Click here to read our latest report “Transmisogyny, Colonialism and Online Anti‐Trans Activism Following Violent Extremist Attacks in the US and EU”

Strange Names in the Village: Online Radicalisation, Social Media Literacy and P/CVE in Western Kenya

Strange Names in the Village: Online Radicalisation, Social Media Literacy and P/CVE in Western Kenya
15th May 2024 Fredrick Ogenga
In Insights


Terrorists understand that the resilience of their organisations does not depend solely on the number of trained members, but rather on their ability to continuously recruit, mobilise and animate fighters, supporters and sympathisers. Therefore, it is critical for stakeholders in counterterrorism to establish collaborative mechanisms and safety nets to prevent and counter violent extremism, both online and offline, in order to foster community resilience offline. When supporters and sympathisers of violent extremism come together, they form a unitary identity, resulting in sub-cultures or communities known as radical milieus. Radical milieus are where culture, narratives, and symbols shape both individuals and groups, potentially fostering an environment that could lead to acts of terrorism. This could be the pattern in communities in Western Kenya, with counties like Kisumu and Siaya increasingly emerging as potential new sites for recruitment and radicalisation into violent extremism. Of critical importance is how recruitment and mobilisation seem to be facilitated online, through the most popular platforms in Kenya (Facebook and WhatsApp) and offline.      

Kenya’s proximity to Somalia presents a complex security challenge due to the ongoing presence of the Somali terrorist group Alshabaab. Alshabaab is a sophisticated insurgent group formed in the 2000s that seeks to create an Islamic State in Somalia. It is capable of carrying out deadly terrorist attacks in East Africa despite suffering major setbacks by Africa Union Forces (Africa Mission in Somalia or AMISOM). The group’s well-established online propaganda apparatus compounds this threat by attempting to amplify its reach and influence vulnerable individuals, particularly in remote regions. As internet connectivity has become increasingly widespread across Kenya, so have concerns regarding online radicalisation. Scholars have warned of the potential for violent extremists to rationalise, normalise and promote radical ideologies, particularly among university students, with devastating consequences perhaps responsible for attacks witnessed locally over the years. This raises concerns about home-grown terrorism and lone-actor attackers potentially using homemade explosives. The high levels of poverty and unemployment in Western Kenya among the youths are also responsible for making them easy targets for grooming. Some, including young girls, have been arrested along the Garissa border trying to sneak into Somalia to join Alshabaab. The youth, mainly of ages between 18-30 years, are driven by false allures of a better life, prospects of good job opportunities and indoctrination with radical teachings of a Holy War.

This Insight explores the urgency of countermeasures in Western Kenya, which is viewed as the new hot spot of radicalisation and a region complicated by the emergence of new mediation technologies such as social media platforms. Therefore, the importance of localised collaborative approaches involving critical stakeholders in the counterterrorism enterprise is paramount. These localised approaches should consider the effectiveness of social media literacy programs in preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) through university spaces. The latter would enable the institution of countermeasures that insulate universities in Western Kenya from being used as soft targets of terrorism attacks and potential recruitment and mobilisation sites. 

Further, this Insight is premised on the contention that modern forms of hegemony are based on the technical nature of platforms that are used to mediate reality, sometimes in themselves products of propaganda designed to change specific agendas on a variety of social activities.  Consequently, achieving societies free of violent extremism and terrorism requires radical technical and political change, both of which must consider transformative nuances. Mediation (through social media technologies) is at the heart of such critical transformations. Social media surfaces have complicated the global information environment, eroded public trust, and weakened societal cohesion, making an increasing number of fragmented audiences more vulnerable to violent extremism and terrorism content. Therefore, it is critical to enhance community understanding of the implications of social media use. This can help decrease the likelihood of individuals being drawn into online extremism and reduce the number of youths ascending to the apex of the violent extremism pyramid.

Social Media and Youth Exposure to Radicalisation

Young people rely heavily on social media platforms in our increasingly interconnected world and are, therefore, especially vulnerable to radicalisation. Given the relative nascency of widespread internet access in Kenya, the youth lack awareness of the implications of uncritical social media use and the manipulative tactics employed by extremists, rendering them susceptible to online influence. Since universities in Kenya have been identified as emerging recruitment grounds, there is a need for youth-centred social media literacy community programs. Universities in Kenya have been central in discussions around emerging forms of radicalisation into violent extremism and terrorism both online and offline and, at the same time, seen as soft targets for terrorist attacks, such as those that happened in Garissa University in 2015.  University students are vulnerable targets of recruitment into violent extremist organisations such as Alshabaab due to socio-economic conditions in the country that make the promise of a better life particularly attractive. Once recruited, these youth are potentially mobilised thereafter to radicalise and recruit others to plan and execute terror activities. This is why it is necessary to develop innovative social media literacy programs to educate young people on the technical, cultural, moral and economic implications of their online activities. Effective PCVE programs should emphasise critical thinking to identify manipulative tactics, promote responsible online engagement, and be grounded in local contexts and cultural nuances.                                                   

PCVE in Western Kenya – A Local Approach

Established in 2014, Kenya’s National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) brings together various security agencies and emphasises understanding the ecological and local approaches to violent extremism and terrorism. Recognising the rising threat of homegrown terrorism, the NCTC shifted its focus to preventative efforts, countering the threat before individuals become radicalised to avoid a more intensive intervention later. This approach aims to reduce the pool of potential recruits and minimise the need for costly military interventions. This is part of the comprehensive action plan called Rapid County Action Plan for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (RCAP for PCVE), which has been implemented in all 47 counties in Kenya since 2014.   

