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Countering Involvement of Kenyan Children in Terrorism

Dr. Irene Maithya, Moi University-School of Law, explains why and how children in Kenya are easier to radicalize and how to counter it. Full tittle: Countering Involvement of Kenyan Children in Terrorism Through Realization of Their Socio-Economic Rights.


State and multinational efforts aimed at containing terrorism in Kenya have only yielded modest results despite the repressive nature of these efforts. The ranks of the foot soldiers of Al shabaab fundamentalist sects continue to swell even in the face of the ferocious onslaught on their membership by state troops. Abandoned by the state, coupled with poverty, children become easy targets for radicalization and are subsequently recruited into terrorist groups.

This article argues that poverty is the main cause that exposes children to abuse, criminalization and subsequent mobilization into terrorism. It argues that until the practices of rampant child abuse and state neglect of children as a vulnerable group is addressed through better education, employment opportunities and poverty reduction, Kenya is likely to remain a breeding ground of violent conflicts and persistent attacks by the terrorists.

The realization of the socio-economic rights of children has only been given the priority it deserves by the human rights groups as a way forward for the country of Kenya to counter the involvement of children in the terror groups. This radicalization of children must get the support from all the spheres of the country. The government must put in place the required strategies to achieve this. The rate at which Kenya’s youth are getting in the terror groups is alarming and the number is expected to rise if the realization of socio-economic rights of the youths is not urgently addressed by the state.

This article, therefore, focuses on this recent phenomenon of involvement of children in Kenya into terrorism activities. The article attempts to briefly explore the impacts of involvement of children in Kenya as a new challenge in relation to the discourse of child protection. With a view of mitigating the harm on the lives, well-being, survival and development of children in some parts of Kenya, the article sets outs viable solutions that should be considered in the fight against involvement of children in terrorism.

Keywords: Youth, Terrorism, Al-Shabaab, Socio-Economic Rights and Radicalization.

1.1 Introduction

Recent trends in armed conflict have resulted in new challenges for the protection of children. Previously armed conflict involved confrontations between states, whereas currently intrastate conflicts are more frequent. As battle lines become blurred and fragmented, armed groups increasingly rely on improvised explosive devices and suicide missions, as well as the use of children to carry out attacks. Both boys and girls have been targeted for recruitment and use by such groups, which indoctrinate and manipulate in order to coerce or force children to participate in hostilities, including acts of extreme violence. Girls and boys are often unaware of the actions or consequences of the acts they are manipulated or coerced to commit, which explains the current situation in some parts of Kenya.

There has been a range of research done on the effects of global terrorism and its impact on Kenya and how that has quickly spread. Kenya is a compelling target of global terrorism because of a combination of several factors such as, regional, historical, political, economic, geographic, socio-cultural and historical factors. Economic imbalance is one of the factors that contribute to terrorism. In their analysis of terrorism in Africa, scholars acknowledge the roles marginalization and poverty play among the Muslims that invite sectarian and interethnic strife, despair, and anti-Western resentment.(1)

Some of the gaps with regard to most research is that, there has been little research done on the involvement of children to acts of terrorism. What is the driving force for the children in joining terrorist activities in the recent days? Are the children encouraged by their religion (Islam) to become terrorists? To what extent does poverty induce Kenyan children (especially those of Islamic religion) to engage in terrorist activities? Researches done so far in Kenya seem to be more general at the policy level and Kenya in general and how global terror is affecting Africa.(2)

This article is divided into the three parts. Part one is an introductory that sets out the background of the study. Part two sets out the problem statement and delves further into the impact of children‘s involvement in terrorism activities. Part three is the last part that sets out the conclusions and recommendations. Some of the solutions suggested include governance strategies that are geared towards the realization of children‘s socio-economic rights.

1.2 Problem Statement

There has been an increasing incidence of terrorism in Kenya. In 2016 Kenya ranked 19th globally at 6.578 (10 being highest), on the Global Terrorism Index.(3) Children involvement in terrorism in Kenya is a real threat with the target group for the militants varying in age. Terrorism is a term that is notoriously difficult to define.(4) One view is that it is imprecise, ambiguous and above all it serves no operative purpose.(5) Scholars in the fields of political science, law, history, psychology, theology have tried a definition, but it seems there is no single definition.(6)

There are reports that a swoop carried out in Mombasa‘s Musa Mosque by security agents rescued over 200 children as young as 12 years who were said to be undergoing radicalization.(7) A recent report by Regional News Service estimates that 255 persons have left to join the terrorist group since 2013. Other reports may however give an indication that this figure could be higher in Isiolo County in Eastern Kenya alone, an estimated 200 children were reported missing since 2014 and assumed to have crossed over to Somalia.(8) The target group for the recruiters are children and youth between ages of 15-30 and mostly boys.

