Despite Kenya’s Isiolo County being located far from the Kenya-Somalia border as well as the country’s hotspots of violent extremism, such as Nairobi and the coast, and despite the deployment of large numbers of antiterrorism police in that county, al-Shabaab is having considerable success there recruiting young people to its organization. The excerpted accompanying article from South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies offers several reasons for al-Shabbab’s achievements in this area considered isolated from more troubled regions. Indeed, it is perhaps that very isolation which helps make Isiolo County such a tempting target for al-Shabaab recruiting efforts.

Recruitment and radicalization efforts by al-Shabaab in the county have been made easier by the young people’s growing use of drugs. This is because al-Shabaab operatives, as the article points out, frequent drug dens to bring disaffected youth into their fold.

Social media is also being successfully used by al-Shabaab to recruit and radicalize. There is additional concern that with COVID-19 forcing children to attend school online they will be increasingly exposed to radical websites. The government’s failure to launch an effective counter-narrative to the online violent extremism the children could be exposed to has only amplified the parents’ unease.

The county does have an action plan against violent extremism, drawn up in 2018, which calls for the population helping to combat youth radicalization. However, for the most part the plan has not been implemented, thus not providing community buy-in so important for mitigating al-Shabaab’s efforts. 

Deployment of anti-terrorism police in the county also does not appear to be significantly hindering al-Shabaab’s efforts, and at times has even made the situation worse. The article explains this is probably in part due to some police being mired in corruption. As the author describes it, corrupt police have “turned anti-terrorism activities into a booming enterprise.” They will arrest young people for purported crimes linked to radicalization and then demand a bribe for their release. Such actions turn people against the police and government, and make it easier for al-Shabaab to recruit.

Suggestions to make inroads against al-Shabaab’s recruitment success include more anti-radicalization content on social media, civil society organizations to combat youth radicalization, and fighting police corruption. However, as the article notes, for now al-Shabaab has the upper hand.

Violent extremism is taking hold in Kenya’s Isiolo County, positioning the vast area as the centre of youth radicalization in the country.

Source: “Violent Extremists Find Fertile Ground in Kenya’s Isiolo County,” Institute for Security Studies (South Africa), 8 October 2020.

Violent extremism is taking hold in Kenya’s Isiolo County, positioning the vast area as the centre of youth radicalization in the country. In Isiolo, the problem has been brewing for several years, prompting the deployment in 2016 of the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU).

Police corruption is also a factor. Some officials in Kenya’s security agencies are involved in corruption that has turned anti-terrorism activities into a booming enterprise. Residents told ISS Today that some police construe many crimes, especially those committed by the youth, as being linked to radicalization – whether or not this is the case. Police then demand bribes for the release of those they arrest.

There is very little partnership between religious leaders, mainstream media and local radio stations to provide a counter-narrative, discussions or statements – such as ‘Islam means peace’ – that could neutralize the messages used by extremists to recruit. In Isiolo, partnerships of this sort to prevent radicalization are insufficient, according to Mohamud.

The national police needs to combat corruption within its ranks. Relations between the community and police also need to improve, but this is unlikely to happen while police corruption prevails. Better relations will facilitate information sharing and help reduce police harassment of young people.

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