Inside al Shabaab’s Recruitment Process in Somalia

Th Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation published an excellent, first-hand report of al Shabaab’s recruitment process entitled, “How al Shabaab Captures Hearts Of Somali Youth.” The article traces the path of a Somali refugee, Ahmed, who now resides in Kenya’s Eastleigh slum.

Two weeks ago, I discussed the combination of benefits offered by al Qaeda and affiliated groups (like al Shabaab) to entice new recruits.  I noted that:

Each recruit makes a decision to work based on a perceived wage generated from both pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits from employment as a terrorist.  Pecuniary benefits represent tangible items received in return for employment: pay, vacation, insurance, etc…and… Non-pecuniary benefits represent intangible items received in return for employment: religious achievement, adventure seeking, group camaraderie, etc. The combination of these benefits presents the wage needed to recruit someone into a terror cell.

Additionally, I discussed how the combination of pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits needed for recruitment vary based on geographical location:

A terror recruit in Africa may be far more enticed by the tangible, pecuniary benefits offered by al Qaeda while a middle to upper class student recruit from Saudi Arabia might be more interested in the ideological, non-pecuniary benefits of group membership.

The Daily Nation article describing Ahmed’s recruitment exemplifies this recruiting phenomenon where it was a cell phone more than an ideology that initially enticed young recruits in Somalia.

Ahmed was barely 12 years old when he first joined Al-Shabaab. He was a schoolboy in Mogadishu, and when the three-month long holidays approached in 2007, he was nudged by friends to join the insurgents.

“When you join, they give you a mobile phone and every month you are given $30,” he said. “This is what pushes a lot of young people to join.”

Why does this matter? Analysts predominately focus on expensive DC-centric programs to counter al Qaeda’s/al Shabaab’s ideology, eliminate Internet videos and answer evil tweets.  While this may be appropriate for a small handful of Somali Diaspora recruits in the West, the majority of al Shabaab recruits are child soldiers more likely to be pulled from Shabaab’s grasp through the TFG handing out cell phones with $40 of credit every month ($10 more than al Shabaab).

Al Shabaab follows an indoctrination program typical of most all fighting forces (al Qaeda, Taliban, the U.S. military!) that recruit young men: entice them with monetary inducements and social pressure and then solidify their long-run commitment through ideological indoctrination.  Ahmed notes the religious training and attempts to “counter the narrative”:

Preachers delivered sermons for hours about destiny and “the sweetness of the holy war.” They distributed leaflets on Islam and tried “to make the children understand and appreciate suicide bombing.”

In one of these sessions, Ahmed, as a trusted foot soldier now, asked one of the scholars: “Give us a solid proof from the teachings of the Prophet (Muhammad) or the activities of his companions that actually allow suicide bombings.”

The answer, he says, was not forthcoming. Later, he was called aside and was told “that Islam’s biggest scholars had approved of suicide bombings, and that as an ignorant young man, I should keep quiet about it and not defile the mind of the youngsters.

This process of moving young recruits from pecuniary reasons for joining to ideological reasons for staying in the group mirrors the method used by al Qaeda in Southern Somalia between 1992-1994.  As discussed in the report al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa and the Harmony documents that informed them, AQ operatives noted:

“the youth started their action in kees mayo city (Kismayo) in southern Somalia by getting engaged in its battle and the tribes men escaped before Aideed. There was 800 brothers in their camps and the escapees asked the youth to protect the city from Aideed provided that they would give up the airport, the harbor and the public utilities in the city for the youth. The youth agreed despite the fact that they smelled the deception…. Nevertheless, their youth learned at last that their elders thoughts is far from theirs. We conclude the following: – The Sheikhs of the group were not Jihadi . the youth were influenced by hearing about the Afghani Jihad. The youth of the young men along with insufficiency of their experience and rashness toward the matters without deliberation hindered their effectiveness.” AFGP-2002-800621

Several other primary source notes from AQ’s recruitment in Somalia can be found at this post.

Some will use Ahmed’s anecdote above to support their preferential focus on countering al Shabaab’s narrative (from DC) as the key element for undermining  al Shabaab’s recruitment.  But one must immediately wonder how developing a feel good CVE website and firing out inspiring tweets will ever influence young boys in Shabaab’s training camps – how would they ever even hear these counter-narratives.

The more important intangible (non-pecuniary) benefit offered by al Shabaab to new recruits comes not from its ideology but its offer of opportunity for those young men amongst Somalia’s less fortunate clans.   The article notes:

Secondly, as incongruous as it may seem, Al-Shabaab is credited for eliminating the boundaries created by the clan systems in Somalia.

Hundreds of young men belonging to the Somali Bantu and minority clans have freely joined the militant group.

In the end, the largest reason recruits defect from al Shabaab comes from al Shabaab’s harsh tactics.  As noted by Ahmed in this article and a year ago by another defector, Mohamed Ibrahim Suley, al Shabaab’s extreme violence turns off both their own operatives and their local popular support.  If a counter-narratives campaign against al Shabaab is deemed necessary, the focus should be on exposing Shabaab’s violent ways more than undermining its religious ideology.

Overall, I believe the greatest counter to al Shabaab’s growth will come from eliminating their base of resources (money and equipment) – resources they use to secure the initial recruitment of vulnerable young men.

One comment

  1. In a follow up to my quips above reference expensive hearts and minds campaigns, the USA Today did an article on these issues at this link.

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/story/2012-02-29/afghanistan-iraq-military-information-operations-usa-today-investigation/53295472/1

    I think their analysis of the issue is unfair in many places. The article take a tone of. “We should never have information operations.” This would be wrong. But it does point out my concerns above related to effectiveness and cost.

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