Abdi Hussein Abdi, a 23-year-old former al-Shabaab recruit, sat on a mat drinking tea with a group of young men at the home of a friend. The room was filled with raucous conversation, but Abdi was quiet and occasionally smiled at jokes.
Abdi told Sabahi that he had just returned from Somalia where he had been fighting alongside al-Shabaab since August 2010. He said he was recruited by Muse Hussein Abdi, also known as Deere, with the promise of money.
Deere was an al-Shabaab recruiter originally from Wajir District. He was killed at a checkpoint in Somalia in June 2011 alongside Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the mastermind of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Abdi said the al-Qaeda-allied group he went to support had been outgunned and outmanoeuvred, and had lost favour among Somalis for its unnecessary restrictions and indiscriminate killings of civilians.
In his last al-Shabaab mission, Abdi said he battled Kenya Defence Forces in Afmadow, where they now operate under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
“It was the biggest challenge we had encountered since last October. We were trudging across harsh landscape with little or no food and no pay and facing the prospect of shelling from the air and on the ground,” he said.
The defeat forced him and about 10 other youths to sneak back into Kenya, posing as refugees fleeing war in Somalia, he said.
“When I joined al-Shabaab, we did not prepare for a large-scale offensive from outside forces. We were to fight Somali and Ethiopian forces. But when you are under attack from all fronts, and you are only equipped with Kalashnikovs and rocket propelled missiles, you feel the heat,” he said.
He said the once formidable al-Shabaab movement had become disjointed with commanders and foreign fighters fleeing.
Although Abdi said he has quit the militant group, he occasionally runs into recruiters asking him to return to the warfront.
“I want to settle down, start a family and be a law abiding citizen. I joined al-Shabaab as a job, but for the last six months we had not been paid,” he said.
One of his friends, Jamaa Abdullahi Hassan, said Abdi and a group of friends disappeared unannounced one day. Hassan became suspicious when he had not heard from them for several months.
“We detest the indiscriminate killings of al-Shabaab,” Hassan said. “Now that my friends are back, we hope they are changed and ready to integrate with the community.”
Hassan said he and his friends will support Abdi now that he has come home. They are planning to help him start a new business and turn a new page in his life.
Kenyan authorities ask defectors to seek amnesty
Many youths are reappearing in villages and towns across Kenya’s North Eastern Province after a long absence, a number of residents, government officials and security analysts told Sabahi. The youths are thought to be sneaking back into the country after fleeing the allied forces offensive against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Authorities do not have an exact figure but North Eastern Province Police Chief Leo Nyongesa told Sabahi that hundreds enlisted with al-Shabaab since 2006, and they now seem to be trickling back home.
“Their return is good because they are abandoning the terror group,” Nyongesa said. “At the same time, it is concerning because we do not yet know what they will change into. Security is on high alert and will move to make arrests if we establish they have ill motives.”
Many youths are not coming out publicly to claim they were part of al-Shabaab out of fear, but Nyongesa said authorities would like defectors to come out, seek amnesty and collaborate with the police to provide crucial information on the group’s operations.
Al-Shabaab on its deathbed
Security analysts say the Kenyan recruits are leaving because of the increasing pressure al-Shabaab has faced from Somali and African Union forces, which has left the group scattered and beleaguered by internal conflicts.
Retired Major Bashir Hajji Abdullahi said the youths’ return is an indication that al-Shabaab is on its deathbed after losing many of its strongholds.
He cautioned, however, that while the returning youths do not pose an immediate security threat, the government ought to address the issues that led them to join al-Shabaab in the first place.
The youths from the region who joined al-Shabaab did so purely for money, not because of its misplaced ideologies, he said. Abdullahi said that although the young recruits are coming back unarmed, they have been trained for combat, something that poses a potential threat.
“It is a rare opportunity,” he said. “Instead of alienating them, which could force them to join other extremist groups, the government should keep the youths busy by creating job opportunities or empowering them to be self-reliant.”
David Ochami, a journalist based in Mombasa who monitors militant groups in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, said the youths who are returning have learnt that war is not easy.
“The Somali and African Union forces have not only dismantled al-Shabaab but also its ideology,” he told Sabahi. “The idea of jihad has been destroyed. There will be no morale for the youths to join a vanquished force.”
Ochami said that prospective recruits will be further discouraged to join al-Shabaab once the group is chased out of its remaining strongholds, particularly Kismayo.