How Al Shabaab Recruitment Agents Lure Kenyans to Somalia


Alshab Militants /Photo Alshahid

(Source:Daily Nation) NTV reporters John-Allan Namu and Harith Salim uncovered evidence of recruitment activities in Kenya by Somalia’s radical al Shabaab group. Undercover video footage taken by the crew shows the activities of a network of terror recruiters luring youths to go and fight in Somalia.

Disturbingly, one of the key recruiters captured on tape introduced himself as a serving member of the Kenyan military. Edited excerpts…

Saumu Chambulu breaks down at the sight of us at her door. She knows why we have come.

As she composes herself, she tells me of the irony of how busy her home has been despite the empty space left by her son Suleiman Hassan.

She knew that she wasn’t always able to provide for her children but was thankful for Suleiman because, even in their poverty, he always found comfort in his faith.

But two years ago, Suleiman left his mother’s home. He began to be seen in the company of other young men of backgrounds similar to his own in Mworoni on the South Coast.

Then one day he disappeared. After months of searching for her son, Samu said her daughter received a strange phone call indicating he had joined the al Shabaab.

Saumu would quickly learn that this was not only true of her son, but that other young men like him had disappeared across the border, never to return.

No comfort

But the growing number of bereaved parents offers no comfort, especially if among those presumed dead in a country you’ve heard about only in the news – in a war you don’t understand – is your own. There is no comfort, only pain.

That was the fate of Suleiman Hassan and other young Kenyans who are recruited to fight for al Shabaab — the jihadists battling the Transitional Federal Government of Sheikh Sherif Ahmed in Somalia.

And, if a video recording of the recruits is anything to go by, the training is producing dyed-in-the-wool fighters.

“We are coming to slaughter you,” they chant in these recordings. The chants are in Kiswahili, perhaps to drive the message home to the Kiswahili-speaking people of eastern Africa.

Not once or twice, but at least four times the region has witnessed firsthand the deadly handiwork of terrorists.

Football fans watching the World Cup final on television in Kampala last year are among the most recent casualties of al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab operates secret bases in Somalia-just across Kenya’s eastern border. The group is believed to be an offshoot of the Union of Islamic Courts, a group that nearly seized control from the wobbly regionally backed TFG led at the time by President Abdullahi Yusuf.

To increase its membership, al Shabaab capitalises on two elements: radical Islamic teachings and poverty.

Saumu believes that her son’s immersion in his faith may have led him to Somalia. But she also acknowledges that their poverty did nothing to stop him.

Poverty is biting hard not just in Mworoni but all across East Africa, and from what we have found, the frequency at which East Africa’s poor are joining the al Shabaab is chilling.

All a prospective recruit needs to know is to whom to talk. We set off for Isiolo to find out how true this statement is.

We were seeking a notorious recruiter known by his close associates only as Pirate. It didn’t take long to find him.

Using a contact we made while there, we were able to arrange a meeting with Pirate, only telling our link man that we had heard about Pirate from our friends in Nairobi and wanted to join al Shabaab.

A few hours later, he would meet us — using false names and a shady story. Face-to-face with the recruiter, we began a conversation that, we hoped, reveal bits of information about al Shabaab’s operations in Isiolo.

But, to our surprise, Pirate was more trusting of us than we expected and began to open up at the slightest of probes.

The information he was giving us corresponded with what officials in Kenya’s intelligence organisations — the National Security Intelligence Services (NSIS) had been telling us: facing a huge armed onslaught in Somalia, al Shabaab was aggressively recruiting, and the criteria had since expanded from young Somalis and Arabs to just about anyone who was committed to the cause — from any background.

Back to Pirate. He did something totally unexpected. He seemed so trusting of us and our story that he said he’d get his boss to talk to us.

After a few minutes, Pirate returned, and true to his word, he was with a man who we would later learn wasn’t just a recruiter of al Shabaab but one of what we believe are a number of double agents.

He was Corporal Hussein Abdullahi Athan from Kenya’s military. In our conversation with Pirate, one of several al Shabaab recruiters who operate in Isiolo, he made a claim which, if true, could be very chilling.

