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Seeking An Islamic Life In Al Shabaab

Seeking an Islamic Life in al Shabaab

by Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci

Seeking an Islamic Life in al Shabaab is the 112th counter narrative video in the ICSVEBreaking the ISIS Brand and the fourth featuring al Shabaab members. This video features 37-year-old Kenyan, Abu Layth, who was interviewed by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci in October 2018 in a prison in Kenya. The video clip was video edited and produced by Zack Baddorf and our ICSVE team.

“When I was growing up, I can say I was a bit disappointed with everything around me,” Abu Layth begins the opening sequence.  He explains, “I was born in Kibera. It’s a slum. There was like anti-establishment, anti-government, who always view the government as the enemy. Because, you know, in the streets there, people survive on selling chang’aa [illegal things]. So, the police always coming and beating, hitting people. Whenever we saw the police, we used to run away.”

Abu Layth started living his life in the fast lane, and recounts, “I ended up doing a lot of bad stuff. Maybe abusing, maybe smoking weed. Clubbing. Playing women and stuff like that.” Abu Layth married and divorced twice and then realized he needed to change his life.

“I decide to seek divine intervention,” he recalls. “I went to the mosque and started repenting for my sins. I started learning the religion and following Islam.” Abu Layth moved to Saudi Arabia hoping to find a truly Islamic life there, but was disappointed.

In hopes of establishing an Islamic State in Somalia, he later followed his Kenyan friends who had left to Somalia to join al Shabaab. Abu Layth recalls, “I was eager to go and fight and stuff like that.” After his arrival in Somalia, the al Shabaab members trained Abu Layth and about 15 others, including foreign fighters from the UK, France, and Chad. 

Abu Layth recalls the militant training as “hardening,” with very little sleep.“ When the food came, maybe you are starting to eat and they tell you to stop,” he recounts, adding, “The food, maybe it’s in your mouth, you are told to spit it out. You go back to training.”

Now reflecting on what he was put through, Abu Layth believes al Shabaab changed his very psychology. He explains, “Starving and sweating and not sleeping, and basically just messing up your reasoning and your psychology. It’s like prison because they take away your phones and stuff like that.” 

“I think in the training, they took something away from us,” he concludes. “Because you are not resting, you are not sleeping, you are not feeding, you are not cleaning. So, your mind is just racing all the time. So, by the time we were done with the training, I think we were not the same people.” What Abu Layth describes is likely true of all terrorist training and indoctrination—it gets to the core of the person and begins to rob the person of his or her humanity and empathy for others.

“After that, now they take you to the battlefield to fight,” Abu Layth recalls, “so that they can know who really wants to fight for this cause and die for this cause. The people who did not want to go to war were taken away by the intelligence. Most probably they were tortured.”

“I fought well,” he states, but he also admits giving in to the al Shabaab leaders. “It reached a point that I got so tired that I just let go. I’m going to follow these people,” he shares. He reflects now on the changes that occurred inside: “You stop being close to Islam, the emotions. You let yourself go, so that you become just like a robot.”

Abu Layth became a trusted fighter and was selected to join the ISIS emni, al-Shabaab intelligence arm.  He was then sent back into Kenya, where he received funds from an intermediary. His role was to provide logistics for fighters arriving from al Shabaab. He discovered that his cell’s orders were to attack tourists in Mombasa. He claims he felt pressured to involve himself in the attack.

“There’s a club in Mombasa. It’s called Bella Vista,” he recalls. “We had hand grenades. He[fellow attacker] said we should just throw the grenades into the club. So, I told him, ‘Let me try and pass and see if I can pass.’ So, when I was passing, I don’t know what got into his head. He just threw the grenades. I don’t know what happened, but, I think, when he threw it, it hit, maybe, the roof and came back. I was just walking and I saw something rolling on the ground and smoke coming out. And I knew this thing is not a good thing.”

Reflecting on his immediate reaction following the attack, he states, “I tried to dive, but one of my legs was [injured]. I was blacking out. I was losing a lot of blood. So, I took the pins and I threw them under the vehicles that were parked there. After that, I had a gun. I threw it away. I had a phone. I put it into the sewer. Then, I think I blacked out.”

