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In Somali enclave, a bittersweet homecoming for Kenya's prodigal sons

Kenya's government offered amnesty to men who went to fight with Al Shabab in Somalia and want to return home. But in communities like Nairobi's Eastleigh neighborhood, wariness overrides a rush to welcome them.

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    Men play a boardgame on the street in Eastleigh, Nairobi, Kenya, June 10, 2014. The Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh, also known as Little Mogadishu, is home to many Somali immigrants. The Kenyan government decided to offer full amnesty in April to Al Shabab members who wanted to return home
    Jason Patinkin
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By 4 p.m. each weekday at this parking lot in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, the cars clear out.

Volunteers lay down straw mats on the tarmac, and young men and women trickle in – sitting on separate sides – to listen to the daily teaching of Salim Ndenda, a local Islamic leader.

Here in the bustling neighborhood nicknamed Little Mogadishu for its large concentration of ethnic Somalis, Mr. Ndenda’s daily message to more than 500 youths in attendance – often sent by their own families – is of singular importance. It is one that will help prevent young men from radicalizing, or even worse, joining the ranks of Al Shabab fighters.

“We have to do this to give the youth the right teachings,” says Ndenda. “Wrong teachings may mean they end up in Somalia with Al Shabab.”

The topic of radicalization is a sensitive issue here, especially with the stigma that Somali-Kenyan communities serve as breeding and recruitment grounds for the extremist group. Few are willing to talk, often citing that they just want to go about their day-to-day.

But after the Kenyan government decided to offer full amnesty in April to Kenyan Al Shabab members who wanted to come back, residents here have been debating how they will be able to welcome their prodigal sons home.

The amnesty, offered soon after Al Shabab militants massacred 148 students at Garissa University in April, has faced stiff resistance from the public. Rev. Peter Karanja, the influential head of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) said the move was a “betrayal to Kenyans.” 

So far, 200 men have returned to communities throughout the country, according to Interior Cabinet Minister Joseph Nkaissery. Dozens have made their way to Eastleigh, Ndenda says.

For the communities taking them in, there are mixed feelings. Happy to see their young men back, there are also valid concerns that it could be a chance for Al Shabab to recruit a fresh crop of fighters. But there is also general wariness over accepting sons who were once part of an organization that has carried more than 63 attacks against Kenya since 2013, and killed thousands in Somalia. 

“These are people who have killed and fought in a war. The government needs to make it easy for the families to accept them,” says Leila Ali, an Eastleigh shop owner.

Little information

When the amnesty offer was first announced, government officials said they were taking into consideration the social, psychological, spiritual, and religious aspects of the recruits and their communities as part of the deradicalization process.

What does this mean, practically? Few in Eastleigh know. And there are concerns over the dearth of information shared with them about the re-integration procedure, even though they are obligated to take back the recruits.

Though they will welcome the men back, "we must not forget that they were part of a very dangerous group,” says Abdi Farah, a businessman.

The Kenya government is hoping that the amnesty will act as a counter-terror strategy to destabilize Al Shabab, and it is unclear how effective it has been at this point, experts say. Once recruits join a terror group, warns Richard Tuta, a Kenyan homeland security expert, exiting is not easy because the terror organizations are always in pursuit.

“So any counter-terrorism strategy geared to toward making members exit must give motivation and incentives, since existing members ​[leave such organizations​] with expectations.” 

For leaders like Rev. Karanja of the NCCK, the prospect of former members being welcomed back into Kenyan society does not make sense.

“Who is the government trying to protect?” he asked. “We believe that the government must take responsibility for atrocities committed to the people of Kenya through terrorism." 

Preventing recruitment

Ndenda believes some of the returnees attend his late afternoon meetings, though they have yet to identify themselves. Once they surrender themselves to county commissions, some are handed over to local mosques. But otherwise, there do not appear to be specific programs set up for them.

Some residents have called for centers that would act as intermediaries between surrendering and actually returning home, allowing for better monitoring.

“I think there are no good structures to implement the amnesty strategy and enable communities to embrace the exiting recruits,” Mr. Tuta says. “If they are not accepted, they will become more lethal.” 

Others worry that with little to offer the returnees, such as jobs, it will be easy for them to fall back into the recruitment cycle. Kenya has a 40 percent unemployment rate, with 70 percent of the unemployed under the age of 35. USAID puts the youth unemployment rate in Eastleigh at 56 percent, though it is even higher in rural communities or communities living in northern frontier districts, where the majority of Somali-Kenyans live.

“There are no incentives that could encourage more recruits to return home. Those who have return as still idle as jobless as they left. These may discourage many from deserting,” says Hussein Kariuki, a Muslim leader in Eastleigh.

But for those that are here, Ndenda is hoping that they will find solace in the mosque. “They are being rehabilitated in mosques by the sheikhs. They are being deradicalized through lectures.” 

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