By Alexis Okeowo
MAY 26, 2016
When I first met Ayub Mohamud, he was preparing a lesson for the next period at Eastleigh High School, a boys’ secondary school in Nairobi, Kenya. The school is in Eastleigh, a working-class residential and commercial district nicknamed Little Mogadishu because of the mostly Somali immigrant population there; a good number of the school’s students are Somali or Somali-Kenyan, and many are Muslim. Mohamud, who teaches Islamic studies and business, jogged up a flight of stairs in the school’s courtyard and entered a classroom, where students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one had already assembled for an Islamic-studies class. “Assalam o Alaikum,” he greeted them. “Wa Alaikum Assalam!” they said in return.
“Who can define for us ‘radicalization’?” he asked the students.
“It’s a process by which youth are being brainwashed by the bad groups,” one student, dressed in the school’s uniform—a navy-blue sweater, white shirt, and gray slacks—said.
“It’s trying to change the mindset of a person,” another student piped up. “How he thinks, to make him believe your ideology.”
“Exactly,” Mohamud said, writing the words “ideology,” “mindset,” “process,” and “young people” on the chalkboard. “Though I don’t know why you’re only saying ‘him.’ “ The young men laughed.
As the Somali terror group al-Shabaab continues to recruit new members amid its campaign of attacks and bombings in Somalia (and, sporadically, across the border in Kenya), Somali and Muslim communities in Kenya have struggled to keep their young people from falling under the group’s influence. Mohamud is the co-founder of Teachers Against Violent Extremism, a network of educators fighting radicalization among Muslim youth in schools, madrassas, and community centers. His anti-extremism class at Eastleigh has brought him attention among students and teachers, and made him a finalist for this year’s Global Teacher Prize.
Mohamud, who is tall and good-natured, was born and grew up in Wajir, in northeastern Kenya, a region that al-Shabaab has targeted in recent years. The area has long suffered from government indifference, resulting in weak health and education services and infrastructure. His parents, who are of Somali descent, were born in Kenya, too. “I’ve never been to Somalia,” he told me. Before he came to Eastleigh High School, three years ago, he spent ten years teaching in the north, including at Garissa University, a school near the border with Somalia where al-Shabaab staged an attack last year, killing a hundred and forty-eight people.
In the wake of the Garissa attack and the 2013 Shabaab siege of Westgate Mall, in Nairobi, which killed another sixty-seven people, Kenyans of Somali descent have become the targets of intense suspicion. The Eastleigh neighborhood has seen several forceful police raids and roundups. The surge of Islamic extremism has made stereotyping and profiling worse, Mohamud said: “You are ransacked” during body checks.
To make matters worse, Mohamud said, “There are very few role models, very few colleges in Somali communities. Most teachers came from other parts of the country.” At Garissa, where most of the teachers are not local, many lecturers did not want to return after the attack, leading to a shortage of instructors. “It has paralyzed learning,” Mohamud went on. “When the colleges are few, then you can imagine how many people will take up causes.” Somali-Kenyan youth are not fully accepted by their fellow-citizens or their government; young Somali refugees face an even greater challenge just getting identification papers so they can stay. It is not hard to imagine that they could become alienated and induced to join extremist groups offering money and a sense of belonging.
When Mohamud was transferred to Nairobi, he decided to incorporate a conversation about how radicalization works into his teaching. “You don’t need to give examples,” he said of his lessons. “It’s something they see around them. These extremists are embedded within the community. I’ve seen students disappearing; at times, parents don’t understand it.” He hadn’t seen any students leave Eastleigh High School, but he knew of young people in the community, which has experienced multiple explosions orchestrated by al-Shabaab, who have gone to join the fighting. A leaked 2013 report by the Kenyan Intelligence Agency showed that the agency suspected al-Shabaab of attempting to recruit at Eastleigh, among other secondary schools.
“Radicalization is a way to make people believe that violence is the only way to achieve an objective,” Mohamud told the class. “It could be someone you know. This person can come to you several times. This person can even approach you in the field, when you’re playing football. Day by day, he’s talking to you. What should you do in this situation?”
“Seek guidance!” a student called out. He and his classmates decided that parents, teachers, elders, friends, and religious leaders could be consulted for advice.
“You don’t want to accept dangerous ideologies and then come back to the community and create a lot of havoc,” Mohamud said. “The mind is very important, and it is the engine. But your mind is yours.”
“Who are the targets of extremist groups?” he asked.
“The youth,” several students said.
“Why not old men?” he said. The class laughed, and suggested answers.
“The youth are more energetic.”
“They are easier to convince and manipulate.”
“They have less experience.”
Mohamud asked about the roles that al-Shabaab forces women to assume in the militia.
“They boost morale. You also fight very serious in front of a lady,” a loud student, who had clearly appointed himself the class clown, said. Everyone broke into laughter.
“Is it true that they act on behalf of Islam, or they act on behalf of Muslims?” Mohamud asked.
“What does Islam say about killing?”
“It’s only for God,” a gawky young man with glasses and a wide smile said.
Later, I spoke to Abdihafid Yussuf, the other co-founder of Teachers Against Violent Extremism. “Previously, the role of dealing with violent extremism was left to the government of Kenya,” Yussuf said. “But everyone now is thinking that countering radicalization is the role of each and every person within our communities.” He and Mohamud, along with others involved in Teachers against Violent Extremism, are trying to make the classroom a “safe space” to discuss sensitive issues. The network has trained a hundred teachers so far and is seeking to expand. Yussuf is working with other Eastleigh community leaders and law enforcement to reform policing so that it doesn’t abuse residents. Brutality, he pointed out, often pushes young people in the opposite direction. In April, 2014, police rounded up more than a thousand Somalis in Nairobi and detained them in a stadium. Extortion and forced deportation of detainees followed. In the past, the government has ordered refugees living in the city to move into camps, and has raided Eastleigh, abusing residents.
A 2013 Human Rights Watch report said that police had arbitrarily detained at least a thousand refugees between November, 2012, and January, 2013, including women and children, claiming they were terrorists. The report included accounts of rape and torture. (The police denied the claims.)
Mohamud had wondered aloud to his students if they could resist negative messages on social media. “We’re trying to have an early-warning system,” he told me. Although he has no control over what his students do when they leave school at the end of the day, at least he could challenge them to be self-aware. Through his business courses, he might even inspire them to become entrepreneurs and create jobs for themselves in the absence of government development programs in the area.
“We want to give them that confidence, so that, in the event they are approached, they know what to do,” he continued. Somalis, Somali-Kenyans, Muslim Kenyans, and even Christian Kenyans were caught in a state of crisis, he observed. “If we keep quiet and don’t talk about these issues, there is a chance we will lose these young people.”
Alexis Okeowo joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2015. She is working on a book about people standing up to extremism in Africa and is a fellow at the New America Foundation.