NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) – In Kenya‘s coastal region, interfaith efforts to slow or end the recruitment of young people for the militant Islamist group al-Shabab are making progress, with some recruits leaving the extremist group’s training grounds in southern Somalia to return home.
The group – al-Qaida offshoots in East Africa – had been increasing secret recruiting in the coastal and northeastern regions since 2011, when the East African nation’s military invaded southern Somalia. The radicalized youth, many of them under 30, were often sent across the border to train as jihadists.
But now activity has slowed down, in part due to the efforts of interfaith groups. More than 300 such youths who had traveled to Somalia to be trained as jihadists were rescued and returned to the country.
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The reports attributed to security officials last week showed the youths will be screened and deradicalized before being reintegrated into their communities.
Shamsa Abubakar Fadhili, Chair of the Mombasa Women of Faith Network, a branch of the Interfaith Council of Kenya, is leading interfaith efforts to relocate the returned ex-militants. The Interreligious Council of Kenya brings together Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.
“We have to bring them back to the churches,” 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 legal proceedings. “
“I applaud the effort. Something is happening and I think there is hope that those who have been recruited into the militancy can be saved, ”said retired Anglican bishop Julius Kalu of Mombasa, who campaigns for peace in the coastal region.
Though recruitment has slowed, thousands of Kenyans are still fighting alongside al-Shabab. In 2015 the government announced an amnesty for those who joined the group. Some of the recruits returned home, but human rights organizations raised concerns about the disappearance of returnees and extrajudicial executions.
Familiar clerics have described the effort as a balancing act to use faith to work with government agencies to combat hopelessness, marginalization and unemployment. “It’s a delicate matter, but I think what we need now is closer cooperation, including with the security authorities,” said Kalu.
According to Rev. Stephen Anyenda, a Baptist and chief executive officer of the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, adolescents are recruited through a gradual process in which recruiters incentivize and make promises until the adolescents gain full trust.
“Many of them are unemployed and therefore vulnerable to recruitment. They see little meaning in life. They also feel bullied by society and start engaging in unhealthy activities, sometimes because of peer pressure, ”Anyenda said. “Recruiters targeting the youngsters can offer money for a new lifestyle or even help families start small businesses.”
Many of the young people, according to Fadhili, have no spiritual nourishment and are therefore prone to radical political ideas.
However, Fadhili said, “Many of them are eager to change, so we will stay with them.” She said she recently rescued 12 youth who had already made their trip to Somalia to join al-Shabab.
Fadhili has helped youth start small businesses and provide them with seed capital so they can improve and escape the lure of crime.
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According to Fadhili, the work has also reduced crime by 45% in the most dangerous areas of the city of Mombasa and slowed al-Shabab recruitment.
At the same time, she fears that limited resources could force her to quit, and she fears the worst if that happens. “I worry that the youngsters will just slide back,” said Fadhili.