Since 2007, the Somali militant group al-Shabab has recruited hundreds of foreign fighters.[1] Its Western foreign fighters have largely monopolized media attention despite the likelihood that the group’s heaviest foreign fighter recruitment has been in East Africa. The bulk of non-Somali foreign fighters probably come from East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Sudan and were recruited by al-Shabab’s regional allies, such as Kenya’s Muslim Youth Center (MYC). Encouraging East African Muslims to join al-Shabab has become a priority for the movement’s media department, the al-Kataib Media Foundation.

The focus on regional foreign fighter recruitment makes logistical sense since it is easier to facilitate recruits’ travel regionally compared to the requirements of recruitment in places further afield such as North America and Western Europe. The large East African Muslim communities, particularly the growing number of alienated and disaffected youth, also provide al-Shabab with promising recruitment pools.

This article will first examine al-Shabab’s regional recruitment drives in East Africa, and then profile the MYC, which is likely the Somali militant group’s most reliable source of regional foreign fighters.

Al-Shabab’s Regional Recruitment
In November 2010, al-Shabab’s al-Kataib Media Foundation released a 35-minute recruitment video, “Message to the Umma: And Inspire the Believers,” featuring nine named foreign fighters from different countries. Six of the foreign fighters were from East Africa, three from Kenya and the other three from Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Sudan. The video was subtitled in both English and Swahili, suggesting that its target audiences are potential recruits from abroad. Ali Rage, al-Shabab’s spokesman, closed the video by specifically inviting East African foreign fighters to join the Somali insurgency, finishing his comments by saying, “to our people/family in East Africa we say, ‘welcome to Somalia, hakuna matata (there are no worries),” using a famous Swahili phrase. Swahili speakers have also been subsequently featured in a number of other official al-Shabab videos, including the movement’s video celebrating the formalization of its affiliation with al-Qa`ida central, which was released in April 2012, and a video released in February documenting a battle between insurgents and Kenyan-backed Somali militias.[2]

In the former, a Kenyan identified as Abu Hajer al-Kini[3] extolled Kenyans to join the “frontline” of fighting in the “land of jihad, the land of Somalia,” and recited Swahili poetry in praise of al-Shabab’s amir, Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane. Referring to Kenyan Muslims as the “sons of Sa`d and Sa’id and Ali ibn Abi Talib and al-Bara’ ibn Malik,” invoking the historical memory of prominent companions of the Prophet Muhammad, Abu Hajer promised to launch attacks, including “martyrdom operations,” inside Kenya while standing in front of a banner that declared, “Terrorism is a duty in Allah’s religion.”[4] In the latter video, another Kenyan foreign fighter, identified as Abu Ahmad, showed an al-Kataib cameraman weapons, ammunition, and other supplies, including several trucks, captured by al-Shabab in a surprise dawn attack in September 2011 on the border city of El-Wak in the Gedo region of Somalia.[5]

Al-Shabab’s use of Swahili and the featuring of Swahili-speakers in its media productions are indicative of the insurgent movement’s desire to attract more recruits from East Africa, where Swahili, the language of an estimated 35 million people, is widely spoken. Swahili, a Bantu language, is a lingua franca in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and parts of Somalia. Al-Shabab, which has long recruited from among a wide array of Somali clans, particularly the less politically powerful, has also reportedly recruited from among Somalia’s minority Bantu communities.[6]

Al-Shabab’s recruitment drives in East African countries such as Kenya have been greatly aided by the presence of both sympathizers, such as influential religious preachers, and allied organizations, chief among them Kenya’s MYC.

Al-Shabab’s Activities in Kenya
The vast majority of Somalis who have left their home country and settled in other East African countries have settled in Kenya, where an estimated 500,000 to nearly one million Somalis live.[7] Contested preliminary figures in the 2009 national census put the number of Somalis in Kenya at more than two million, although these results were later controversially canceled.[8]

The Somali community in the sprawling Eastleigh area of Nairobi, which is often referred to as “Little Mogadishu,” has long been a commercial, cultural, and religious hub for Somalis. With a large potential pool of recruits and the presence of sympathetic Somali religious preachers, it has also been the center of al-Shabab’s recruitment in the country for years.[9] In its formative years, the insurgent movement collected significant financial support from wealthy supporters in the business class as well as from mosques such as Abu Bakr al-Siddique, al-Hidaya, and Masjid al-Ahmar that were home to significant numbers of al-Shabab supporters.[10] A number of Somali-Kenyan preachers who had supported the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) opposed the 2008 agreement between ICU moderates such as Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad and the TFG and transferred their support to al-Shabab following the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006, which toppled the ICU.[11] Al-Shabab’s recruiters also fed off disillusionment among Somalis in Kenya who complained of anti-Somali discrimination, harassment, and government neglect.[12]

