This study is based on interviews with former al-Shabaab fighters. It identified a complex array of reasons for why they joined the organisation. Interviewers developed a profile of typical al-Shabaab recruits and identified factors facilitating their recruitment, including religious identity, socioeconomic circumstances (education, unemployment), political circumstances and the need for a collective identity and a sense of belonging.
The paper aims to explain radicalisation from the perspective of individual, self-professed members of al-Shabaab. It explains radicalisation in terms of the broad political socialisation process rather than from the perspective of a single root cause, or conditions conducive to terrorism that, although useful, are too broad.
- While radicalisation can occur over a long period of time, affecting not just individuals, but entire populations, often a single event or catalyst finally completes the radicalisation process. Such a catalyst is seen as relevant to a particular situation and can occur on the micro or macro levels, or can cover both.
- Whatever the case, it is traditionally an extreme or volatile event. When asked to indicate what finally ‘pushed’ them to join al-Shabaab, the majority of interviewees (39%) referred to economic reasons specifically or in combination with other circumstances, while 20% referred to the persecution of Muslims in places such as Iraq and Palestine, the presence of ‘infidels’ in Somalia, and the protection of Islam. A further 11% indicated that they were forced to join al-Shabaab or did so out of fear.
- Joining an organisation is the first step; a more important issue is why members stay. Although economic circumstances were a prominent reason for joining the organisation, findings indicate that a sense of belonging and responsibility were the main reasons why interviewees stayed in al-Shabaab.
- When asked whether they had any regrets about their links with al-Shabaab, the majority of interviewees (42%) indicated that their greatest regret was joining al-Shabaab and getting caught by AMISOM and the Somali authorities. Together with the 19% who indicated that their greatest regret was getting caught and another 5% who regretted not having recruited more people to al-Shabaab, this indicates that interviewees were more socialised into the organisation than at first seemed apparent. The 33% of interviewees whose greatest regret was joining al-Shabaab joined for personal reasons while not committing themselves to its ideals.
Recommendations to the Somali government and security forces include:
- Intelligence-led operations: The security forces should both develop intelligence assets among the public and use technology in the form of ground radar and sensors, aerial reconnaissance (through unmanned aerial vehicles) and the interception of communications.
- Transferring authority from the military to the police: Successful counter-insurgency operations require authority to be transferred to a civilian government and the police as soon as possible. The police are better equipped to deal with insurgents in an urban setting (supported by the military) and in ‘liberated’ areas generally.
Recommendations to donors and external organisations include:
- Consider using the concept of clan security when hiring local staff. If a staff member is considered to be vulnerable, he/she could be asked to bring his/her clan elder or an influential clan or family member who would be responsible for the staff member’s future actions.
- Support an inclusive nation-building process, e.g. create opportunities for national dialogue initiatives that bring clan leaders together at the national and regional levels to debate, make recommendations and agree on critical matters affecting the country.