He told us there were recruits being trained at Manyani and Archers (Post). At first this appeared not to square with what is known about where al Shabaab trains new recruits in Kenya.

The two locations were, after all, the sites where a special unit of soldiers from Somalia’s TFG was allegedly being trained by the Kenya Army, the third location being close to Kitui in lower eastern Kenya.

However, according to sources with knowledge of this training, the business ended late last year, and the soldiers were deployed to Somalia towards the end of February this year.

The trainers, according to what we were told, also had a strict recruitment policy and didn’t ask for money from prospective recruits as Pirate had done.

Back to our story in Isiolo. Pirate then left to negotiate with his boss about our offer of Sh10,000 as a bribe to be allowed to join al Shabaab.

This was peculiar, but not altogether unknown, as recruiters often try to get as much out of prospective recruits before passing them along, this being one of the few opportunities for them to make money over and above what they are paid by the al Shabaab.

We expected Pirate to come back with word on whether his boss had agreed, but when he returned, he was in the company of a well-spoken man to whom he only referred as Major.

We would later find out that his real name is Hussein Abdullahi Athan. He holds the rank of corporal, and has been in the Kenyan military for 10 years.

Hussein is also a trained engineer – a skill set which, in the army, means that, among other things, he is a specialist in laying land mines and booby traps as well as in bridge-building.

His base is 10 Engineers in Nanyuki, but he is currently attached to the school of combat engineering in Isiolo as a trainer. But he was meeting us as a soldier loyal to al Shabaab and began by interrogating us:

The story we had given Pirate about why we wanted to join the al Shabaab wasn’t working as well on Hussein, especially given the fact that I am not Somali nor of Arab descent like my colleague, Harith Salim.

Major: Lakini wewe mbona unataka kuingia hi maneno (Why do you want to get into this thing)?

Namu: Ni nini wewe! Kwani mjaluo hawezi kuwa na hasira (What’s wrong with you! What makes you think a Luo can’t get embittered)?

He seemed convinced by this but to be certain that he indeed was who he said he was, I probed further.

Namu: Kuna watu wa anti-al Shabaab na kuna watu wa al Shabaab, wewe ni nani (What are your credentials in al Shabaab)?

His winding answer was understandable, and perhaps a hint as to just how suspicious he was of us.

Nonetheless, he proceeded to let us know that he was still interested in having us join and join quickly.

Major: If you are serious then I will help you.

He also told us what he would need from us. Giving up our identity cards meant more than just letting him know who we were: it was the first part of cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world. But what would we get in return, I asked.

As we talked, Hussein was holding a small exercise book. When we gave him our false names, he wrote them down in this book.

It had the names of at least 15 other men, recruits, as we found out, who were leaving for Somalia the following evening.

We agreed when we would leave for Somalia, and Hussein left. But he would ask me to follow him, and give him what money we had on us as an assurance that we were serious.

Corporal Hussein Abdullahi Athan admitted to us that he wasn’t just a recruiter but a trainer of members of the al Shabaab, his skills now in use to fight against forces trying to defeat the al Shabaab in the region.

Hussein, on the evening that we met him, also promised to sell me a weapon. Arms dealing, it emerges, is a sideline activity for agents of the al Shabaab in Kenya. We would meet two days later for the sale.

His links

But Hussein revealed even more about his links with the al Shabaab. We learnt from Hussein that there has been in-fighting among members of al Shabaab, mostly over money.

The fighting ranks allege that trainers, who are given money by al Shabaab commanders to pass on to their troops, had at one point been hoarding the money for themselves.

Especially for those men who joined al Shabaab for money, this had become a big problem.

On the matter of buying a gun from him, Hussein claimed he did not have the weapon on him, but he asked for a deposit of Sh2,000 up front, saying that he’d go get it from his base.

He pointed Pirate out to me and asked me to wait with him while he went to fetch it.

When I went over to meet Pirate, we began talking about joining the al Shabaab, he asked me to accompany him to show me the transport that he and 30 other young men would use to get there, saying that it was the safest means possible.

