Will President Uhuru’s latest policy curb jihadist radicalization in Kenyan prisons?

Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has said one of the ways his government will tackle terrorism in the country is by building a separate prison for terror suspects and convicts. According to him, this is a way to curb mass recruitment techniques carried out by terror cells in the country. He made this commitment during the passing out parade for over 2,300 prison warders at the Prisons Staff Training College in Ruiru, Kiambu County.

Clearly, President Uhuru is taking a decisive step to remove radicalization from his country, an issue he believes hinders development. He expressed his readiness to combat any obstacles that may hamper the progress of this mission during Nigeria’s President Buhari’s visit to Kenya last month.

In the past, terror suspects have been placed together in Kenya’s existing and already overcrowded prisons. So, in a way, this move by Uhuru will decongest prisons in the country. Business Daily Africa reports that there are about 110 prisons in the country, which are currently grappling with an increasing inmate population.

Last year, the Kenyan government raised alarm over the recruitment of small time criminals in the country’s prisons by terror groups like al-Shabaab. In May 2015, the Bahati constituency Member of Parliament, Hon. Onesmus Kimani Ngunjiri, told the media that Kenyan prisons were used as recruitment centers for terror groups, who lured youths into their cells.

This, he said, was made possible because most of the time, those remanded in prison for petty offences failed to meet up with hefty bonds imposed on them and so they remain in prison. At this point, they become willing recruits for terror groups who take advantage of the fact that they cannot post their bail. “I have credible information that once they are remanded after failing to raise the bond they are recruited into terror networks. The government should wake up,” the MP said.

A popular radicalization hotspot in Kenya is the Shimo La Tewa prison located in Mombasa, where jihadists freely mix with regular prisoners due to overcrowding. Locally known as Shimo, it plays host to international jihadists, pirates, terrorism masterminds and soldiers who have been court-martialed for desertion. A recruit of the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, British native, Jermaine Grant, is currently serving time in Shimo for trying to fraudulently obtain Kenyan citizenship. He is said to be an associate of Samantha Lewthwaite, aka “White Widow” and is allegedly radicalizing inmates.

According to the Kenya Monitor, Shimo La Tewa prison lacks an isolation block for terrorism suspects, so, they are able to mingle with and spread their ideologies to other prisoners. The radicalisation network is quite strong inside the prison and the perpetrators involved are targeting young, first time offenders for indoctrination. Jermaine Grant is currently named as the radicalization master mind in Shimo la Tewa.

However, those who end up being recruited by these jihadists in prisons, are often unaware of the real conditions associated with the fighting force they agree to become a part of the group. According to a self-confessed al-Shabaab recruit, who joined when he was serving time for robbery and drug dealing, he had no idea what his handler was really a part of until it was too late. “Don’t ask me why, or how; when you are young, broke and barely literate, rational thinking is scarcely your forte — I thought he was recruiting on behalf of the Somali military,” he said.

When he found out what he had signed up for, he didn’t have the courage to question the ideals the terror group stood for. “We were told that Islam was under threat, that we needed to stand up for our fellow Muslims, and that we will all receive great rewards — and virgins — should we die while defending it. That sounded convoluted, but I reasoned that maybe my faith was not strong enough,” he said.

It goes without saying, however, that even if the government plans to build a separate prison for jihadists, what they can do before then, is employ strong measures to enlighten petty criminals on the mode of operation of jihadists who may want to recruit them in prison.

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