Younger, more militant voices replaced more moderate ones in a number of Eastleigh’s mosques. Among the former were Shaykh Hassan Hussein “Abu Salman” Adam, a charismatic Somali preacher in his early 30s who ran Masjid al-Ahmar, which served as a key fundraising and recruitment hub for al-Shabab.[13] The mosque also hosted visiting insurgent leaders in 2009.[14] Adam remains a popular voice among al-Shabab members and supporters, and his writings and lectures are widely disseminated on pro-Shabab websites such as Somali MeMo, Amiir Nuur, and Radio al-Furqaan, one of al-Shabab’s terrestrial radio stations. Kenyan authorities reportedly arrested Adam for his support of al-Shabab in October 2011.[15]

Al-Shabab originally focused its recruitment drives within Kenya’s Somali community but soon began targeting the country’s non-Somali Muslims as well. Kenyan Muslim foreign fighters currently comprise the largest and best organized contingent of non-Somali foreign fighters within al-Shabab’s ranks, according to the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.[16] The MYC, based in Nairobi, is al-Shabab’s most important ally and source of foreign fighters in Kenya and perhaps in East Africa as a whole.

The Muslim Youth Center: Al-Shabab’s Key Kenyan Ally
Known first as the Pumwani Muslim Youth, the MYC was formally founded in 2008 in the Majengo district of Nairobi as an informal advocacy group for Kenyan Muslims. It was initially dedicated to highlighting the social and economic grievances of lower class Kenyan Muslim youth, who became disillusioned with what they perceived as anti-Muslim discrimination in the country. The MYC later established branches in other Kenyan cities including the southern port city of Mombasa and Garissa, a city in the country’s North Eastern Province bordering Somalia.[17] It currently has active branches inside Kenya and Somalia, with each branch having its own leadership structure.[18] Shaykh Ahmad Iman Ali, who has been featured in four productions released by the al-Kataib Media Foundation since January, is the amir of the MYC’s Somalia branch.

Sponsoring religious lectures and communal events and publishing newsletters targeting disaffected Kenyan Muslim youth, the MYC was open to any Muslim who was at least 18-years-old and who had “integrity and high standing in the society,” according to the group’s constitution. Members paid dues of 100 Kenyan shillings or approximately $1.18.[19] The group’s ideology was heavily influenced by Shaykh Aboud Rogo, a radical, pro-Shabab Kenyan preacher who was recently murdered in Mombasa on August 27, 2012, by unknown gunmen. His supporters accuse the Kenyan government of committing the murder, and violent protests broke out soon after his death.[20]

Allegations about Kenyan authorities’ possible role in the murder comes on the heels of the suspicious murders and disappearances of a number of other radical Kenyan Muslim preachers, including Samir “Abu Nuseyba” Khan Hussein, an MYC-affiliated preacher who disappeared and was later found dead in April.[21] Another prominent Kenyan Muslim preacher, Muhammad Kassim, was also reported missing under mysterious circumstances in April. Kenyan Muslim community leaders have called for investigations into both Rogo’s and Khan Hussein’s murders.[22] The background of the MYC’s Twitter account featured a photograph of Rogo as of October 2012.[23] The MYC’s Twitter account also featured a photograph of Khan Hussein following the discovery of his body in April.

Shaykh Rogo was an open supporter of al-Shabab. He was Ahmad Iman Ali’s former teacher and a frequent speaker at the group’s events in Nairobi. Al-Shabab reportedly hosted Rogo for six months in Somalia prior to 2010.[24] The preacher was previously charged with playing a role in the November 28, 2002, attacks on the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa carried out by al-Qa`ida operatives in East Africa, but was acquitted due to a lack of evidence.[25] In a statement eulogizing Rogo, the MYC labeled him “a shining example of a true and pious Muslim, unwavering and steadfast in his determination to fight injustices against Muslims all over the world,” adding that the MYC and its members are “part of the generation of Muslim youths that have been inspired by Shaykh Aboud Rogo’s vision of the Muslim umma [community] in East Africa.”[26] In May 2012, the group promised to honor his commitment to them by standing “shoulder to shoulder with our great shaykh.”[27] The MYC and al-Shabab have alleged that Rogo and Khan were murdered by the Kenyan government as part of a campaign against the country’s Muslims.[28]

