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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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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