What he showed me was startling: two trucks with government licence plates, ostensibly belonging to the military.

He claimed that because of Hussein and a few other men in the army recruits were able to use these trucks to get as close as they could to the Kenya-Somalia border.

We were unable to confirm whether these trucks were indeed being used for that purpose.

Pirate then asked why I was waiting for Hussein, and I told him that I was waiting to buy a gun from him. He quickly inquired the price, and said he could get one for me, but I declined.

Gun runners and members of al Shabaab often have close, symbiotic relationships, with devastating consequences for the region’s security.

The grenade that was used to bomb a Kampala coach bus in Nairobi is believed to have been smuggled from Somalia by these same chains.

We were introduced to a gun runner who told us his name was Ibrahim. We posed as Tanzanian gun dealers wanting to make a quick, big sale, and Ibrahim claimed he was the man for the job. This is what he promised us at our first meeting.

Ibrahim: 50 AKs.

Not fully trusting our story, he would later scale that down to just a handful of AK-47 and G3 rifles and hand grenades that he pledged to show us later that day.

At around four that afternoon he and a colleague who didn’t give us his name would pick us up in a taxi driven by one of their relatives who was familiar with their business.

We’d drive just outside the main centre of Isiolo town, then wait while another taxi picked us up.

We then drove farther, winding up at this compound, filled with, they claimed, their family members. Ibrahim then asked me and our contact to follow him into the house where the arms were.

Once there, he showed me a G3 rifle, just one of the four I was supposed to buy. Ibrahim claimed that the grenades hadn’t arrived yet, but he would call me once they did.

Then something unfortunate happened. His colleague who was standing behind me realised that I was secretly recording them.

Sensing trouble, I bid the men goodbye, promising to pay them a visit when it got dark and left as quickly as I could.The debate

In Mombasa, Shariff knows all about the debate on Islam and al Shabaab. Here’s why.

On the evening of December 20, a bus from the Kampala Coach company was just about to pull out of its parking bay and begin the trip to Uganda. A few minutes before departure, an explosion killed three people.

Two days later, police had in their custody two men, Sheikh Aboudi Rogo and his friend Shariff.

Shariff and Rogo are now awaiting the start of their trial, but more recently they have been in the news for yet another reason: the place of worship known as Masjid Moussa.Rogo preaches at this mosque, while Shariff prays there. The claims focus around a controversial topic in the teaching of Islam – jihad, or holy war.

Coast PPO James Adoli admits that fighting al Shabaab is a serious challenge for the police but said the community has to get involved if the fight is to be won.

The religious argument for al Shabaab, as we established, if it did exist, has been – at least outside Somalia – polluted by money, which as the tale of Saumu illustrates leads to poverty induced recruitment.

Closely watched

For example, Garissa is seen by many as the heavily guarded doorway to northeastern Kenya, and because of the relationship between those of Somali origin on either side of the Kenya-Somali border, it is especially closely watched.

Imams and businessmen also claim that they have been watching their young men keenly for a number of reasons. “Tumewaomba wasiende huko (We plead with them not to go to Somalia).”

The community here, fearful of being sucked into the conflict between al Shabaab and the region, has tried especially hard to keep recruiters and agents out, to the point that an attitude of denial exists regarding the existence of al Shabaab.

At one point in the course of our investigations, one of our agents with knowledge of the movements of al Shabaab recruits recorded a Land Cruiser parked outside a building in Garissa with a handful of young men around it, many with roots in northeastern region.

The youths who had been picked up from Nairobi were taken to Dangole, after which they would find their way to the Kenya-Somali border and cross into Somalia for training as al Shabaab fighters.

The weekend before this series aired (two weekends ago) yet another video, this time of two men, one of whom, our agent told us, couldn’t speak a word of English or Kiswahili, and possibly from a refugee camp, was taken showing the youth headed to Dangole.

A lot of these men have basic education but are jobless and poor. These circumstances have provided fertile ground for al Shabaab to recruit many to their cause – using men like Pirate and others like Corporal Hussein Abdullahi Athan.

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