Internal Security Permanent Secretary Francis Kimemia at the weekend called on recruits to turn themselves over to the government and request amnesty so that they could be put under a rehabilitation programme.
“Other countries have conducted such rehabilitation before. Just as we did to Mungiki we will use local leaders and experts to enable the recruits to return to normal life,” Mr Kimemia said.
How al-Shabaab came to enlist so many Kenyans is described in vivid terms by a leaked US cable seen by the Daily Nation, Daily Monitor’s sister newspaper, which detailed the activities of a network of recruiters who exploited youth unemployment and the lure of easy money to net hundreds of young men.
The July 6, 2009 cable titled, “A Portrait of al-Shabaab Recruitment in Kenya,” named Eastleigh, North Eastern Province and Isiolo as some of the areas where Kenyans were enrolled into the militia group in their dozens.
Some limited recruitment also occurred in Dadaab refugee camp. Mombasa has also been named as a recruitment hub. An Isiolo businessman is quoted in the cable claiming that 60 young Kenyan Somali men had disappeared from the area from January 2008 to fight in Somalia, and that two whom he knew died while executing suicide bomb attacks in Mogadishu.
Recruitment in Isiolo, he said, was directed from a radical mosque in Eastleigh but carried out by members of four mosques in Isiolo.
Kenya’s proximity to Somalia was cited as one of the reasons the country was a fruitful source for recruiting young men to join the extremist group.
Its sizeable population of ethnic Somalis and high levels of poverty has contributed. It noted that Kenya’s ethnic Somali population suffers from lower levels of development and education than other Kenyans.
Despite these claims, Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere has recently pointed out that the al-Shabaab militia is no longer an ethnic Somali affair.
Numerous youth from other communities are in its ranks with a youth from Western Kenya confessing to carrying out recent grenade attacks in the city.
The government has recognised the danger these recruits pose to the country and government spokesman Alfred Mutua issued a statement at the weekend urging all Kenyans that know youth who have left for Somalia to report them to the police.
According to the US cable, one of the biggest drivers of al-Shabaab recruitment was the entry into Kenya of radical Islamists from the Gulf states.
“These Wahhabist clerics may have direct links with radical mosques in Eastleigh, and may be acting as recruitment agents for extremist groups in Somalia,” it said.
That account matches the description of recruitment efforts by the al-Shabaab offered by a Muslim cleric who was one of the first to protest over recruitment of Kenyans into Al Shabaab in early 2005.
Sheikh Juma Ngao, the chairman of Kenya Muslims National Advisory Council, who first blew the whistle over the recruitment, said he knew dozens of families who had lost youth to the terror group. Sheikh Ngao named a mosque in Nairobi’s Pumwani area and another in Mombasa’s Majengo estate as recruitment centres.
“We did our research in Biafra in Pumwani and got CDs which show there are youths who had joined al-Shabaab. We got their names and others have since died,” Sheikh Ngao told Daily Nation.
The cleric said the recruitment started when a senior Somali government official who was previously a key member of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) began visiting Nairobi and Mombasa in 2005.
“The sheikh was being hosted by imams from Mombasa and some Muslim leaders in Nairobi. The meetings continued until they formed ICU and recruitment of Kenyans started,” Sheikh Ngao said.
The cleric said many youths were taken to Somalia after being brainwashed that they were going to fight a holy war.
Sheikh Ngao, who was the first Muslim cleric to go public with his opposition to the recruitment, said in 2007 the Imams who were supporting the effort changed tune and demanded the release of Kenyans held in Somalia and Ethiopia.
He accused the government of not taking the enrolment of Kenyans into al Shabaab seriously, adding that provincial administration at the coast did little to contain it.