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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Youth, Violent Extremist Recruitment, and COVID-19 in Kenya

Violent extremist groups were poised to take advantage of the disruption caused by COVID-19.[i] They have leveraged the widespread pandemic to intensify attacks and increase civilian support, radically reshaping dynamics especially in conflict zones and fragile states.[ii] Overstretched militarily and economically – as funds initially earmarked for combating violent extremist groups and healthcare provisions continue to be diverted to deal with the widespread pandemic – many countries fear the potential for the emergence of a new wave of violent extremism.[iii] Similar to the responses adopted in other parts of the world, and as the pandemic reaches deeper into their communities, governments in Africa continue to enact lockdowns, social distancing, and other strict enforcement measures,[iv] highlighting drastic shifts from the traditional focus on terrorism and other crisis and emergency responses.

In the past few months, Kenya has enforced curfews and limited movements in the city. Educational institutions and businesses have temporarily closed. Accounts of law enforcement violence against youth abound, while the government has deployed the Kenyan Defense Force (KDF) to Nairobi. Meanwhile, the youth in Kenya remain dormant. Some have traveled back to their hometowns outside of Nairobi, unable to access internet and online teaching, while others remain in Nairobi with decreasing economic opportunities and income. As government and security responses in Kenya with regards to the pandemic continue to be consumed by largely counterterrorism considerations, the authors’ research on how the pandemic may intersect with local conditions and existing drivers of violent extremism warrants further exploration:

  1. Pandemic and economic recession
  2. Youth idleness
  3. Law enforcement abuse and violence
  4. Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) interest in recruitment as opposed to attacks
  5. The negative impact of the pandemic on the economy and security in Kenya creates a major opportunity for VEOs to recruit youth from the Northern Frontier Districts NFD and border towns
  6. In the coastal and northeastern regions, law enforcement link Muslim youth to terrorism, with reports of young men being executed, forcibly disappearing, harassed through arbitrary arrests, or brought up on trumped-up charges of terrorism[v]

Economy and Security:

According to the World Bank, Africa’s economy is forecasted to fall sharply from 2.4 percent growth in 2019 to -2.1 and -5.1 percent in 2020, respectively, due to COVID-19.[vi] The pandemic has led to economic restraints, curfews, and lockdowns, shutting down of numerous businesses, increased unemployment rates, increased debt, and closing of schools and universities. Furthermore, this has led to youth idleness, increased consumption in drugs and crimes and a reduction in financial income. Dating back to the ’90s, Somali youth in Northeastern Kenya have moved to Nairobi for employment, business ventures, and higher educational opportunities.[vii] Since the pandemic, these opportunities have significantly reduced and have created a domino effect, whereby the Somali households and youth in Northeastern Kenya do not benefit as much from remittances and flow of capital.

The recession in Africa is likely to have a domino effect on food, security, household income, healthcare, tourism, foreign direct investment, and more. Kenya has also observed a decline in its economy over the past few months.[viii]Author conference calls with several Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) practitioners and Entrepreneurs in Northeastern counties in Kenya revealed that people in Garissa were barely receiving money from relative(s) business owners in Nairobi prior to COVID-19, and now that the city is under curfew and movement is limited, the financial situation is far worse.[ix] Respondent interviews also revealed that male youth who were barely receiving money prior to COVID-19 are now at a higher risk of joining drug cartels and VEOs.[x]

The Kenyan government and CBOs have also shifted their focus and resources from counterterrorism and CVE to containing the pandemic. For instance, the Kenyan government has redirected its security forces, media, and budgets to COVID-19 awareness, monitoring and prevention. Furthermore, the KDF forces have been downsized, or called back, from patrolling borders to enforce social distancing and curfew in Nairobi, potentially leading to further insecurity at border towns. Case in point, since the KDFs mission was redirected to Nairobi, Ethiopian militia have crossed the border and killed five Kenyans in Moyale county in March 2020.[xi] Such scenarios reflect how militia and VEOs exploit the vacuum left by the Kenyan security forces. Equally important, some CBOs have shifted their focus from Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts to writing proposals and bidding for COVID-19 funds from international donors.

