to avert and control it is to do many outreach programs.

Dan Mweke a reformed street child and now running an NGO called street changers says that the allure for money and get rich quickly is the main course of the youths  leading to radicalization.

“Having been a street child and worked with most of the people from the community, I have on several occassions called upon many of the youths whom I personally know to recording studios to try to change their minds”, says Mweke.

Sentiments which are shared by Dennis Otieno a musician populary known as Okido that many of the young people within Eastleigh, fall to such traps because they have no role models who can mentor them.

“Since many of our youths lack basic things and they think by being radicalized is the only way to change their lives which is not true.


Okido faults religious leaders both Christian and Muslim from the region to be realistic on their preaching and counsel on religion.

CODI is one of the few community based organizations within Eastleigh that have been championing for the cease to radicalization through use of music, art, drama and skills training and community festivals where the young interact and showcase their talent.

CODI’s directors who spoke on anonymity said that, the community should change its approach and instead face the reality by guiding their children on the right patch to take so as to reduce the cases of youths  being reported joining Al-Shabaab.

When they came up with the idea he says he saw many youth grow up and later dissappear from them later to learn that they were radicalized an influenced to join Alshabaab.

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“We decided to form this group so as to engage our young minds on how we can objectively use our talent within our youths to be productive within the society”, says CODI Director.

Every Holiday season, CODI with the Help of local artists, organizes for forums to train and empower teenagers and other youths on radicalization and its negative effects to the community.

With the Help of Banks and other CBOS, CODI has been able to organize and sensitize close to 50,000 youths within the region.

According to California Chief Mr Maina many cases of disappearance of children from their families has reduced due to the awareness that has been created by organizations like CODI.

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  • According to a report released by  UN their are many organizations including state agencies recruiting in Eastleigh but  those suspecting militia use the opportunity to also recruit members with lies of a better life after.

The report further says that Radicalisation, often happens on the way back from Somalia, when young men move from fighting for what they see as a grand cause and return to their miserable and inconsequential lives.

The returnees either turn to crime or become easy target to those that use the victimization narrative to preach extremist ideologies.

Alex and Kassim, both volunteers with Community Development Initiative, say they have seen about 20 young men who have returned from Somalia after years of missing.

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The Daily nation reported that Some of the young men were recruited by KDF, promised as much as $3,500 (Sh305,000) and trained but returned when they were paid less or grew weary of the vagaries of war. With others being recruited by Al-Shabaab, offered upto Sh100,000, and promised more but later turned to be opposite.

Currently their is no framed de-radicalisation programme, an issue experts have said makes many  to quitely slip back often to find that they are stigmatised and ostracized.

Kenya’s response to the threat of violent extremism and radicalisation, for instance, as seen in the raids on Eastleigh early this year targeting illegal immigrants from Somalia, has often followed the narrative that frames it as an externalized problem.

An issue that raised political temperatures within the targeted people from various communities.

A more nuanced understanding of the problem, particularly one that asks the right questions, might lead to more appropriate responses.

In 2009, USA Aid-commissioned study into violent extremism found that a lot of the conventional wisdom about what turns ordinary people like Khalifa into willing suicide bombers is not always accurate.

For instance, while many recruits are usually poor and attracted by offers of jobs and money, organisations that promote violent extremism rarely dwell on issues like poverty, unemployment, services or economic opportunities.


Instead, the study shows, they are usually pre-occupied by emotive triggers such as identity, existential threats, perceived humiliation, cultural domination and oppression.


It is too early to tell how effective this response will be, but the USAid study that found that countries that protect civil liberties and political rights are less likely to produce violent extremism.

In addition, the study identified the following key political drivers of violent extremism: harsh rule and violation of human rights; widespread corruption and impunity for well-connected elite, poorly governed or ungoverned areas, protracted and violent local conflicts, and previous government support to these groups.

A close reading of these drivers suggests that political reforms, including resolution of deep-seated grievances in north eastern Kenya and at the Coast, are likely to be as effective, if not more, than midnight raids on Eastleigh.

This is not to say that promoters of the ideology of violent extremism should be ignored. The study notes the “potentially crucial” role the appeal of particular leader or inspirational figure plays.

It argues that deep-seated issues “may not actually lead to violence in the absence of political entrepreneurs, ideologists, and/or organisations that can frame and channel the relevant grievances in violent directions”.

The response to such ideologues, however, should be within the confines of the rule of law lest it reinforces the victimization narrative and further radicalise those who look up to them.

“Conditions are ripe for insurgency,” says a Kenyan scholar who has researched on extremist violence in northern Kenya and at the Coast, speaking off the record at a closed-door seminar on insecurity. “Some 3,000 or so militia were trained to go fight in Somalia and Jubaland; where are they now?”

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Many youths like Salim and Khalifa are examples of how they have in the past tried and at one point to be radicalized.

But something that triggers emotions is many of the returnees from Somali have found no solace from both the society and administration who are always suspicious of them.

According to California Location chief Mwangi, many of the youths whom he has at one point been called upon to either arrest or solve conflicts have been in the past rebelled from their families either due to poor parenting.

An issue he says, parents should start training their children on why and the need to a well upbringing

Financial empowerment

According to Mr Abdi Gurahi who is the Financial adviser with Eastleigh Gulf bank, many of the youths within the region should be empowered from an early age so as to avoid them being radicals when they grow up.

“It is good for youths to get information about financial management so as to start developing their talents, and other activities easily.

Mr Gurahi says that, that why they have partnered with Community based organizations to attend their forums to educate the youth on the need to start small entrepreneurial enterprises that can attract sponsorship from even banks.

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*Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the sources.