Emerging Discourses on ‘Radicalisation’: an Overview from Kenya

Miraj Hassan Mohamed

[This paper is based on an article “Dangerous or political? Kenyan youth negotiating political agency in the age of ‘new terrorism’” published in Media, War & Conflict.]

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there has been a rise in the use of ‘radicalisation’ as a conceptual framework for explaining individual and group motivations towards violence, or to support the use of violence to effect change. In Kenya, radicalisation made a debut in the political and media spheres in 2011 during the build-up of Kenya Defense Forces military operation—Operation Linda Nchi—in Somalia. The operation was justified as a necessary countermeasure to protect Kenyan national security interests, which had been threatened by increasing al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya, some of which were facilitated by the growing radicalisation of Kenyan Muslims—especially young people—by Somalia-based al-Shabaab and their affiliate organisations based in Kenya. Such arguments on radicalisation draw on youth bulge theories, and cultural approaches which view radicalisation as an outcome of specific identity traits, extreme cultures, and interpersonal ties. These arguments further underscore research that cites the increasing involvement of youth in violent organisations, especially in groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Shabaab, whose composition is almost exclusively comprised of young people. Also, such arguments propose the development of risk-indicator models that encourage policing practices aimed to control ‘at-risk’ youth and, by extension, culturally shape the ‘ideal’ youth. My article, Dangerous or political? Kenyan youth negotiating political agency in the age of ‘new terrorism’ draws on fieldwork conducted in Kenya to critically challenge these existing narratives by advancing two arguments. 

First, I argue that radicalisation is not a stable and neutral framework. Instead, to understand what it entails, who can (and cannot) be characterised as a radical, and when radicalisation can (and cannot) be deployed, radicalisation should be approached as a discourse. The article demonstrates that approaching radicalisation as a discourse allows us to see that there are different ways of describing and naming events and social actors, even if in specific contexts, certain ways of describing events become more privileged than others. Taking the example of Kenya, a comparative analysis of press articles and focus group discussion data shows that press coverage predominantly associates radicalisation with religion. Whereas young people view radicalisation as a concept that is deployed to silence criticism against government policies. Both narratives were manifested by using language in particular ways. For instance, the press narrative often described Islamic places of worship and schooling as ‘radicalisation centres/hideouts for criminals’ and religious leaders characterised as ‘teaching terrorism material’. This attention to religion reinforces the apparent link between Islam and terrorism and morally evaluates Islam and Muslims as backward and intolerant. In doing this, the narrative reinforces and underlines claims and evaluations that are especially dominant in Eurocentric worldviews on ‘terrorism’, especially since 9/11. By overemphasising religion, this narrative obscures the role of bad governance, social injustice, discriminatory policies and violent counterterrorism practices in the growing conflict and it emphasises measures for regulating ‘religion’.   

Besides reiterating Eurocentric claims, radicalisation discourses in Kenya also draw on local narratives and conflict dynamics, and conflate the narratives of age, unemployment, idling, lack of experience, and youth crime with narratives of radicalisation and extremism. This conflation creates assumptions about the danger posed by young people, and the kind of young people that are easily recruited by violent organisations. This view of radicalisation has been used to characterise young peopleespecially young menas ‘dangerous’, placing considerable pressure on young people and forcing them to act in ways that conform to societal expectations. This is not just limited to general mannerisms, but also what kind of activities youth can (and cannot) get involved in. 

The article’s second argument is that the prevailing discourses on radicalisation open up certain policy possibilities while restricting others. The article shows how an emphasis on religion, for instance, has led to increased security patrolling in regions that are predominantly Muslim inhabited. Such measures have led to mass arrests and disappearances of people. All this has been guided by the logic that the Islamic culture is a potential threat that needs to be kept under control. These discourses have also helped create the legitimacy and consensus for the 2016 Religious Societies Regulations, which aim to monitor religious bodies and institutions. The risk of such regulations is that their implementation will primarily target minority religions because their assumptions are already part of an existing framework that discriminates against these groups. 

In addition, these discourses also have consequences on the public and private lives of young people. By framing radicalisation as a youth problem, these discourses criminalise the youth identity while omitting the contextual background within which radicalism grows. The discourse fails to capture the systemic injustices that youth live in. Not only are such injustices related to poverty but are also caused by internal and external policies and actors, including endemic corruption, nepotism, and the weaponisation of youth by elites during election periods to intimidate political opponents and retain power. By strategically framing radicalisation as a problem of identity, this discourse exposes youth to unwarranted policing. For example, while implementing security measures such as stop and searches, youth—especially young men—are more likely to be targeted than other social groups. They are profiled based on normative assumptions about ideal ways of being a youth. 

The scope of my article is limited to analysing a few major discourses on radicalisation in Kenya and their implications. The article contributes by showing that meaningful counterterrorism and Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) interventions need to be more nuanced. They need to take into account the contextual dynamics within which radicalisation arises. Such an analysis will involve a genuine consideration of how the pre-existing systemic injustices and ongoing violent counterterrorism enable radicalisation. The current discourses often veer off from such an analysis, perhaps to avoid destabilising the status quo.

Miraji Hassan Mohamed is a PhD student at the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. Her research focuses on the discourses of ‘radicalisation’ in Kenya and their implications in constructing youth identities.

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