Kenyan militants from the MYC’s precursor organization, the Pumwani Muslim Youth, began to travel to and from Somalia as early as 2006.[29] Well-established smuggling networks facilitate travel between the two countries. One of the earliest known MYC members killed while fighting inside Somalia was Muhammad Juma Rajab, also known by his nom de guerre “Qa’qa,” who died during an al-Shabab ambush of an Ethiopian convoy in the summer of 2008 at Bardaale near the western Somali city of Baidoa.[30] Rajab was featured in two al-Shabab videos, “Ambush at Bardaale,” released in 2009, and “Message to the Umma.” The former was also the first video in which American jihadist Omar Hammami appeared without his face covered. One of the foreign fighters featured in the latter, identified as Abu Jafar, was reportedly an MYC commander in Somalia known as Wahome Tajir Ali, who urged East African Muslims to join him on the “defensive lines” in Somalia.[31]

In a video released in late January by al-Kataib, Ahmad Iman Ali emerged publicly as the amir of the MYC’s Somalia branch, which is believed to be composed of between 250 and 500 fighters.[32] An MYC statement on January 11 announced Ahmad Iman Ali as al-Shabab’s “supreme leader” of Kenya.[33] In a nearly hour-long message aimed primarily at Kenyan Muslims, Ahmad Iman Ali, speaking in Swahili, urged them to join him alongside al-Shabab in Somalia.[34] He argued that Kenya had become a legitimate field of jihad because of the Kenyan government’s alliance with the African Union, Ethiopia, the United States, and Israel, who are waging a war against Muslims under the guise of fighting al-Shabab and “terrorism.” The term “terrorist,” he said, has become merely a synonym of the forces of unbelief (kufr) to justify their war against Islam.

Kenya’s history of intervention in Somalia, Ahmad Iman Ali said, did not begin with its recent invasion in October 2011. Rather, it began in 2006 and 2007 when the Kenyan military arrested Somali Islamists fleeing Somalia following the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion and extradited some to Ethiopia. Kenyan “perfidy” has continued at present with its financial, political, and military backing of “apostate” Somali militias along the Kenya-Somalia border. Attacks in Kenya are justified as a form of “defensive jihad” in Ahmad Iman Ali’s view because of Kenya’s participation in the global war on Islam spearheaded by the United States, a point he reiterated in another al-Kataib video released in June 2012 in which he eulogized Samir Khan Hussein.[35] Participation in this form of fighting is, he argued, an individual obligation (fard `ayn) for all Muslims.[36] Those who are unable to pick up a weapon themselves should play a missionary (da`wa) role in propagating the message of the MYC, al-Shabab, and other jihadist groups.[37]

Ahmad Iman Ali gave his pledge of allegiance (bay`a) to al-Shabab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, in a video released in April by al-Kataib.[38] Expressing his joy at “the merger of the Muslims in their fight against their common enemy,” Ahmad Iman Ali praised the leadership of the new al-Qa`ida amir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as Godane’s pledge of allegiance to him. He urged Godane to remain steadfast and not “turn his back on the fight.” Further, Ahmad Iman Ali instructed Muslims to join the MYC and al-Shabab in fighting for the law of God to be established across the globe. He warned them that the United States is attempting to transform its war against Islam and Muslims into a war carried out by its proxies. The United States is also attempting, he said, to mask its war against Islam and Muslims through the manipulation of the news media.[39]

Since the beginning of 2012, the MYC has emerged in the public spotlight as al-Shabab’s most important regional ally.[40] Hoping to manipulate and take advantage of increasing tension between Kenyan Muslims and non-Muslims, the MYC’s leaders, such as Ahmad Iman Ali, and its media department have propagated a black and white narrative of civilizational conflict. To do this, the group continues to host events, issue publications, and maintain an active Twitter account and websites where it disseminates its written statements. Al-Kataib has produced its recent videos.

One of the MYC’s primary goals is encouraging violent action inside Kenya. The group has claimed credit for numerous attacks on Kenyan security forces and government targets in the country, some carried out in cooperation with al-Shabab.[41] Indeed, Ahmad Iman Ali has declared Kenya a legitimate arena for the MYC’s “jihad.”[42] The group is likely to benefit from rising tensions between large segments of Kenya’s Muslim population and the Kenyan state caused by political marginalization and perceived government harassment, such as the singling out of Somalis inside Kenya and Kenyan Muslims in broad “anti-terrorism” sweeps by security forces. The MYC’s intention, judging from the group’s media messaging, is clearly to harness and manipulate recent tensions to further their goal of expanding violent Islamist activism inside Kenya.[43]

Invoking the examples of Usama bin Laden and Anwar al-`Awlaqi, a poem published by the MYC emphasized the group’s dedication to expanding the war inside Somalia to Kenya, closing with the line, “Paradise is but a taxi journey away in Nairobi!”[44] The MYC praised al-Shabab’s formal affiliation with al-Qa`ida central in February and promised to “set jihad alight” in Kenya as part of “al-Qa`ida in East Africa.”[45] In light of these developments, Kenya’s government must prepare for the growing terrorism risk due to its military and political intervention in Somalia.