The RCAP for PCVE identifies key pillars for preventing and countering violent extremism in Kenya at the grassroots and county levels. These include: ideology, education, research, online and internet, and more. The aim of the plan is to generate relevant local knowledge and ontologies, as opposed to implementing top-down, securitised counterterrorism measures on local communities via the National Counterterrorism Strategies.  Currently, this ambitious action plan is under evaluation in terms of the challenges and opportunities it has presented so far.

A central challenge is the lack of funding and resource constraints, which have slowed down, if not prevented, the full implementation of various pillars at the county level. In counties like Migori in Western Kenya, local institutions identified as possible implementing partners, such as World Vision, Champions of Peace, Youth, Arts, Development Network, The Peacemaker Corps Foundation Kenya, International Relief Services, and Rongo University, lack the resources to address the media and internet pillar that centres on online radicalisation. The latter challenge has wider-reaching impacts on other efforts, such as those addressing economic vulnerabilities, where potential partners lack the capacity to mobilise resources.      

Strange Names in the Village

Despite the online and internet pillar’s significant role in countering the emergence of new forms of radicalisation in Western Kenya and the threat of domestic or homegrown terrorism, it continues to encounter challenges. In a remote village in Kisumu, a case emerged involving a suicide bomber named Joseph Odhiambo Ondiek, also known as Pope. He vanished in the coastal city of Mombasa for years, only to reappear with a new name and skills to assemble a homemade explosive. Tragically, he used this device to kill himself and his parents in Katito, Nyakach, Kisumu County. It remains unclear how the man was radicalised, but there is high suspicion that it happened online. It is the latter aspect of the National Counterterrorism Plan that consistently grapples with financial and capacity-related hurdles, painting a grim picture of the success of the Rapid County Action Plan for PCVE and, therein, the National Counterterrorism Strategy going forward. Therefore, it is essential to proactively examine why challenges persist in addressing online radicalisation.            

Nevertheless, it is a possibility that counties in Western Kenya might be experiencing a lull in violent extremism/terrorism, and it is only a matter of time before serious incidents of homegrown terrorism emerge, judging by how social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp are being exploited by the youth in these spaces. The youth use social media to circulate misinformation and disinformation, which includes but is not limited to terrorism propaganda. Facebook has also been used by Alshabaab to spread terrorism propaganda by infiltrating independent online news networks to influence audiences. There are observable cases where Facebook has been used to give tips on how to join Alshabaab, where details such as contact information have been provided for those willing to join the terror group. There is a real danger that the youth in Western Kenya are being exposed to dangerous extremist content and being lured to join Alshabaab. The public’s concerns about the growing threat of terrorism in Western Kenya, as well as other parts of the country, stemming from youth exposure to extremist content online, are prompting calls for increased vigilance and robust mitigation measures.”

Conclusion and Recommendations

To mitigate the threat of radicalisation into extremism emanating from Western Kenya online and offline, particularly in universities, there must be a concerted effort to prioritise the online and internet pillar of the RCAP that includes aspects of social media literacy and digital peacebuilding. This should be an effort championed by academic institutions, civic tech companies, state agencies such as the National Counterterrorism Center, and community members. The latter should include youth and religious leaders, local politicians and more. In this context, tech companies can build local capacity and literacy levels about how to flag extremist content online by providing financial and technical support. State Agencies concerned with countering violent extremism and terrorism can provide expert training on these dangers and how to identify and combat them both online and offline. Tech companies can collaborate with governments to establish local content moderation centres, flagging extremist content online. They can also support government initiatives like the National Digital Literacy Program, such as Jitume, to build local capacity for content moderation among youth in educational institutions like Rongo University. In the latter (digital hubs), Huawei is leading the way but other tech companies should join and help expand the scope of the program beyond digital job creation to other digital data issues such as peacebuilding, countering misinformation, disinformation and online extremist content. They can do this by partnering with students and faculties from these local universities. This would create a strong and collaborative platform and safety net for long-term resilience. 

In conclusion, both state and non-state PCVE actors, including the NCTC, Anti-terrorism Police Unit, policymakers, clergy, civic tech organisations, business communities, youth and women groups, regional social media influencers, County Commissioners, chiefs, and village elders, should reinvigorate their efforts to mobilise resources. These efforts require significant engagement through capacity building, publicity, and sensitisation. Online and internet pillar requires active engagement and social media literacy awareness training on PCVE, and deliberate resource-based activities to enable youth mobilisation, sensitisation, training, and messaging in media outlets both online and offline going forward.

Fredrick Ogenga is an Associate Professor of Media and Security Studies and Director of the Center for Media, Democracy, Peace, and Security both at Rongo University. He is also the CEO of the Peacemaker Corps Foundation Kenya, a Senior Research Associate at Swisspeace and Associate Researcher, Africa Studies Center, both at the University of Basel. Ogenga was a member of the GIFCT 2023 Blue Teaming Working Group. He is a Letsema Visiting Research Fellow, University of Johannesburg, Lead, Rongo University AI for Peace Lab, Chair, IPIE’s Panel on AI for Peacebuilding and a SVNP member, Wilson Center, Washington DC. He is also a former UNDP Fellow, Digital Peacebuilding.