Human Rights and COVID-19 Enforcement:

Grievances over human rights abuses in the enforcement of COVID-19 security measures are also present. Tweets and articles have surfaced criticizing the KDF for the killing of innocent people during COVID-19.[xii] Sources claim the KDF has killed more civilians than terrorism.[xiii] Some Northern Frontier Districts (NFD) community members invoke their experiences during the 2015 government-imposed curfew.[xiv] One user tweeted, “How do communities who feel targeted by state security believe that soldiers are now coming out to protect them?” Others tweeted about their traumatic experience with KDF during curfew in 2015, specifically on hospitalizations of civilians due to violence by the Kenyan security forces, an experience that has since embedded a mistrust of security forces by Kenyans.[xv]

Arbitrary arrests targeting Kenya’s Muslim minority population and the history of violence toward youth add another layer of complexity to the issue.[xvi] Civilians often describe being a youth as almost a crime, whereby experiences of arrests, police aggravation, and killings are common for age groups between 20 and 29 years old.[xvii] Earlier this year, law enforcement were reported to have shot and killed civilians in Mathare, while showing restraint in affluent neighborhoods. During the past few months, local and international newspapers have widely reported on youth that have been killed or abused by security forces. According to Kenyan media, police have killed more than COVID-19 in April 2020.[xviii] Such incidents feed into the grievances that economically disadvantaged youth are indiscriminately and disproportionately targeted by the Kenyan law enforcement and security forces. In addition to the instances of law enforcement propagated violence during COVID-19, the grievances over youth discrimination may create opportunities for VEOs to exploit youth vulnerabilities and project a sense of belonging, identity, and financial incentive for the youth. In addition, as some security experts in Kenya suggest, the impact of VEO recruitment, i.e. terror attacks in Kenya, is likely to be felt between late 2021 and early 2022.[xix]

On Education:

Kenya has recently instituted online programs and platforms for students across the country. Classroom sessions for students in Dadaab are being conducted over radio stations.[xx] Through UNHCR’s Instant Network Schools platform, teachers are broadcasting classes over community radio. Such initiatives underscore the resolve to harness the power of education in thwarting the appeal of violent extremism among the youth in the camps who remain more vulnerable to recruitment by VEOs. Refugee camps in Dadaab, in particular, have been recruiting grounds for terrorists due to unemployment and lack of education.[xxi] In Nairobi, private schools and universities have also moved to online platforms. Generally speaking, the private educational institutions are better equipped and prepared to deal with transitions to online platforms. An example is University of Nairobi (UON), a public institute, which is struggling with online teaching mainly because its teachers face difficulties in structuring and delivering their classes online. Problematic is also the fact that many students have returned to their hometowns, where they do not necessarily have access to the internet. Comparatively speaking, students in private educational institutions enjoy a better access to resources (e.g. internet, gadgets, and finances) as well as already existing online teaching platforms.

The digital divide is often cited as the key obstacle for e-learning in Kenya. As also noted by the Kenyan media, “most families have limited or no access to the internet. Such a situation does not belong to the future but the present.”[xxii] One frustrated student tweeted “You want me to take online classes. I live in Turkana (in far-off remote northern Kenya). Does this university even care that I obviously can’t access [the] internet? It is University of Nairobi, not University for people of Nairobi.”[xxiii] In the public sector space, even though online teaching platforms exist, students in Nairobi are struggling, as they lack access to internet and technology. The impact is far greater outside of Nairobi. Teachers in private schools in Nairobi are also starting to lose their income as families cannot afford to pay fees for online learning. In addition, many teachers also struggle with internet access.