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim sociopolitical movements, including transnational jihadi groups, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual cultures.

[1] Terrance Ford, director of intelligence and knowledge development for U.S. Africa Command, estimated al-Shabab’s foreign fighters to number as many as 1,000, 200 to 300 of whom are non-Somali in terms of their ethnic backgrounds. See Terrance Ford, “The Foreign Fighter Problem: Recent Trends and Case Studies,” conference at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, September 27, 2010. Most estimates place the total number of al-Shabab’s frontline fighters between 3,000 and 9,000 at its height, although the insurgent movement has been hit by rising defections and desertions since 2011 due to battlefield setbacks. See David Shinn, “Al Shabaab’s Foreign Threat to Somalia,” Orbis 55:2 (2011); Christopher Anzalone, “Globalizing Insurgency in Somalia,” Yale Global, August 23, 2011; “Defections Put Militant al-Shabab on the Run in Somalia,” BBC, June 8, 2012; “Militants Defecting to Somali Side After Losses,” Associated Press, June 15, 2012; “Al Shabab Defectors Describe Hunger and Isolation with Somali Terrorist Group,” Associated Press, July 11, 2012; Christopher Anzalone, “Al-Shabab’s Setbacks in Somalia,” CTC Sentinel 4:10 (2011).

[2] “The Year of Unity, 1433,” al-Shabab, April 2012; “Battlefront El-Wak: Against the Kenyans’ Agents,” al-Shabab, February 2012.

[3] This pseudonym means, “Abu Hajer, The Kenyan.”

[4] “The Year of Unity, 1433.”

[5] “Battlefront El-Wak: Against the Kenyans’ Agents.”

[6] “Somalia: Bantu,” World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, Minority Rights Group International, May 2011; Roland Marchal, “Joining Al-Shabaab in Somalia,” in Jeevan Deol and Zaheer Kazmi eds., Contextualising Jihadi Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 270. For background on the Somali Bantu, see Dan Van Lehman and Omar Eno, The Somali Bantu: Their History and Culture (Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 2003).

[7] “Number of Somali Refugees in Horn of Africa Passes 1 Million Mark,” United Nations Refugee Agency, July 17, 2012.

[8] Critics of the decision to cancel the results believe that higher birthrates showed a dramatic rise in the number of Somali-Kenyans, and they allege that the numbers of the community were deliberately undercounted for political reasons. The Kenyan government claimed that inconsistencies in the data were the reasons for the inaccuracy of the preliminary figures, which is why they were subsequently canceled.” See Wilfred Mulliro, “Kenya Somalis Population Explosion Cancelled in Census Results,” al-Shahid News, August 31, 2010; John Muchangi, “Anger as Census Results Cancelled,” The Star [Nairobi], September 1, 2010; Andrew Teyie, “2009 Census Delayed over Somali Numbers,” The Star, January 9, 2010.

[9] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 1916 (2010),” United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, July 2011, pp. 25-26.

[10] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 1853 (2008),” United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, March 2010, pp. 25-27.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Tristan McConnell, “Kenya: Where All Somalis are Suspect?” Global Post, November 4, 2011; Sudarsan Raghavan, “In Kenya, Somalis Become Casualties of Africa’s Latest War,” Washington Post, November 25, 2011; “Kenya: Somali Refugees Need Protection, Not Abuse,” Amnesty International, December 8, 2010.

[13] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 1853 (2008),” p. 26.

[14] Ibid., pp. 25-27.

[15] Feisal Omar and Abdi Sheikh, “Kenya Sends More Troops to Somalia, 10 AU Soldiers Killed,” Reuters, October 21, 2011; “Sheikh Hassan Hussein has Been Kidnapped by the Kuffar,” Muslim Youth Center, October 20, 2011.

[16] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 1916 (2010),” p. 140.

[17] Ibid., pp. 140-142.

[18] Ibid.

