Introduction

This essay reflects on the reintegration challenges in the implementation of the post-2015 amnesty program for returning foreign Al-Shabaab fighters (hereafter returnees) in Coastal Kenya. Based on insights from fieldwork in Mombasa and Kwale Counties, it argues that reintegration is hampered by three key factors: trust deficits, community acceptance, and policy lacunas. Based on the research findings of an APN-supported project, the essay makes a case for addressing the challenges facing the reintegration of returnees into their home communities. In this regard, it advocates for increased community acceptance of returnees, the development of proactive policy frameworks and practices, and the development of deliberative processes and engagements to work with non-state actors and community safety structures such as community policing, risk management, and local peacebuilding.1E. Kioko, “Conflict resolution and crime surveillance in Kenya: local peace committees and Nyumba Kumi.” Africa Spectrum 52 (2017), 1, 3-32. URN: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:gbv:18-4-10198

Reintegration in this context refers to a process of reincorporation back into society drawing on the “establishment of social, familial, and communities ties and positive participation in society.”2G. Holmer, & A. Shtuni, Returning Foreign Fighters and the Reintegration Imperative. Special Report 402, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2017. The establishment of reintegration programs is critical to preventing recidivism of returnees,  reducing the threats of youth radicalization, and building community resilience against violent extremism.3Ibid. The coastal region of Kenya, particularly the Mombasa, Kwale, and Lamu counties which have been a traditional recruitment pool for Al-Shabaab, account for most of these returnees. This region has been exploited by Al-Shabaab for recruitment for various reasons.4 J. Githigaro, & A. Kabia, ‘’ An evaluation of factors pushing youth from Majengo, Mombasa Kenya into al-Shabaab: a methodological and theoretical analysis.” Critical Studies on Terrorism, 2022, DOI: 10.1080/17539153.2022.2048989 These include youth disillusionment with the state and are also linked to the widespread poverty and historical underdevelopment of the region.5F. Badurdeen, “Women who volunteer: a relative autonomy perspective in Al-Shabaab female recruitment in Kenya.” Critical Studies on Terrorism, 13 (4), 2020, 616-637, DOI: 10.1080/17539153.2020.1810993; A. Botha, “Political Socialization and Terrorist Radicalization Among Individuals Who Joined al-Shabaab in Kenya.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 37 (11), 2014, 895-919, DOI:10.1080/1057610X.2014.952511

The reintegration of returnees is a nascent peacebuilding intervention in Kenya. It was introduced in 2015 as part of an amnesty program for individuals who had traveled to conflict theatres such as Somalia after being recruited into Al-Shabaab. The intended aim of this unconditional offer of a blanket amnesty by the government was to provide rehabilitation and the consequent reintegration of returnees into their home communities.6Kamau, “Is counter-terrorism counterproductive? A case study of Kenya’s response to terrorism, 1998-2020” South African Journal of International Affairs, 28(2), 2021, 203-231, DOI: 10.1080/10220461.2021.1924252 In August of 2014, an initial survey by the Kenyan Coast conducted by the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) and the Ministry of Interior estimated up to 700 returnees. This survey had been conducted to inform various stakeholders and governments on how reintegration programs could be designed and implemented.7International Organization for Migration (IOM). Socioeconomic and Demographic Survey of Kenyan Returnees. Nairobi: IOM, 2015; H. Ndzovu, “Kenya’s Jihadi Clerics: Formulation of a “Liberation Theology” and the Challenge to Secular Power.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 2018, 38(3), 360-371, DOI:10.1080/13602004.2018.1523359 Since 2015, there has been a growing phenomenon of returning foreign fighters to the country principally from the Al-Shabaab with estimates of over 1,000 returnees in Mombasa and Kwale counties of Coastal Kenya.8K. Mkutu, & V. Opondo, “The Complexity of Radicalization and Recruitment in Kwale, Kenya.” Terrorism and Political Violence, 2019, DOI:10.1080/09546553.2018.1520700; Also see, R. K. Cragin, “Preventing the Next Wave of Foreign Terrorist Fighters: Lessons Learned from the Experiences of Algeria and Tunisia.’’ Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 2019, DOI:10.1080/1057610X.2019.1568005

It is imperative to note that these estimates may not be exactly accurate given the practical difficulties of identifying and counting returnees principally from the Al-Shabaab. Nevertheless, the 2014 survey identified their needs as including psychosocial and livelihood support.

The Challenges to Reintegration

Trust deficits

Fieldwork results confirmed the existence of trust deficits between the returnees and government security officials. The dilemma here remains whether these individuals, by accepting the offer of an amnesty and participating in reintegration processes, are fully reformed and have abandoned their violent past. This deficit relates to questions about whether they have denounced their past activities as fighters and are willing to embrace a life of peace. According to key informant interviews with security and peacebuilding practitioners, the trust deficit is hinged on doubts about the motives of returnees as genuinely willing to be rehabilitated or still holding on to ulterior motives such as the intention to launch terrorist attacks within the country.9J. Githigaro, “Continuities and discontinuities in radicalization trends: The case of Kenya,” in, The Handbook of Collective Violence: Current Developments and Understanding, In (eds.) Carol A. Ireland, Michael Lewis, Anthony Lopez, Jane L. Ireland. Routledge, 2021, ISBN-13: 978-0367186524 Therefore, risk assessment is a crucial aspect of the pre-integration and reintegration processes. The framing of returnees, similar to other contexts, is that they constitute a security risk. Such framing is further aggravated in media circles.10Katherine E. Brown & F. Nubla Mohamed “Logics of care and control: governing European “returnees” from Iraq and Syria, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 2021, DOI: 10.1080/17539153.2021.2016092 Risk assessment is thus important for profiling risk and assessing those ex-fighters who are eligible for amnesty on the grounds of being “low risk” for community reintegration.