Although the private educational institutions are conducting online teaching, teachers are struggling with budgeting their internet and electricity costs, while parents are struggling to pay enrollment fees. Under status quo, and absent substantial funding infusion into the economy and educational system, the private schools are likely to experience a gradual decline in performance. Compounding the issue is the lack of data on the percentage of youth making use of online classes. In other words, private schools and universities lack reliable data on the number of students studying and making use of online lectures and sessions. This makes it more difficult to track the youth population as to their activities and what they are busy with during the pandemic.


Like many crises and emergencies in the past, violent extremist groups are likely to continue to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic.[xxiv] In responding to the crisis caused by the widespread pandemic, governments also continue to cast a sense of control and authority during a time of rampant spurt of violent extremist narratives. The youth remain a particularly vulnerable category, especially in fragile states and conflict zones, as VEOs see prime opportunities for viral recruitment among the youth. In the case of Kenya, the youth remain a dormant group, and this is mainly due to the lack of the media and government monitoring of their movements and behaviors. The lack of adequate monitoring mechanisms creates opportunities for increased drug addition, crimes, and al Shabaab recruitment of youth. Teachers are also not aware of the consumptions and behaviors of youth during the pandemic. Furthermore, despite wide media coverage, less than one percent of youth are actively creating awareness of COVID-19.[xxv] This is problematic as large percentage of youth remain inactive.

Al Shabaab activity in Kenya is likely to continue during the pandemic. The group is likely to continue to exploit the pandemic as an opportune time to recruit Kenyan youth. Their target recruitment group can vary from highly educated but unemployed to school dropouts and youth involved in crime. Economic recession, closing of educational institutions and businesses, police violence and discrimination, and the digital divide are all likely to exacerbate youth exclusion and isolation.