In hospital, Abu Layth received a visit from the Kenyan police, who upon arrival and seeing him called him by his kunya. He had realized at that point that his al Shabaab “brothers” had betrayed him to the police.  Given his severe injuries, Abu Layth stayed in hospital under treatment for another two months . During this time, he was well treated by the medical staff. He states the compassionate care he received by the medical staff made him realize he shouldn’t have targeted civilians in Kenya.

Looking back, he states, “Once someone is hopeless and restless and angry [as we were inside al Shabaab], you know, your reasoning gets clouded with emotions. You cannot make the right decisions.” 

His advice to viewers now is that, “People should learn the Quran and history before they make decisions. So that, once you’re informed, you can make an informed decision.”

Regretting his actions, Abu Layth states, “I ask for forgiveness. Ok, I’ve hurt a lot of people who should never be hurt. I try to get close to my God.  I also want a chance to beg forgiveness from those people.” Whether he is truly repentant or not is still under debate, as Kenyan authorities decide whether to enroll him in a prison rehabilitation program.

Abu Layth advises others not to repeat his mistake, saying, “Don’t go [to al Shabaab]. You are going to suffer.  You can lose your limbs. You can lose your eyes. You can be disabled for the rest of your life. And once you are incapacitated, you are not needed anymore.”

Discussion Questions:

What do you feel watching this video?

Do you believe Abu Layth is who he says he is and is telling the truth of his experiences in al Shabaab?

What do you think of Abu Layth’s militant training and how he felt it hardened him into a person that functioned without feeling, losing his ability to reason well and who basically accepted and followed orders blindly?

Do you believe his intent was to throw hand grenades into the Bella Vista club?

Do you believe Abu Layth was rehumanized somewhat by being treated well in the hospital and being cared for finally after all his time in al Shabaab?

Do you believe he can be rehabilitated to no longer be a danger to Kenyan society? Given his violent past, and provided he is given a chance to enroll in a rehabilitation program, how could that model rehabilitation program look like?

What do you believe should happen to Abu Layth?

Do you believe al Shabaab can function well as an Islamic State?  Why or why not?

Islamic Scriptures Related to this Video

All human beings tend to have sympathy towards others. This point is well utilized by ISIS and other similar groups like al-Shabaab to attract the attention of Muslims around the world to join them. A Muslim is ordered not to destroy himself, as Allah is quoted in the Quran: “And do not cast into destruction with your own hands. Be good doers; Allah loves the good doers.” Surah al-Baqarah (the cow), Ayah No. 195. A human being has only one life to live, then he would be judged in the hereafter for what he has done in this life, so he has to choose wisely, as the prophet (PBUH) advised: “Allah said: Oh my servants, I have forbidden oppression for myself and have made it forbidden amongst you, so do not oppress one another. Oh my servants, all of you are astray except for those I have guided, so seek guidance of me and I shall guide you.”  Likewise, Allah states very clearly in the Quran that he has no need of human actions on his behalf, despite ordering humankind to do good to one another.  Terrorist groups however often state that it’s necessary to fight jihad, to oppress and kill others on behalf of Allah and his kingdom, statements that are negated by these passages from the Quran: “Oh my servants, all of you are hungry except for those I have fed, so seek food of me and I shall feed you. Oh my servants, all of you are naked except for those I have clothed, so seek clothing of me and I shall clothe you. Oh my servants, you sin by night and by day, and I forgive all sins, so seek forgiveness of me and I shall forgive you. Oh my servants, you will not attain harming me so as to harm me, and will not attain benefitting me so as to benefit me. Oh my servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to be as pious as the most pious heart of any one man of you, that would not increase my kingdom in anything. Oh my servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to be as wicked as the most wicked heart of any one man of you, that would not decrease my kingdom in anything. Oh my servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to rise up in one place and make a request of Me, and were I to give everyone what he requested, that would not decrease what I have, any more that a needle decreases the sea if put into it. O My servants, it is but your deeds that I reckon up for you and then recompense you for, so let him who finds good, praise Allah, and let him who finds other than that, blame no one but himself.” Sahih Muslim, No. 2577.

Transcript of Seeking an Islamic Life in al Shabaab

ABU LAYTH 37-year-old Kenyan

Former al Shabaab Member

When I was growing up, I can say I was a bit disappointed with everything around me.

