For years, foreign jihadists have fought alongside local Somali militants to topple the internationally recognized government in Somalia.
A United Nations report released last year put the number of Kenyan youths recruited by al-Shabab to fight in Somalia at as many as 500.
The newly-elected Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has categorized al-Shabab into two factions: local and foreign militants.
He acknowledged Somali youths joined al-Shabab for economic reasons, revenge missions and for religious devotion but said they are still citizens of his land and that they should work for the benefit of the country.
He also said his government has nothing to do with other fighters who are not Somalis. He says the only solution is for them to leave.
Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Somalia analyst with Southlink consultants in Nairobi, says the local Somali factions are showing more willingness to negotiate with the new government than foreign fighters.
“You know, if you look at the structure of al-Shabab, there are some fighters who are saying ‘Let’s negotiate with the government since now we are losing control of every corner of the country. Let’s negotiate so that we can have a stake in the next government.’ That’s why there is a rift within al-Shabab,” he said.
Kenyan military spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna says some Kenyan youths in Somalia have defected from al-Shabab, though not many.
“There is information some members of al-Shabab are nationals of Kenya and other countries in the region,” he says. “And amnesty has been extended to them to be able for those who want to be integrated into the society. But as [of] now few of them have been able to respond to the amnesty but most of them are still with al-Shabab.”
Oguna says the Kenyan government has set up programs to help those youth transition back into normal life.
Some of these defectors have been put into rehabilitation centers, while some are also helping the government in providing useful information about al-Shabab.
Sheikh Juma Ngao, the chairman of Kenya‘s Muslim National Advisory Council, says some of the youths were radicalized by Muslim clerics, and says those clerics should be kept away from former al-Shabab fighters.
“These youth were brainwashed through wrong Islamic ideologies which made them want to cross over borders to Somalia and fight, and kill their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters in the name of Islam,” he says. “And therefore we need Muslim scholars with correct Islamic ideologies that shall transform the youth and make them return to their normal position as good Muslim youths.”
Community organizations like the Muslim Youth Center in Kenya have been used to spur development but they have also been used in the past to recruit jihadists for al-Shabab and send them to Somalia for training.
The government has clamped down on these recruitment centers, but the activity has continued in secret.
Ngao notes it won’t be easy for some of the youths to come back because defection can be dangerous.
“If you are known that you want to run away from al-Shabab militia group, they normally kill you so it’s not easy,” he says. “Maybe the Kenyan government and the new Somali government under the new president, they come up with new strategy that shall create a way for the youth to escape the trap of al-Shabab.”
Escape or surrender might be something the government would like to see as African Union troops and Somali forces advance on al-Shabab’s last stronghold, the Somali port city of Kismayo.