NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya has welcomed the return of 700 citizens who had joined Somalia’s al-Shabab militant group that has attacked churches, malls and government institutions, most notably Garissa University College where nearly 150 people — mostly Christian students — were killed last spring.
The return of the Kenya nationals was reported by the Kenyan government, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims and the International Organization for Migration.
“They will undergo rehabilitation, before being re-integrated into the community,” said Hassan Ole Naado, deputy general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.
Some of the returning al-Shabab recruits had quit the militant group on their own; others took advantage of an amnesty the government offered after the Garissa University College massacre in April, in which al-Shabab gunmen killed 148 people and wounded 79.
In September 2013, al-Shabab attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, killing over 60 people.
Kenya has been targeted by al-Shabab largely because of its location. It shares a long border with Somalia. In addition, Kenya is one of the biggest contributors to African Union troops in Somalia.
“I think it is an excellent opportunity for the government to use the returnees as seeds of peace to counter al-Shabab’s narrative,” said Ole Naado. “They have first-hand experience.”
Some Christian leaders cautiously welcome the returnees, while warning that the group was still recruiting from Kenya.
The Rev. Wilybird Lagho, Mombasa Roman Catholic archdiocesan secretary, said religious leaders will need to treat the matter with caution, since the returnees’ loyalty is unknown.
“It is the first step, but there has to be a lot calculations when dealing with them,” said Lagho. “We need to establish if their loyalty is with the community, the government or the extremists.”
At the same time, he said this is a chance for Kenya to get the facts right about al-Shabab.
For several years, the extremists have recruited heavily in Kenya and the returning nationals are just a drop in the ocean, said the Rev. Wellington Mutiso, head of Baptist churches in Kenya.
“I think there are thousands who have been fighting in Somalia. They must be persuaded to return home, as long as there are clear programs to rehabilitate and monitor returnees over time,” said Mutiso.