[i] Eric Rosand, Khalid Koser, and Lilla Schumicky-Logan. (2020). “ Preventing violent extremism during and after the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brookings, available at https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/04/28/preventing-violent-extremism-during-and-after-the-covid-19-pandemic/
[ii] Homeland Security Today. (2020). “ISIS is using coronavirus to rebuild its terrorism network in Iraq,” available at https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/isis-is-using-coronavirus-to-rebuild-its-terrorism-network-in-iraq-and-syria/; Reuters. (2020). “ Somalia’s Islamist group al Shabaab says sets up COVID-19 treatment centre,” available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-somalia/somalias-islamist-group-al-shabaab-says-sets-up-covid-19-treatment-centre-idUSKBN23J32C
[iii] East African Security and Policy Forum. (2020). “To act, or not? Al Shabaab’s response to a Covid-19 crisis in Somalia, available at http://easpf.org/index.php/2020/06/14/to-act-or-not-al-shabaabs-response-to-a-covid-19-crisis-in-somalia/
[iv] Maia Blume. (2020). “Covid-Africa Part 1: The pandemic risks turning young people to extremism : How should we respond?” Wasafiri, available at https://www.wasafirihub.com/covid-africa-part-1-the-pandemic-risks-turning-young-people-to-extremism-how-should-we-respond/
[v] Agatha Ndonga. (2019). “Reforming Kenya’s security sector: Policing culture and youth.” ICTJ Briefing: Justice, Truth, Dignity, available at https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ_Briefing_Kenya_YouthSecuritySectorReform-Web.pdf
[vi] World Bank (2020). “COVID-19 (Coronavirus) divides sub-Saharan Africa toward first recession in 25 years.”, available at https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/04/09/covid-19-coronavirus-drives-sub-saharan-africa-toward-first-recession-in-25-years
[vii] See also https://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/nairobi-population/
[viii] World Bank (2020). “COVID-19 dampens Kenya’s economic outlook as Government Scales up Safety Net Measures.”, available at https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/04/29/covid-19-dampens-kenyas-economic-outlook-as-government-scales-up-safety-net-measures
[ix] First author interview, April 26, 2020/ Zoom Webinar with SLK-Silver Lining Kenya and Semi-Arid Health Initiative.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Jacob Walter. (March 13, 2020). “Ethiopian gunmen open fire on Kenyan workers in Moyale.” Daily Nation, available at https://www.nation.co.ke/counties/marsabit/Ethiopian-gunmen-open-fire-on-Kenyan-workers/3444778-5510940-e6jyqx/index.html
[xii] Morris Kiruga. (April, 2020). “Nairobi’s fight against coronavirus gets violent.” The Africa Report, available at https://www.theafricareport.com/25634/nairobi-fight-against-coronavirus-gets-violent/
[xiii] Human Rights Watch. (April, 2020). “Kenya: Police brutality during curfew”, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/22/kenya-police-brutality-during-curfew
[xiv] Karsten Noko. (April, 2020). “The problem with army enforced lockdowns in the time of COVID-19.” Al-Jazeera, available at https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/problem-army-enforced-lockdowns-time-covid-19-200401101641258.html; In 2015, following the Garissa University attack that left 148 people dead, the late interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery announced 3-month long dusk to dawn curfew in the counties of Mandera, Garissa, Wajir, and Tana River County.
[xv] Karsten Noko. (April 2020). “The problem with army enforced lockdowns in the time of COVID-19.” Al-Jazeera, available at https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/problem-army-enforced-lockdowns-time-covid-19-200401101641258.html
[xvi] Amanda Sperber. (June, 2020). ‘They have killed us more than corona:’ Kenyans protest against police brutality. The Guardian, available at https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/jun/09/they-have-killed-us-more-than-corona-kenyans-protest-against-police-brutality
[xvii] Nanjala Nyabola. (March 2016). “Kenya’s vicious war against its youth.” Foreign Policy, available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/14/kenyas-vicious-war-against-its-youth/
[xviii] Andrew Wasike. (April 2020). “Kenyan police kill more during curfew than COVID-19.” Anadolu Agency, available at https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/kenya-police-kill-more-during-curfew-than-covid-19/1807930
[xix] Author zoom conference discussions with security experts in Kenya and Somalia, April-June 2020.
[xx] Alan Mwika. (April 2020). “Refugee students get lessons over radio during Kenya school shutdown.” UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, available at https://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2020/4/5ea28f144/refugees-students-lessons-radio-during-kenya-shutdown.html
[xxi] Sirkku Hellsten. (February 2016). “Radicalization and terrorist recruitment among Kenya’s youth.” Nordic Africa Institute, available at https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/196275/FULLTEXT01.pdf
[xxii] Gilbert NgangaMaina Waruru and Gilbert Nakweya. (April, 2020). “Universities face multiple challenges in wake of COVID-19 closures.” University World News: Africa Edition, available at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20200407162549396
[xxiii] First author research. See also, tweet: https://twitter.com/JaredOchako/status/1244332088398155777
[xxiv] Williams Avis. (2020). “The COVID-19 pandemic and repose on violent extremist recruitment and radicalisation,” K4D, available at https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/808_COVID19%20_and_Violent_Extremism.pdf
[xxv] Reliefweb. (May, 2020). “Youth lead the way in preventing COVID-19 spread in Kenya’s informal settlements.” Available at https://reliefweb.int/report/kenya/youth-lead-way-preventing-covid-19-spread-kenya-s-informal-settlements
Rukaya Mohamed
Rukaya Mohamed
Rukaya is a research fellow at the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), where she researches the potential impact of Kenya-Somalia political tensions and COVID-19 on violent extremism in Kenya and Somalia, as well as exploring disengagement and rehabilitation efforts aimed at al Shabaab in Somalia. Rukaya has engaged in research and CVE efforts in East Africa and the Middle East, working on projects that address the gendered dimensions of violent extremism, socio-economic exclusion, and unequal development. She has also done monitoring, evaluation, and policy design aimed at empowering marginalized groups. Rukaya also worked in Countering Piracy in the Horn of Africa (Doha, Qatar) in 2016. She obtained her Master’s degree in Foreign Policy and Diplomacy and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations. She co-authored, ‘Violent Nonstate Actors in Somalia: al- Shabab and Pirates’, in Violent Radical Movements in the Arab World.

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