Why they join Al Shabaab

In 2010-2011 I consulted for a US government agency interested in understanding why Somali youth were joining Al Shabaab. They did a storytelling experiment to map the root causes, “driving forces”, or “push-pull factors” copying the method from the GlobalGiving storytelling project. Every young person was asked to tell a story about a time when they or someone they knew was asked to join an extremist group. All stories came from Eastleigh — the Little Somalia part of Nairobi — about 5 miles from the Westgate Mall that was attacked last week.

Later I built a story language visualizer to look for patterns in these stories. This is a picture of the likely reasons:

They Joined For Mixed Reasons

why they join al shabaab - mixed reasons, corrected by no-join stories

How to read it:

  • Common words from stories appear in the chart.
  • Larger word bubbles appear the more often.
  • Words towards the TOP and to the LEFT are also more specific to stories where the person did join than to the 1000+ stories collected overall.
  • Words also found in stories where the person WAS approached but DID NOT join are smaller.

What I see

  • Somalia and Militia are the top two most frequently named influences, but they are not the largest influences (size of bubbles)
  • The largest influences are actions done to them: ‘recruited’, ‘influenced’, ‘promised’, ‘caught’, ‘approached’, ‘persuaded’,
  • The second largest influences are reactions: ‘thought’ ‘wanted’ ‘agreed’
  • This uncovered a major recruitment pipeline overlooked by prior anti-terrorist efforts: jail, bailed, prison, police, sentenced are words that appear in a subset of stories where the extremists recruit from jail in exchange for freedom. Incarceration is a major “pull” factor. Often Somalis are jailed for minor offenses, like immigration.
  • Poverty is a major “push” factor: stealing, prostitution, gangs
  • Religion is less important: religious, religion, sect, madrassa are smaller than the words related to prison, jail, prostitution, milita, and college.

When I presented this at the Global Counter Terrorism Conference in 2013, the patterns of why people join were much clearer than patterns of why people did not join, when approached. What we do know is that of those people who joined Al Shabaab in stories…

  • only 1 in 9 was influenced by tribal conflict, and only 1 in 12 did it for revenge.
  • only 1 in 4 did it for family reasons.
  • only 1 in 3 was influenced by religion, religious leaders, or religious ideas.
  • 3 out of 5 did it for the money. 58% (580 stories) were influenced by being offered a lot of MONEY to fight for Al Shabaab or another extremist group.
  • 1 in 7 (14% or 144 stories) ONLY did it for the money. This was the strongest specific pattern.

So if money is the driving force, the #1 push-pull factor, then poverty is the reason. In the specific case of youth joining Al Shabaab in Eastleigh, Nairobi, Kenyan anti-immigration laws are probably one major reason why joining a gang, crime organization, or Al Shabaab is such an attractive alternative to sitting around all day not working, running from the cops, living in fear of being deported back to Somalia and facing possible death in a 30-year long civil war.

Just thought you should know this. I don’t excuse terrorism, but I do want to explain it. It might come as a surprise that the Westgate terrorists were not crazy religious lunatics; they were behaving rationally given the circumstances and poor choices life had presented to them. They did have a choice in what they became, but crushing poverty made that choice a difficult one. (Would you fight a war for $250,000 a year?) Unlike the 19 9-11 highjackers, I doubt you’ll find any of the Westgate terrorists had college degrees or came from rich families. It’s just my hunch – the facts are not out yet.

Each time we bury the dead victims and go on with our lives and refuse to ask the question of why – we are allowing the root causes to remain. I hope that by sharing this, we can talk about things that will make future attacks less likely and less frequent, such as immigration reform, and a legal process to give livelihoods to the victims of Somalia’s civil war.

What we can do

So what did the US organization do when they learned about the real push-pull factors? They focused less on courting religious elites and more on anti-poverty programs, such as after school sports and community events where dialogue could happen. They looked more carefully into allegations of corruption against police.

And in fact, there was already a local organization in Eastleigh doing these things:


Showing Corruption the RED CARD - GlobalGiving

3 thoughts on “Why they join Al Shabaab

  1. All u wrt abt young kenyans jng al shabaab is treu.
    Some of ths young men feed them selves by chance,&sm hv families.
    Othrs hv threat heart 2their employees especialy ths empld by asians (wahindi) cz of crazy mistreated &apenut payment.
    Ican’t suport this evil, but sometimes we are the root couse. May God help us Amen.

  2. One day you will know why youths join Al-shabaab…..very soon….very,very soon.

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