Community acceptance

There is a low threshold of community acceptance for returnees. This is informed by a “dual” stigma at the individual and community levels. At the individual level, perceptions exist that they have shamed their home community by their participation in or support for political violence in conflict theatres. At the community level, there is collective stigma. The views of many study participants during fieldwork at the Kenyan Coast was simply that they did not know how to “react when these individuals return.” Informants confirmed the existence of the dual stigma facing returnees in Mombasa and Kwale counties in Coastal Kenya, noting that the returnees preferred to “quietly” return to their former home communities and would not give themselves up for reintegration. The other option is for returnees to resettle in a different community or town where they are unknown and assume an ordinary life.11Interview with a peace worker, Mombasa, 19/04/2022.q Even in situations where returnees are reintegrated, some believe that they are likely to commit crimes in their communities, further complicating their acceptance. In addition, some community members nurse fears of collective punishment in the event that returnees relapse into their former violent way of life. As this respondent observed:

Returnees pose a security threat no doubt… if a returnee has changed their attitude, and they are coming to build their country, if somebody realizes that crime does not pay, they can be transformed into good citizens… if however, someone lies about their intention to return, they can be a threat to the society…12Interview with a senior security official, male, Mombasa, 11/09/2021.

Some respondents believed their neighborhoods could become targets of security raids, especially in contexts where certain locales have been securitized as violent extremism hotspots. Gaps in community acceptance create opportunities for returnees’ recidivism, returning either to terrorist cells or to conflict theatres. According to field interviews in Mombasa and Kwale, addressing community acceptance would require paying attention to returnees’ safety, given that they may be targeted by terrorist cells for desertion.13A. Speckhard, & A. Shajkovci, “The Jihad in Kenya: Understanding Al-Shabaab Recruitment and Terrorist Activity inside Kenya—in Their Own Words.” African Security, 12(1),2021, 3-61. This is what some of the study participants referenced as a “double dilemma.” The following field excerpt is relevant:

Returnees are targeted by terror groups upon return, there are perceptions that they are also targeted by the state…14Interview with a peace activist, Mombasa, 19/04/2022.

Additionally, they would require counseling and livelihood options, either by way of setting up businesses or skills training.

Lacunas in policy frameworks

A section of study participants noted gaps in the policy frameworks for reintegration in Kenya. Study participants argued in favor of the need to progressively develop a policy or a reintegration framework that would offer a holistic guide on the reintegration process. As this interviewed academic expert opined:

There is the perception that the amnesty program was not done procedurally, as it had no basis on law… it was not even gazetted.15Interview with an academic expert, Mombasa, 09/02/2022.

Those in Mombasa and Kwale suggested the need for a framework that would be a roadmap for the reintegration of returnees. Some participants suggested the drawing of lessons learned from other contexts such as Somalia, where a disengagement program known as Serendi16https://static.rusi.org/20190104_whr_4-18_deradicalisation_and_disengagement_in_somalia_web.pdf (accessed April 4, 2022).existed. The value of this as a peacebuilding strategy would further help with identifying best practices, lessons, or benchmarking, given that this is a growing phenomenon globally.

Conclusion

This essay has explored three challenges impacting reintegration initiatives for returnees in Kenya. It finds that returnees’ reinsertion into their home communities is affected by three challenges: trust deficits, gaps in community acceptance, and policy frameworks. The next section of the essay offers some practical recommendations to address the aforementioned challenges.

Recommendations

This essay makes the following recommendations for addressing some of the challenges in Kenya’s reintegration program.

Community awareness and sensitization

Drawing on field insights, one of the ways to promote community acceptance is to work with and sensitize trusted actors and close community members at the local level. These would include religious leaders, respected community elders, and civil society actors. Such interventions would need to focus on the psycho-social support required by the returnees and the need for social acceptance. Social acceptance is particularly important, as its absence would rapidly close options for returnees.17Juma, M., & Githigaro, J. “Communities’ Perceptions of Reintegration of Al-Shabaab Returnees in Mombasa and Kwale Counties, Kenya.’’ Journal for Deradicalization, 1(26),2021, 71-109, Available at: <https://journals.sfu.ca/jd/index.php/jd/article/view/435 When community acceptance is lacking, returnees could easily relapse into violent extremism. Rehabilitated returnees will also need to have a safe space and forum to share their experiences and rebuild connections at the community level.

Addressing trust deficits

Efforts at addressing the trust deficits would need to reflect on the layers of risk that returnees face. Risk assessment can further be domiciled using community security structures such as Nyumba Kumi (ten households security structure) and community policing, which would be an additional source of support for monitoring returnees at the community level. Moreover, trusted peacebuilders can help with the reintegration journey and monitor their gradual rehabilitation and reinsertion into the community. While security risks are genuine from a counter-terrorism perspective, there is a need to equally pay attention to how to manage and balance the security risks with the reintegration experiences and priorities.

Rethinking policy guidelines

There is a need for a clear policy or a legal framework to guide reintegration processes. Policy guidelines would help the state and the non-state actors with a road map on how to approach the reintegration program. Such guidelines, whether packaged in a policy or a legal instrument, would be useful for lesson learning and contribute to peacebuilding practices on what works and does not work. Beyond the policy guidelines, it is important to progressively address the local structural conditions such as poverty and underdevelopment that can continue to present risk factors for violent extremism.

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