Two university students, one of them the son of a senior government official, are believed to have abandoned their studies and joined the Al-Shabaab terror group in Somalia.
Mahmoud Ahmed, a second year Bachelor of Science student at the University of Nairobi (UoN), and his cousin Mohamed Abdulswamed, a student at Moi University, have been missing since April 21.
Mahmoud is a son of Dr Yassin Ahmed, a director of the National Museums of Kenya. Dr Ahmed is also a former member of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC).
He becomes the first high-profile government official to lose a child to the terror group that is feared to be on a recruiting spree in institutions of higher learning.
The two students left in abruptly after sitting their examinations and selling their laptops. They are believed to have been picked up by Al-Shabaab recruiters in the city the same day.
Police investigations suggest the duo left on short notice, presumably on directions of a third party, as they left with their wet clothes from the campus laundry lines.
The families of the two have so far reported to the authorities on the missing students who according to the police have been traced to Somalia.
Dr Yassin declined to comment further on the issue, saying it is now under active police investigations. “Let us not discuss it please. It is a matter in the hands of police,” he said.
The development came as the Director of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NTTC), Isaac Ochieng, revealed that students in institutions of higher learning are being recruited into violent Islamic fundamentalism at an alarming rate.
“We have intelligence that there are students within this university who are on the payroll of Al-Shabaab. It is very sad,” he said on Monday at UoN during a presentation on countering violent extremism.
Mr Ochieng said NTTC has names of students who have been radicalised and are enjoying salaries from Al-Shabaab and other militia groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda.
“There is increased recruitment, training and indoctrination of the youth into terrorism cells. These terror groups are now targeting brilliant youths to recruit,” he said.
Police sources said that there are 11 known Kenyan university students who have joined the terror group. “We suspect that there are many more we do not know about,” said a source at the Flying Squad who sought anonymity.
He said the 11 students whom they have tracked to Somalia come from Mount Kenya University, UoN, Moi University and Kenyatta University.
The disappearance of Mahmoud and Abdulswamed came a few weeks after the April 2 attack by Al-Shabaab militants at Garissa University College (GUC) in which 148 people were killed.
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The country was left in further shock when it was revealed that the leader of the gang that raided the university was a young promising lawyer from Mandera. Abdirahim Mohamed Abdulahi, the son of a chief in Mandera, forsook a promising career in favour of the blinkered world of international terrorism.
The attack at GUC came just three days after police arrested in El Wak three university female students from Kenya and Tanzania. The three were on their way to join the terror group.
These examples highlight the intensity with which Al-Shabaab is recruiting from the brightest and the most-privileged in society.
Humble and obedient
Police investigations show that the two young recruits, Mahmoud and Abdulswamed, crossed into Somalia on April 23, two days after leaving Nairobi, thus joining tens of Kenyan youth who are swelling the rank and file of international terror groups.
It is not yet known whether there were any links between Abdulahi, who was felled by Recce Squad marksmen during the GUK attack, and the two young students.
According to family statements recorded by the police, Mahmoud left their South B home for UoN hostels on Sunday, April 19 to stay with a friend. Described by family members as “humble” and “obedient”, he did not betray his intentions when he carried a handful of clothes from home because they knew that he had exams on Monday and Tuesday.
On the night of April 20, he took his clothes to the laundry at the university hostels. He had his first exam on Monday and a paper to present on Tuesday. According to Central Officer Commanding Police Division (OCPD), Paul Wanjama, after the presentation, Mahmoud rushed back to the laundry lines to pick his clothes.
“He picked them while still wet and paid the attendants there as he rushed out. He even left some of his clothes there,” said Wanjama. That was the last time he was seen.
His cousin Abdulswamed, who had completed his studies at Moi University but was yet to graduate, had joined him at the room at UoN. He stayed with his parents in Embakasi.
Police investigators have established that the two young men sold off their laptops to secondhand dealers in the city before they left. They have also discovered that a week before their departure, they mostly switched off their phones and limited their mobile phone communication to their parents and close friends only.
Dr Ahmed started to look for Mahmoud from within his relatives, college, and even in hospitals and mortuaries. Two weeks later, he reported their disappearance at Central Police Station.
Police have interrogated almost 20 people they thought could have a clue on the whereabouts of the two. The matter has since been referred to the NTTC for further action.
Police link their radicalisation to a Sheikh operating from Eastleigh, a city suburb which has long been the recruiting nerve centre for Al-Shabaab and other international terror groups.
Police investigators also say that a good number of the missing students went to Wamy High School in South B. Abdulahi, who led the GUC attack, was a student at the school.
The disappearance of the two marks another dramatic rise in the number of young people from well-off Kenyan families joining international terror groups.
Traditionally, international terror groups such as Al-Qaeda have drawn into its ranks recruits with knowledge in Physics and Medicine. The first category is useful in assembling explosives and ammunition while the second is useful in manufacturing chemical warfare and treating wounded fighters.
It is notable that the first person to be jailed on his admission to belonging to terror group, Elgiva Bwire, was a student of electrical engineering at Technical University of Kenya.
Bwire, alias Mohamed Seif, was arrested in October 2011 in possession of an assortment of weaponry and explosives, including guns and grenades. He pleaded guilty to throwing two grenades in Nairobi and was jailed for life.
On March 30, just three days before the attack at GUK, three young females from well-to-do families from Kenya and Tanzania were intercepted by police officers at El Wak on their way to Somalia.
The three are Ummul-Kheir Sadir Abdulla, a Tanzanian, Khadija Abubakar Abdulkadir and Maryam Said Aboud, both from Malindi. Sadir Abdulla, 21, is a daughter of a prominent university lecturer in Tanzania and was studying Medicine at the International University of Africa in Khartoum, Sudan.
Maryam and Kahadija are both 19. The former was a Bachelor of Commerce student at Kenyatta University while the latter was a Pharmacy student at Mount Kenya University.
The three girls are believed to have been recruited through social media and were on their way to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.
Although the government is putting in place measures to combat radicalisation of youth, speakers at the Monday seminar on countering terrorism at UoN advocated for a root-and-branch approach to the menace.
Prof Michael Chege, a lecturer of Public Policy and Political Economy of International Development, said military interventions do not always work. “We must look at what drives youth to extremism. The push and pull factors must be addressed,” he said.
Nairobi County Commissioner Njoroge Ndirangu said he was not aware of the disappearance of the two students but urged parents to report to the police if their children suddenly develop suspicious behaviour.
He said although the government had issued amnesty for Al-Shabaab fighters to surrender and for families of suspects to report to the authorities, none had come forward.
“Personally, I have not received any surrendering suspect or any family of a suspect. We have sensitised heads of secondary schools to be vigilant but it seems we have to extend this caution to our universities as well,” he said.