[19] A copy of the Muslim Youth Center’s constitution was obtained and included by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea in its July 2011 report to the UN Security Council. See ibid., pp. 149-157. One of the constitution’s signatories was Ahmad Iman Ali.

[20] Joseph Akwiri, “Riots Hit Kenya after Muslim Cleric Shot Dead,” Reuters, August 27, 2012; Wesonga Ochieng, Martin Mwaura, and Brian Otieno, “Chaos as Rogo is Murdered,” The Star, August 28, 2012.

[21] Philip Muyanga, “Police Probe Activist’s Death,” The Nation, April 13, 2012; “Muslim Leaders Condemn Murders of Terror Suspects,” Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation, April 15, 2012; Leela Jacinto, “Kenya’s Mysteriously Killed, Disappeared Islamic Clerics,” France24, September 5, 2012.

[22] Chrispinus Wekesa, “Probe Khan’s Death, Muslim Leaders Say,” The Star, May 4, 2012; Eugene Okumu, “Rogo Probe Team to Begin Work,” The Star, September 3, 2012; Maureen Mudi, Calvin Onsarigo, and Martin Mwaura, “Another Team to Probe Rogo’s Mombasa Murder,” The Star, September 4, 2012.

[23] “Announcement: MYC Joins Al-Shabaab in Tweeting on Tweeter,” Muslim Youth Center, December 10, 2011; “MYC Tweets,” Muslim Youth Center, December 13, 2011.

[24] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 1916 (2010),” p. 141.

[25] “1 Dead in Mombasa Riots after Fiery Muslim Cleric is Shot Dead,” Associated Press, August 27, 2012.

[26] “Sheikh Aboud Rogo’s Death: Embrace Change, Mujahideen,” Muslim Youth Center, August 28, 2012.

[27] “A Daring Visit to Mtaani: Sheikh Aboud Rogo,” Muslim Youth Center, May 19, 2012.

[28] Ibid.; “Sheikh Aboud Rogo’s Death: A Catalyst for Change,” al-Shabab, August 27, 2012; “A Challenge to the Mujahideen: Samir Khan’s Execution,” Muslim Youth Center, April 19, 2012.

[29] This is an estimate, but travel likely began in 2006-2007. See “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 1916 (2010),” p. 141.

[30] “Ambush at Bardale,” al-Shabab, March 2009.

[31] “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 1916 (2010),” p. 142.

[32] Ibid., p. 144.

[33] “Ahmad Iman Ali Appointed Supreme Amiir for Kenya,” Muslim Youth Center, January 11, 2012.

[34] “If They Seek Your Help in a Matter of Religion, it is Your Duty to Help Them,” al-Shabab, January 2012. The video’s title is taken from a part of verse 72 in the eighth chapter (sura) of the Qur’an.

[35] “The Killing and Persecution of Muslims in Kenya,” al-Shabab, June 2012.

[36] Ibid.; “If They Seek Your Help in a Matter of Religion, it is Your Duty to Help Them”; “An Obligation to Act: Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali’s Message,” Muslim Youth Center, January 9, 2012.

[37] “If They Seek Your Help in a Matter of Religion, it is Your Duty to Help Them.”

[38] “Regarding the Bay`a of the Mujahidin,” al-Shabab, April 2012.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Others, such as Tanzania’s Ansaar Muslim Youth Centre (AMYC), also exist. The AMYC has ties to the MYC and the late Aboud Rogo. See “Somalia Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 2002 (2011),” United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, July 2012.

[41] “Bomb Kills Several Kenyan Police in Refugee Camp,” Muslim Youth Center, December 19, 2011; “Al-Shabaab Kills Kenyan Intelligence Officers,” Muslim Youth Center, December 12, 2011; “There’s No Stopping the Mujahideen in Garissa…” Muslim Youth Center, January 1, 2012; “Aminyat: North Eastern Ops,” Muslim Youth Center, January 4, 2012; “Operation Zenga Zenga Against Kenyan Police,” Muslim Youth Center, January 14, 2012.

[42] “If They Seek Your Help in a Matter of Religion, it is Your Duty to Help Them”; “An Obligation to Act: Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali’s Message,” Muslim Youth Center, January 2012.

[43] “Kenya’s Nightmare (message from Ahmad Iman Ali),” Muslim Youth Center, September 27, 2011; “End Humiliation of Muslims!” Muslim Youth Center, August 1, 2012.

[44] “Dreaming of Paradise: My Sheikhs Welcome Me Home,” Muslim Youth Center, October 28, 2011.

[45] “Welcome to AQEA (Al-Qa`ida East Africa),” Muslim Youth Center, February 10, 2012.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up