Radicalization dynamics in Kenyan universities



“While ISIS has no reason (yet) to attack Kenya, the recruitment drive is a cause for worry.”

With universities and higher learning institution having turned into the new frontier for violent extremist recruitment, it’s clear that the current regime of counter-violent extremism programming has taken its toll. This is mostly a function of unmapped programming and prejudiced ‘understanding’ of the context based on a top-level research that fails to be intimately acquainted with all the previous flaws, identifying areas of synergy and eliminating non-essential activities.This high cost of low standards programming will almost certainly worsen with time, with CVE turning into a generic industry.

Radicalization leading to violent extremism on university campuses is quickly becoming the next major counter-terrorism challenge with an information gap on the same hence no formidable strategy has been  adopted yet on countering radicalization amongst the middle-class, affluent demography.It is particularly interesting also that university students, expected to be objective and have logical capabilities would find violent extremism appealing, and this poses a global security peril.

Understanding the subject: university students

Kenya has a total of 43 universities, with 22 being public and 21 private, with student population higher in public universities. Only 23% of the students are confidently above the at-risk/vulnerability standard, 33% being in the middle-sway and the rest are below the at-risk/vulnerability standard(More analysis on mapping out the at-risk and vulnerabilities in the next section).78% of the Kenyan university students are uncomfortable to openly talk about, or to the government, with confidence levels slightly higher amongst students in the private universities. The percentages above are with a +/-3% error margin. The female students are more concerned about radicalization than the male students, but are less likely and/or willing to take action, while the vice versa is true for the male students, who are less concerned about radicalization, but are more willing to take action on either the negative or positive aspects of radicalization.The Muslim to non-Muslim students’ ratio is higher in private universities than in the public universities though the non-Muslim students’ population outnumber the Muslim students’ population, except in 4 universities where the Muslim students’ population outnumber the non-Muslim students’ population.

Of the 43 Kenyan universities, 28 of them have a presence in Nairobi and its environs,6 of them have a presence in the coastal region of Kenya, and 1 with a presence in the North Eastern region. Nairobi based universities are easily a target for recruitment of university students, unlike the assumed coastal region, because Nairobi presents the diversity of individual backgrounds, with a unity in the search for inclusion and opportunity, and with the realization that the sense of abandonment and injustice is more real in the capital than in any other place.

Radicalization in the Kenyan universities is a circumstantial opportunity in a chaotic setting and lacks a face or an agency of recruitment; it is a script written by the extremist groups with the roles played into exactly as written by them with the groups as ISIS using the jujitsu-style strategies, exploiting the reaction of their adversaries to their advantage when they attack Western targets. It is therefore not unusual that radicalization is high in success and intensity in the aftermath of a terror attack, when the conversation is high with an imposed binary conflict in the public discourse, than in a state of calm.

The use and strategic importance of social media and the internet in recruitment of university students is mainly based on the ability to have constraint-free and easy communication with anonymity. It should however be noted that the recruitment strategy and approach over Facebook and Twitter is completely different compared to the clearly marked and recognizable extremist websites and forums. The two (Facebook and Twitter) however provide higher “success” levels than the use of the alternative extremist sites and forums mainly for three reasons:

  1. The opportunity for data-mining and individualized monitoring;
  2. Easier creation of the perception of critical mass appeal; and
  3. Space with less pressure to join or not.

The circumstantial opportunity comes by monitoring and jumping in with the right timing giving leaks of small information meant to trigger “harmless discussions” on ideologies and state of affairs in the country while progressively introducing undertones of call to action in small bits with the target being based on the individual’s opinions, preference and skills from the previous monitoring and data mining; Appealing to individuals, rather than the masses.

The extremist groups aren’t doing anything unique to appeal to their target recruits that is the university students; they simply understand their subject better and amplify what is already obvious.What needs to be understood intimately is that a university student, considered to be an intellect, is a human first, then an intellect second; and not the other way round-and that is an understanding the extremist groups have.

S/he is not unaware that s/he lives in a binary world of competing factions with the government on one side and the socially disruptive groups on the other side, with extreme consequences of their positions-where even death is not unusual. S/he is not unaware of the human rights reports of religious persecution, arbitrary arrests, prejudiced profiling and targeted killings-If deception cannot be used to earn trust, how can violence and chaos be used to earn peace? S/he is not unaware that the majority of current CVE interventions in Kenya have no real understanding of their contextual needs but are reactive steps after the fact, a rhetoric slogan with real “good”reports at the end. The approaches used by the government(s) and CVE programming misses on understanding that the appeal of militant groups to university students thrives on the subjective, and not the objective factors; human first, then an intellect second

“The wage here may not be as much as you get in the West, but do we live for this life or do we live for the hereafter? Is money more important than the life of your brother?”

