Jihadi groups have long valued and targeted Muslim converts for recruitment, radicalisation, and attacks. Several reports have indicated that new Muslims are likelier to join violent groups than born Muslims are. The Economist revealed in April 2017 that in Britain, converts made up 12 per cent of home-grown jihadis even though they represented less than 4 per cent of the total Muslim population in the country. In the US, about 20 per cent of Muslims were raised in another religion, yet converts accounted for about 40 per cent of those arrested on suspicion of being ISIS recruits in 2015. In France, Germany, and the Netherlands, Muslim converts are about four times more likely than lifelong Muslims to sign up to a terror group in Syria or Iran.
This trend is not limited to the Europe and the US, as violent groups are good at copying and pasting methods that have worked elsewhere. Extremists all over the world understand their strength with this category of people and have been effective in exploiting them. Yet while exploitation of converts by al-Shabaab is a sustained and growing trend, observers still treat it as a marginal phenomenon, and it has therefore escaped the radar screens of both researchers and policymakers.
One terror group that stands out for taking advantage of new Muslims over the years is al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate operating in the Horn of Africa. The case of Thomas Evans made headlines after the 25-year-old Briton converted to Islam in 2010, signed on to the Somalia-based group in 2011, and rose to the rank of commander before his death in June 2015. Evans was just one of at least 50 British jihadis suspected to have joined al-Shabaab as of 2015. Another recruit was Craig Baxam, who converted to Islam after being discharged from the US Army and travelled to Somalia to enlist in the Islamist group.
Al-Shabaab aggressively recruits from home as well. Elgiva Bwire Oliacha, a former Catholic also known as Mohamed Seif, was given a life sentence in 2011 (six years after his conversion) after he pleaded guilty to taking part in two grenade attacks in Nairobi and admitted being a member of the al-Qaeda affiliate.
In 2012, police in Kenya told reporters that they had arrested some al-Shabaab suspects, including Titus Nyabiswa, who had converted to Islam in western Somalia before signing up. Several firearms and hand grenades were said to have been confiscated from him. In May 2016, Idris Magondu, alias Christopher Magondu, and four others were sentenced to life in prison for a 2010 twin bombing that killed 76 people and injured hundreds at a rugby club and an Ethiopian restaurant in Kampala, Uganda. Magondu had converted to Islam in 2002.
These are but a few examples of converts recruited by al-Shabaab. As the war on the group by the 22,000-strong African Union mission in Somalia has made it difficult for al-Shabaab to penetrate Christian communities and recruit, it has resorted to forced conversion and to detention facilities and schools for its prey. A Kenyan newspaper recently exposed how the group targets helpless inmates alleged of serious crimes, converts them, pays to secure their freedom from detention, and turns them into its foot soldiers.
Al-Shabaab finds it both easier and more convenient to take advantage of converts than lifelong Muslims, for various reasons. Firstly, converts often know little about their new faith and are therefore not always in a position to question its interpretation by a person they believe to be an authority. The group capitalises on the ignorance of these new Muslims and the fact that they were not raised in the Islamic tradition to recruit and indoctrinate them. A UN Development Programme study published on 7 September found that 57 per cent of respondents who had signed on to al-Shabaab or Boko Haram voluntarily were ignorant of Islam, even though 51 per cent of them said they joined because of religious ideology.
Secondly, converts suffer double isolation in most parts of Africa. They are no longer accepted or welcomed into their indigenous communities, nor are they able to fully integrate into their new religious societies. Al-Shabaab profits from this sense of loneliness by drafting these individuals into their vicious circle. This, in addition to converts’ quest for someone to guide them to find their feet in their new way of life, makes them open to anyone who claims to offer a helping hand.
There could also be tactical and strategic reasons for al-Shabaab to take advantage of converts. Al-Shabaab is notorious for its attacks on Christians, and it is easier for the movement to use converts from predominantly Christian ethnic groups to perpetrate such assaults. This is because it is extremely difficult to identify and obstruct would-be attackers from traditionally Christian tribes, as they are less liable to suspicion and can seamlessly blend into their communities. Furthermore, they are more familiar with the internal workings and arrangements of those communities and congregations and thus know best when, where, and how to hit them.
The growing trend of extremists’ exploitation of converts does not suggest that everyone who adopts Islam is a potential recruit for terror groups or a security threat. On the contrary, the vast majority of converts join the over 1.7 billion peaceful Muslims. Thus, the right of individuals to practise and change their faith at will should not be impeded.
However, this threat must be acknowledged and dealt with. It is crucial for researchers, policymakers, and security agencies to invest more time and resources into the causes of the vulnerability of newcomers to Islam and the best way to handle their susceptibility. Mainstream Muslims should engage and educate new Muslims, rather than leaving them to the lure of extremists. Monitoring terror and other high-risk suspects during detention and after their release could also help in this regard. Such steps are necessary to ensure that new converts to Islam appreciate the true nature of the religion and do not fall prey to the dangerous narratives of groups like al-Shabaab.