On May 16, 2017, a routine Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) recruitment at Mweiga Stadium in Nyeri took a drastic turn after one of the potential recruits threatened to join al-Shabaab if he was left out.
Though Hosea Ng’ang’a had met all preliminary qualifications, he failed the medical test.
Disgruntled, the 22-year-old told the recruiters that he was going to join the Somalia-based terror group.
Lt-Col Paul Aruasa, the officer in charge of the recruitment, said Ng’ang’a had to be taken into custody after he was heard asking around for al-Shabaab recruitment points.
Such threats are not rare, especially among Nyeri youth who are desperate to make a decent living. Intelligence reports suggest that many youths are making good of such threats and joining the terror group.
Security agencies have identified the county as one of the strategic recruitment grounds for Al-Shabaab, targeting jobless youth and, recently, criminals on police radar.
Investigations by the Nation have revealed shocking details of teenagers, some still in secondary school, willing to die as Al-Shabaab militia in a bid to escape poverty.
Some have already chosen a life of crime, which has put their lives on the line, so they are on the lookout for a fresh start, even if it means becoming terrorists.
Tony (not his real name) is barely 19, but he is already expected to meet the responsibilities of a father and husband.
Without formal employment, life inside Majengo slums in Nyeri is hard, and Tony is quite familiar with the struggle. Like many other youths here, poverty has forced him to drop out of school and take on the world.
In this sprawling slum, survival is the main priority, which means doing whatever it takes to put a meal on the table, including getting involved in crime.
So desperate are some of these young people that the option of joining terror groups like Al-Shabaab does not sound so far-fetched. As risky as it is, they say they have few options.
“Life is hard here, man. I do not have a job yet my wife and child have needs. I have to be smart so if you are not careful with your phone I will have to do my thing and steal it from you. That is the way of life here,” Tony says.
For them, the occasional brush with law enforcers is usually a minor setback, easily sorted out with bribes. But in recent months, things have grown tougher for criminals as police tighten operations.
Tony is one of those who have been profiled as hardcore criminals in Nyeri.
“Since the Kamakwa chief was killed, things have been rough. Police are hunting us down like dogs and killing our friends. You do not have to commit an offense. If a crime is committed somewhere, you automatically become a target,” Tony says.
Being on the police radar means having to deal with random arrests, and the only way out is through hefty bribes or battling robbery charges in court. Some who are not so lucky end up dead or disappear.
Tony says on multiple occasions, he and other teenagers have been asked by police officers to leave Nyeri and start a life elsewhere or die.
Fearing for their lives, they are open to any ideas, including becoming terrorists.
“What are you supposed to do when you are told to leave your home. Police have said they will kill me if I am spotted in Nyeri,” he says.
What kind of life is that? I am hunted every day just because I am jobless and trying to make ends meet. I would rather join al-Shabaab – even if I die, I know it will be for a cause. I won’t lie, if I knew where to sign up I would join without hesitation,” he says.
Whether his sentiments are only out of frustration remains unclear, but what is clear is the voice of reason does not matter at this point. While some like Tony are looking for their way in, others have already joined.
Al-Shabaab has used employment and fake sports sponsorships, primarily football, to lure desperate youths to enlist. Investigations show some of those recently recruited were approached either at football fields or schools.
A Form Two student at a rural school in the county was the recent target for the terror group. Nyeri County Commissioner Loyford Kibaara confirmed the arrest of the secondary school student who has since been handed over to the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit.
“Radicalisation is a real problem we are facing and it is happening even in our schools. We are not taking this lightly,” Mr. Kibaara told the Nation.
A few years ago, an eight-man football team mysteriously vanished from their playing field in Majengo; locals believe the team joined Al-Shabaab.
“They just stopped showing up for practice and disappeared from their homes. For some, their families claim they died but there are those who have been spotted in parts of Isiolo. We believe they were recruited by Al-Shabaab,” a local football player who declined to be named says.
Some local football players claim strange Arab men often visit the Ministry of Works grounds in Majengo and Mweiga Stadium in Kieni during practice promising to draft players into top tier academies overseas.
According to security officials, Majengo is central to the terror group’s radicalization efforts.
The slum is predominantly inhabited by Muslims, with most residents being converts from non-ethnic Somali tribes — majorly the Kikuyu.
They are the minority religion in the town and live in dire poverty. Security operatives believe that this is what has fuelled the radicalization.
Recent security reports have shown that Al-Shabaab has shifted focus and is now targeting recruits from non-ethnic Somali communities.
Last year’s Dusit attack was the terror group’s first under the operational command of non-ethnic Somali.
Ali Salim Gichunge, who led the attack, was raised partly in Isiolo and Majengo slum in Nyeri.
When some of the youth disappear, their families never report their disappearances.
Some of those who have disappeared are said to be sending money back home, alleged to be proceeds from the terror group.