The appeal violent extremist groups lies in the fact that they “give” a chance to solve the problem; to be part of the “solution”, they are more than willing to rely on his/her potential (as a medical or engineering student etc.), and not look at his/her experience, which is the CVE intervention and government’s approach.It’s an ideological and not a religious war. This can be noted out in mapping out radicalization dynamics in Kenyan universities that most of the recruits are rather newly converted Muslims, and not lifelong Muslims.

Mapping out at-risk and vulnerability

The nature of the at-risk and vulnerability map is particularly useful for CVE programming in that it combines subjective judgments with data, and makes this insight accessible for evaluation and discussion by both novice and expert, alike. The importance of this is in giving at the end:

  • Data-driven identification of the at-risk and university students, understanding high-frequency, identifying areas of synergy and eliminating non-essential activities.
  • Re-evaluation of current risk-management practices in CVE programming, operations and procedures. Identification of areas—from redrafting language of program delivery—where changes can improve outcomes.
  • Alignment of CVE programming activities with the correct contextual needs of the subject (university students). Addressing certain areas identified as realistic requirements, can also contribute in advancing overall objectives of CVE programming.

Our main pivot for mapping out at-risk and vulnerability among Kenyan university students was first the division of the basic social layers of gender and religion, then disintegrate one university into individuals and now variables are calculated at individual level with focus on intensity and direction of the individual’s opinion. Using this criteria, the at-risk and vulnerability can be mapped out from:

  • The individual’s willingness to embrace violence;
  • The individual’s religious and political tolerance;
  • The individual’s regard for soft power;
  • The various aspects of an individual’s social network;
  • Examining how peer interaction networks influence behavior.

Strategic positioning: 2016-2017

There is currently a real concern among Kenyan civil society organizations that radicalization into violent extremism in Kenyan universities is expanding at a time when Kenya is nearing an election in August 2017 and ethnic tensions are, consequently, intensifying. With the significant level of mistrust between police and communities, especially the youth, arising from poor communication and cooperation between the community and police. This affects the police’s ability to fight crime while negatively impacting the social and economic development efforts in the country.

The international Youth Action Against Terrorism, with a presence in 17 of the Kenyan universities and a current membership of 2097 university students in Kenya, is seeking to avert the absence of a holistic approach to checking the radicalization of university students. The concern around this is that militants with higher education will be better positioned to plan sophisticated attacks and infiltrate elite government and military circles, increasing the ambition and resilience of the former. Moreover, owing to their skills and greater ability for exposure, educated militants will be well placed to operate internationally and carry out attacks outside Kenya with the likely scenario for returnees.

Though constrained due to lack of formidable support on activities, currently internally funded through membership subscriptions, The International Youth Action Against Terrorism (IYAAT) is convening the 2016 edition of the CVE Youth Blast(www.iyaat.org/youthblast) taking place on Friday 28th October 2016 in Nairobi (Kenya). This is an annual event organized by the International Youths Action Against Terrorism to review the CVE programs, projects and initiatives taken during the year and to draw lessons from them for the following year.

This year’s CVE Youth Blast is set out to give university students and CVE stakeholders a chance to measure the reception levels of the CVE efforts made, outline their respective positions and present recommendations, to build a common understanding among the CVE practitioners from around Kenya of the best interventions and approaches that are needed to ensure that their efforts contribute appropriately and effectively to the prevention of violent extremism in universities.

Shared responsibility

Our work in this area is being undertaken within the framework of its ongoing efforts to understand the driving factors of university/college students to radicalization, and support country implementation CVE initiatives of target to university/college students.

We make an open call to government institutions, the civil society, the media, international bodies and corporate bodies to join us in support of the 2016’s CVE Youth Blast with the understanding of Kenya’s political economy and the underlying threat of violent extremism in a proactive manner as we look forward to a peaceful period in 2017.

Thank you

For feedback and inquiries, please send us an email at mail@michaelopondo.comor visit www.iyaat.org/youthblast


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