Children and young people can be drawn into violence or they can be exposed to the messages of extremist groups through a range of means. Other jurisdictions such as Nigeria have dealt with this phenomenon of having their street children drawn into it.(9) These can include exposure through the influence of family members or friends and/or direct contact with extremist groups and organisations or, increasingly, through the internet. Children are easily vulnerable to exposure to, or involvement with, groups or individuals who advocate violence as a means to a political or ideological end.(10)

Looking at the case in Kenya, a number of interrelated social, political and economic factors are fuelling the radicalization of children. Geographically, the epicentre of involvement of children in terrorism appears to be the Northern province which is dominated by ethnic Somalis, and by most accounts, it is considered to be the most neglected part of the country by the state. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the Northern Province has a history of insurgency, misrule and repression, chronic poverty, massive youth unemployment, high population growth, insecurity, poor infrastructure and lack of basic services, which resulted in the bleak socio-economic and political conditions.

The rate of poverty is significantly higher in the areas where radicalization of children is rampant, thus the vulnerability of children and young people being lured to join these groups. Moreover, the unfolding conflict in neighbouring Somalia has also had a largely negative effect on the province. Reports also reveal the existence of a high level of small arms flow across the Northern Kenya, which provides a conducive environment for the extremists to easily arm their recruits.

The Northern part of Kenya hosts the largest number of Somalis. However there are other regions in the country that host them as well. The other large group of Somalis is found in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi, which also hosts a large population of Somalis who sought refuge in Kenya from the civil strife that erupted after the 1991 collapse of the regime of Muhammad Siad Barre.There is another very important Muslim settlement in Kenya – the coastal region, which hosts about 30 per cent of the Kenyan Muslim population, is considered the ‗gateway‘ between the Islamic faith in the Arab world and the Islamic faith in Kenya and the entire East and Central African region, and links Muslims in these regions to a rich Islamic heritage that spans centuries.(11) These three regions are the most affected as far as children involvement in terrorism is concerned.

The most recent United Nations Country report on Kenya filed in January 2018 depicts that initial security threat posed by Somalia-based Al-Shabaab has spread into a web of regionally located terror cells, with partial alliances to terror groups beyond the region. This report notes that radicalisation and violent extremism are serious challenges in several Kenyan counties (especially Garissa, Isiolo, Kilifi, Kwale and Mombasa). Mandera, with its proximity to Somalia, is heavily affected. According to Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), 34 per cent of Al Shabaab attacks in Kenya have occurred in Garissa, making it the most targeted region along with Nairobi. The report further notes that key drivers of violent extremism among youth are poor access to education, poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunities to earn an income as well as a feeling of marginalization and exclusion.(12) As a result, the incentive of monetary rewards is believed to have attracted many youths to extremist causes. Perceptions of long-standing regional or communal grievances over land and other resources have also been used to lure youth.

Radicalization and violent extremism are rooted in economic marginalization, social exclusion and poor governance, leading to mistrust in national values and institutions. It is argued that a successful response would promote inclusive human development, particularly in ungoverned spaces, by creating deeper democracy through devolved systems, promoting respect for human rights and social cohesion and the development of attractive and stable livelihood opportunities for youth.

This article argues that poor socioeconomic conditions play a crucial role in children‘s recruitment and involvement in terrorism. One example is the Kenyan village of Siyu on Pate Island in the coast province. Its population of approximately 1 500 people is extremely poor and without basic necessities, such as running water.(13) Consequently, this close-knit Islamic community welcomed Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the leader of al-Qaeda‘s East African cell, as both a Muslim and a generous provider of money who brought some relief to their dire economic conditions. These credentials and activities enabled him, and others like him, to further embed himself within local society with a view to recruiting as many children as possible.

1.3 Impact of children’s involvement in terrorism activities

Children‘s involvement in terrorism activities affects their lives negatively in many ways. It results in grave violations of children‘s rights including killing, sexual violence, displacement and denial of health services. Particularly, its impact on education has become a worrying trend as children are being denied the chance of going to school. There are indications that in some places schools are closed down for considerably long time as parents have stopped sending their children to school for fear of having their children recruited into Al Shabaab. (14) Further, there are wide-reaching implications for children there are pupils who have not reported to schools for a long time and no one seems to know their whereabouts. As captured in the continental study on the impact of armed conflict on children in Africa, by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC), in Isiolo county of Eastern Kenya, at least 200 children had not reported to school in 2015.(15)

Besides, during the raid of Masjid Mosque in Mombasa, reports indicate that at least 30 children who were rescued during this operation were detained and then placed in remand homes. This act of arbitrary detention is clearly contrary to international and national laws which prescribe every individual‘s rights to liberty and the security of his or her person.

Besides its impact on education, there are alleged reports of detention of children suspected to be involved in terrorist activities. A Human Rights Watch report (2014) indicated there was strong evidence that Kenya‘s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit had carried out a series of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.(16) In 2007 and 2008, Human Rights Watch and Muslim Human Rights Forum separately documented the involvement of the unit and other Kenyan security forces in the arbitrary detention and unlawful rendition of at least 85 people including 19 women and 15 children from Kenya to Somalia.(17)

Keep reading and access the full article here.

Suggested Citation:

Maithya, Irene, Countering Involvement of Kenyan Children in Terrorism Through Realization of Their Socio-Economic Rights (October 30, 2018). Journal of Law and Ethics, Vol. 3, 2018,page 107. Available at SSRN:


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