More by this Author

With a string of Al Shabaab attacks killing at least 18 people in Kenya in August, it is clear that terrorism still poses the greatest security threat to the country, one that is far from abating.

As attacks continue to occur, it is clear the approach to preventing violent extremism needs to be re-evaluated.

In any field, if you want to master your craft, you need to turn to the experts. In this case, the experts are the terrorists. They have created innovative ways to target vulnerable youth, and they are unmatched in their ability sit quietly and observe until they have profiled suitable candidates.

When you hear stories from individuals who had been recruited to organisations such as Al Shabaab, it is not uncommon for them to mention that they didn’t realise they were being recruited until well after the fact. Extremists recruiters are so good at what they do that often their targets really don’t know they have been recruited until it is far too late to back out.

If we really want to get better at preventing extremism, we need to understand why extremists are so good at recruiting in the first place. Also, we need to start scaling back on the widespread, development style approaches currently favoured by foreign donors. Instead, we need to work closer to the individual level, adapting contextually, responding creatively.

Extremist recruiters have known this all along. They understand that youth will reject preaching and lecturing. They know that stories are one of the best mediums to convey facts, or propaganda dressed as facts. This messaging is difficult to counter unless the same tactics are used.


Understanding these narratives, why they work, and how to respond to them, is incredibly important.

Extremist recruiters are social and charismatic, and usually incredibly intelligent. Sometimes they start with religious ideology, but often their slow and steady message has nothing to do with religion.

There is no widespread campaign where extremist recruiters appeal to morals, unlike the programmes funded by foreign donors. Extremist recruiters don’t attempt to sway entire regions or villages.

Rather, they sit and watch, scouting for vulnerable youth who fit the profile of a desirable recruit. So we need to learn how these recruiters profile, and beat them to it with better incentives to help get those vulnerable individuals on a non-violent path.

Currently, we operate on the assumption that extremism is always about ideology, but often that is not the case. Individuals are also recruited because of the money, or the camaraderie and sense of belonging.

Sometimes, it is purely political, in response to a perceived injustice.

When you look at the tools and funding behind programmes from donors such as USAid, DfID, and various foreign agencies, it is exponentially higher than the financial backing of extremist recruiters. In Kenya, there are some truly innovative programmes being implemented, but for them to actually make a difference, they have to be implemented in the same way an extremist recruiter would implement their own agenda.

Niccola Milnes is principal at NVM consulting and has experience in education and prevention of violent extremism. E-mail: [email protected]