Photo/FILE Somalia al-Shabaab insurgents at the capital Mogadishu. Inset: NTV reporters John-Allan Namu and Harith Salim
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.
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)?