 I was born in Kibera. It’s a slum.

There was like anti-establishment, anti-government, who always view the government as the enemy.

Because, you know, in the streets there, people survive on selling chang’aa [illegal things].

So the police always coming and beating, hitting people.

Whenever we saw the police, we used to run away.

I ended up doing a lot of bad stuff.

Maybe abusing, maybe smoking weed. 

Clubbing. Playing women and stuff like that.

TEXT: Abu Layth married and divorced twice and then realized he needed to change his life.

I decide to seek divine intervention.

I went to the mosque and started repenting for my sins.

I started learning the religion and following Islam.

TEXT: Abu Layth moved to Saudi Arabia hoping to find a truly Islamic life there but was disappointed.

I was like, ‘This is not the right place to be.’

Then I contacted my friends in Somalia and I went to Somalia.

I was eager to go and fight and stuff like that.

TEXT: After his arrival in Somalia, the al Shabaab members trained Abu Layth and about 15 others including foreigners from the UK, France, and Chad. 

The timetable was saying we have to wake up at 4 a.m., but sometimes we wake up at 3 am., at 2 a.m.

Sometimes we don’t sleep at all.

It was just hardening.

When the food came, maybe you are starting to eat and they tell you to stop.

The food, maybe it’s in your mouth, you are told to spit it out.

You go back to training.

Starving and sweating and not sleeping and basically just messing up your reasoning and your psychology.

It’s like prison because they take away your phones and stuff like that.

I think in the training, they took something away from us.

Because you are not resting, you are not sleeping, you are not feeding, you are not cleaning.

So your mind is just racing all the time.

So, by the time we were done with the training, I think we were not the same people.

After that, now they take you to the battlefield to fight

so that they can know who really wants to fight for this cause and die for this cause.

The people who did not want to go to war were taken away by the intelligence.

Most probably they were tortured.

I fought well.

It reached a point that I got so tired that I just let go.

 I’m going to follow these people.

You stop being close to Islam, the emotions.

You let yourself go, so that you become just like a robot.

So, after we completed training, they called us and told us to come to Kenya.

We walked for, I think, 22 days.

TEXT: Abu Layth received funds from an intermediary. His role was to provide logistics for fighters arriving from al Shabaab.

TEXT: Abu Layth discovered that the cell’s orders were to attack tourists in Mombasa. He felt pressured to involve himself in the attack.

There’s a club in Mombasa. It’s called Bella Vista.

We had hand grenades. He said we should just throw the grenades into the club.

So I told him, ‘Let me try and pass and see if I can pass.’

So when I was passing, I don’t know what got into his head.

He just threw the grenades.

I don’t know what happened,

but, I think, when he threw it, it hit, maybe, the roof and came back.

I was just walking and I saw something rolling on the ground and smoke coming out.

And I knew this thing is not a good thing.

I tried to dive, but one of my legs was [injured].

I was blacking out. I was losing a lot of blood.

So I took the pins and I threw them under the vehicles that were parked there.

After that, I had a gun. I threw it away.

I had a phone. I put it into the sewer.

Then, I think I blacked out.

After maybe a week in hospital, the police came.

TEXT: After being treated kindly in the hospital for two months and learning that the other al Shabaab cadres had ratted him out, Abu Layth realized he shouldn’t have targeted civilians in Kenya.

I told them, ‘I’ll just cooperate with you.’

Once someone is hopeless and restless and angry [as we were inside al Shabaab], 

you know, your reasoning gets clouded with emotions.

You cannot make the right decisions. 

People should learn the Quran and history before they make decisions.

So that, once you’re informed, you can make an informed decision.

 I ask for forgiveness.

Ok, I’ve hurt a lot of people who should never be hurt.

I try to get close to my God. 

I also want a chance to beg forgiveness from those people.

Don’t go [to al Shabaab].

You are going to suffer. 

You can lose your limbs. You can lose your eyes. You can be disabled for the rest of your life.

And once you are incapacitated, you are not needed anymore.

The Truth Behind al Shabaab

Sponsored by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism

www.ICSVE.org

See more at www.TheRealJihad.org

About the authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=169) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College. 

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