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Soft Power: A Mentor Program To Fight Terrorism In Kenya

In the Majengo district of the southern port city, a mentoring program is trying to stop al-Shabaab​ from recruiting young people.

Locals boarding the Likoni Ferry bound for Mombasa
Locals boarding the Likoni Ferry bound for Mombasa
Marion Douet

MOMBASA — The kamikaze who blew himself up on January 15 in the Dusit hotel complex in Nairobi lived in Majengo. Several members of al-Shabaab, the Islamic terror group who carried out the attack that killed 21, also had close links to this low-income neighborhood in the coastal Kenyan city of Mombasa. Located on the island that is the heart of Mombasa, the neighborhood is made up of a few lively streets, lined with tall white buildings that feature arcades that are typical of the architecture of the great port city.

The district is known as a center of Islamic radicalization. Two imams, About Rogo and Abubaker Shariff — otherwise known as "Makaburi" ("tomb" in Swahili) — urged young people to join the al-Shabaab fight in the early part of this decade. At that time, the elegant white and green minaret of the Masjid Musa mosque, where they operated, displayed black flags celebrating the glory of the Somali Islamist militia. Since then, the two preachers have been killed, and the black flags removed. But with each new terrorist attack in Kenya, the name Majengo reappears.


Family members reuniting after attack on Dustil Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya — Photo: Donwilson Odhiambo/SOPA Images/ZUMA

It is a "hot spot" according to the British think tank Rusi, which specializes in defense and terrorism issues. "Majengo is the result of a combination of social and economic factors, which are common in Kenya but do not necessarily lead to radicalization, and the leadership of the two imams behind the radicalization of a fringe of the population", says Martine Zeuthen, head of Rusi's Kenya office. The presence of gangs limits police control and allows recruiters to "take advantage of those gray areas," as well as the historical frustration of this predominantly Muslim border region that extends to the capital, Nairobi.

Since 2016, Rusi has been running a program called Strive II, here and in five other Kenyan "hot spots." The program aims to prevent radicalization and recruitment of young people by al-Shabaab. The premise of the project funded by the European Union — 3 million euros over three years — is to combine a mentor and a "mentee" who look alike. Same age, same neighborhood, same dreams and disappointments. One preaches against radicalization, and the other is at risk of being swallowed up in it.

In Majengo, it always starts with family stories. A neighbor, a brother, a friend, who has disappeared overnight and has probably gone to Somalia. But also "ghosts', who bring back violent speech and behavior with them. "Two years ago, my husband's cousin, who came back from Somalia, attacked him with a panga a machete that is used in the fields for a property issue. My husband had 18 stitches on his head," says 28-year-old Kuchi (whose name, like most, has been changed). She recounts while stroking her round belly through her black abaya: At the time, the young mother of two children, was completely "stressed and under pressure" because of her radicalized in-laws, and depressed by a police force that does nothing apart from some raids after each new attack. After that, Emma, a neighbor and program mentor, approached her to offer her support.

Mentors avoid mentioning "radicalization."

This is the most difficult part, the part where mentors face suspicion and refusals. "When they hear about deradicalization, either they don't know what it means or they're afraid — they think we are informants. It takes time to convince them," says Emma, 29. Often, mentors, who have to be "humble and non-judgmental," avoid mentioning "radicalization," preferring to explain to the young target audience that they see "potential" in them.

This part-time seamstress is paid a small amount for the long hours she spends each week talking to her five protégés. They tell her about their family problems and express their concerns about their future, their marriage and their children. "You know what they say: a problem shared is already half solved!" says Emma. The solution seems simple, almost naive, to defuse a phenomenon as complex as involvement in terrorist groups. Yet Kuchi swears that the program allowed her to dare to move away from her in-laws with her husband, and gain enough self confidence to "no longer be vulnerable."

Madina, 26, thinks she may not have been on the verge of departing to Somalia if, two years ago, she had been able to share her problems with her current mentor Mohamed. A friend of hers had been promising her a mysterious job for weeks. Since she was "very lonely" because her husband had disappeared without a trace and in need of money, she agreed to board a car that was supposedly headed for Nairobi. It was when one of her companions fled before a police roadblock that she figured it out. "Only then did I realize I was being taken to Somalia," she recalls. Today, she says: "thanks to mentoring, I am a strong woman."

Part of the terror group's recruiting techniques to enroll young women is to promise them a well-paying job through an acquaintance or a "savior," or to offer a beneficial marriage to their parents. "For men, they also use community spaces, such as football fields, which are full of young people dreaming of a better life," notes another mentor, Nolly. The mentors are familiar with these techniques and try to undermine the work of recruiters by playing on the same field as them. "Beyond listening, we can help with administrative procedures such as getting a hospital access card or giving advice on how to start a small business," explains Emma.

But words have their limits. The mentor cannot offer a job. "The port is the main source of employment and young people here are not qualified for it," says Nolly. At a conference organized by Rusi in Nairobi to learn from his program, one of the participants acknowledged the importance of "having complementary programs' that focus on living conditions and economic development. Otherwise, the mentor preaches for nothing.

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