Kamilo Mohamed is one of the volunteers from Eastleigh, a neighbourhood in Nairobi home to thousands of Somalis who escaped war and poverty, and which has become a thriving commercial hub drawing goods from across Africa, Asia and Europe. However, its high population of young people, many of whom struggle to find employment, makes Eastleigh a target area for violent extremism recruiters.
"Local mentors are best placed for this kind of work, as it’s easier for them to identify who is vulnerable – who is being targeted, who is known in the local community to have associations with criminal gangs, people with radical views," said Kamilo.
"I come from the same areas as the mentees, so I know the challenges they face," said Kamilo. "What makes me different is I’m doing something for my life, therefore I’m not as vulnerable as they are." Not only does she offer advice and a listening ear, Kamilo also acts as a role model for young people to follow, representing an alternative path.
Following research, RUSI has identified three categories of factors that usually work in combination to enable the recruitment of small numbers of people by extremist groups. There are structural motivators, such as high levels of youth unemployment, political , economic and social exclusion, proximity to violence or criminality, dysfunctional families and poverty; individual incentives, which include seeking a sense of purpose, status and belonging; and enabling factors: online and community networks linked to violent extremism, as well as peer pressure.
In Kamilo’s words, the young people they are supporting "have low self-esteem, they don’t have critical thinking, they can’t make decisions on their own. They are unemployed - which makes them good targets for violent radicals. Most of them come from a low background or ghetto, they use drugs, they’re involved in criminal activities."
The mentors try to counteract the ‘pull factors’ towards violent extremism through mutual support groups and weekly one-to-one meetings. There are group discussions on topics such as self-esteem and self-actualisation, with up to 40 participants. The mentees mostly range from 18 to 24 years old, the majority (around 70%) of whom are male.
Kamilo is one of seven volunteers working in Eastleigh, while another team focuses on nearby Majengo – both neighbourhoods about 10 km from Nairobi’s Westgate mall. The project also supports other volunteers to mentor young people in four districts in Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city. "Each area has seven mentors and five mentees each, so there are around 200 in the programme," said Kamilo.
The hardest part is building trust, according to Kamilo. "It is a process. I am not going to open up to anybody, I’m not going to share my soul with strangers. It takes some time. We share our ideas, our problems - I share my experiences, I empathize with them, so we can be on the same page. We become friends, we talk of more common things, what’s new in the hood…"
Often, the challenge for mentors is knowing whether their message is sinking in, amid so many other influences. "You can have a mentee in a session, talking and sharing, but you know at the end of the day you have to go back home, you have to separate. You know [extremist recruiters] still approach those people in the hood, maybe monitoring their movement in the area."