Al-Shabaab recruits hungry Somali refugees

Kenneth R. Rosen


In this edition, Al-Shabaab is using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to lure young refugees to fight in Somalia.

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On Sunday, Somalia agreed to move away from decades of clan-based power sharing toward a direct electoral system in which each citizen has a vote. The country will also switch to a presidential, rather than a parliamentary, system with the president and the vice president elected on a single ticket. The first election under the new system is likely to be held by June 2024. But while Somali leaders agreed to make these democratic changes, Somali troops were battling militants from the Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabaab.

Last week, Al-Shabaab attacked Ugandan peacekeeping troops at an African Union base located about 75 miles from the Somali capital Mogadishu. And on May 30 Reuters reported that at least 17 people had died in the fighting between Somali troops and Al-Shabaab militants on a base in a town in the middle of Somalia, some 180 miles from the capital. The United States apparently struck Al-Shabaab positions from the air on May 26 to support both the Somali government and the African Union. Reports also indicate that the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in a recent meeting with a Somali delegation in Moscow promised to provide military support to Somali government troops.

Inevitably, the conflict in Somalia is now influenced by Russian aggression in Ukraine. The U.S. decision to redeploy a handful of troops to Somalia, having withdrawn from the country in 2020, is arguably intended to mitigate and minimize Russian influence. 

In 2015, the town of Bu’aale, in southern Somalia, fell under the control of Al-Shabaab, which Joe Biden’s administration in the U.S. has called the deadliest and wealthiest of Al Qaeda’s global branches. The insurgent group’s annual income of over $100 million comes in most part from taxing and extorting civilians and civilian businesses. 

As the U.S. stepped up its drone strikes against Al-Shabaab targets, Abdi Muraale decided he had to get his family of eight to safety in Kenya.

The family fled across the border and settled into the Dadaab refugee complex in eastern Kenya. A combination of climate change, which has caused terrible drought, and civil conflict has meant that over 110,000 Somalis have gone to the Dadaab camps for food and shelter. Abdi Muraale’s family filed for resettlement and received humanitarian aid rations and medical support until 2022 when the food rations were suddenly reduced. 

“Last year, things changed,” Muraale told my colleague Abjata Khalif, “and we started receiving half rations.” He and other residents at the complex were told, he added, that “food supplies to refugee camps in Africa come from Ukraine and Russia and the war had affected supplies.”


Fighting in Somalia had driven Muraale to flee with his family, but it was fighting in Ukraine that now represented an existential threat. Muraale said that access to food was becoming increasingly scarce and that working inside the complex was no longer enough to pay for what his family needed. In desperation, some residents in the camp and others like it turned to Al-Shabaab, which had begun to recruit refugees across Kenya.

Twenty-year-old Farhan Dahir, who fled Somalia and lives in the Ifo refugee camp, the oldest of three camps in the Dadaab complex, said Al-Shabaab’s recruitment drive was executed like a slick sales pitch. As Dahir sat down to tea with his friends at the camp, he says, they were approached by a “well-dressed, smart young man” who offered the group free tea and cash.

“He told us that Ukraine has decided to send grains and other foodstuffs to Christian nations,” Dahir said. “And that the United Nations refugee agency was being selective and taking food rations to refugee camps with Christian refugees.” It was effective. The persuasive young recruiter, Dahir said, had “changed our perspective, had convinced us of the importance of Muslims uniting.” Three of Dahir’s friends went back across the border into Somalia with the recruiter for “a religious training mission.”

The men joined Al-Shabaab. “The recruiter brainwashed us,” Dahir said. The talk about Muslim unity was supplemented by offers of $500 – 700 a week, more money than they could make in Kenya and enough to afford the food and shelter that the refugee complex was struggling to provide.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked numerous global crises. It has catalyzed a global food shortage because of its impact on the supply of grain, wheat and fuel. Even a deal to resume exports through the Black Sea has had limited success. On the back of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion has led to global inflation and supply chain breakdowns, pushing tens of millions of people in the poorest countries in the world into poverty and food insecurity, particularly across the Horn of Africa. 

I have written about how inflation and the food crisis have prevented Nigerian girls from attending school, potentially pushing them into early marriages. The war in Ukraine is also pushing young Somali men toward bloodshed at home.


Al-Shabaab’s roughly 12,000 fighters have waged an insurgency against the Somali government for decades. A December 2022 report from the Council on Foreign Relations noted that Al-Shabaab “regularly forces civilians, particularly children, to enter its ranks” and that “other recruits join voluntarily, often for financial reasons.” That recruitment drive has even extended to the Somali diaspora in the United States.

The World Food Programme assists 600,000 refugees across Kenya. But inflation — a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in four decades and the strain it has created on procuring and accessing essential rations — is putting 22 million people on the verge of severe hunger. The conflict in Somalia is only adding to those numbers.

“We are doing everything we can to continue providing food assistance to all refugees, including the nearly 100,000 who have come to Dadaab since last September,“ said Sarah Borchers, the head of the WFP office in Dadaab. “But if we don’t secure new resources to meet the increased needs, food will run out much sooner.”

Each of the four refugees I spoke with told a similar story of desperation, which was easily exploited by Al-Shabaab recruiters. Abdi Mantan, a Somali refugee living at the Hagadera refugee camp in the Dadaab complex, told me that he accepted the recruiter’s offer. The lack of opportunities at the camps, he said, the idleness, the harsh weather and the reduced humanitarian aid drove him to accept an offer of $2,000 to join the militants.

The initial payment was meant to pay off debts and to buy food for his family at the camp while the group worked to smuggle him out. “I remember the first thing I did,” Mantan told me, “was to buy expensive clothes and shoes and also 20 liters of cooking oil and foodstuffs like pasta and Grade A Pakistani rice.” 

After Mantan left the camp, he crossed the border to train in the southern town of Saakow in Somalia. But the Al-Shabaab recruiters did not honor the $1,000 salary they had committed to paying him during the nine months he was with the group.

On a surveillance mission to the port city of Kismayu, Mantan decided to escape. He returned to the refugee complex in Kenya, the same place where he had “fallen into the Al-Shabaab trap.” Mantan told me he knew he had made a mistake but felt he had little choice. “They showed me a video of Al-shabaab fighters getting lavish supplies in their Somalia camps,” he recalled. He was hungry, he said. “It was an irresistible offer.”

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