"I was Al-Shabaab"

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Ali's voice becomes shrill when he remembers the exact moment when he decided to flee al-Shabaab in 2007.

"I spent one year with the Shabaab, training with them, fighting, assaulting villages,” he said. “Then one day we went to a village whose inhabitants did not want to pay us taxes. They were all massacred. At least forty children were killed. I couldn’t do it anymore. I saw all the blood, those dead children, and I hid and I started to cry. Why do the Shabaab not accept that their soldiers weep? Especially in the face of the dead. If they see your tears, they kill you. That day I decided to run away.”

Ali (a nickname he’s chosen for security reasons) is a 29-year-old Kenyan who was enlisted by al-Shabaab, a Somali militant group affiliated with al-Qaeda, in Kenya in 2005 and was sent to fight in Somalia. He doesn’t remember how many people he killed, but his eyes are bright with tears when he talks about attacks on villages, defenceless people being killed, children massacred. I met Ali on the roof of a building in the Muslim Quarter in Nairobi city that in recent years has suffered several terrorist attacks in which hundreds were killed.



  1. Interview with Ali, a former Al-Shabaab fighter
  2. Close-ups of Ali's eyes and hands


  1. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (00:00) When I was in Kenya I was only still a boy. I joined to become a Muslim. To become a Muslim, they told me many things about Islam, and I joined Islam. They told me about the good things about Islam. After I became a Muslim, after one or two months later they took me to a school to learn about Islam and the Arabic language. They used to teach me in a small “madrasa" in some place in the city.
  2. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (00:34) They provides me with fire, food and shelter. I stayed there around 6 months. They told me the only thing... only my family... they’re not good to me. They don’t have any need for me to stay with my family again.
  3. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (00:49) Most of the youth, they cry because they’re forced to join Al Shabaab, after all they don’t know where to go. They have parents who are killed, no option, they don’t have anything. You must join.
  4. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (01:05) Me, I grew up with a single mother and a single father. There was pressure, peer pressure, because my father was poor, my mother was poor. I didn’t have anywhere to go. Poverty also accommodates a lot in Al Shabaab, because when they see your family is poor and your background is Muslim... They mostly look about your background. They need to know your background good, and they need to understand where you are coming from. They are looking for those who ditch their family or those who don’t have any, to go and follow them.
  5. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (01:40) It was around 2005-2006, that was the year I was there. And in 2006, I stayed in Mumbasa. In 2006 I go to Mandera. I got there and I stayed around 3 months before they look us late at night, somewhere I was not aware I was being taken. They took me to a place which was like a desert. It was my first day. I saw a desert area where people were coming out from the sand and the ground.
  6. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (02:12) For the first time, I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do about that. The training was: you must know about three types of guns. You must know how to operate pistols, AK-47, G-3s. And if you pass them all they give you M60, the big machine gun, automatic machine gun.
  7. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (02:34) Yes, I used to kill, because I didn’t have a choice. Because when you pull the trigger, you don’t where it’s going, ahead. You only go and see people dying. And if they’re not dead, you need to add some bullets into his head or his body, to make sure that person is dead.
  8. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (03:00) You don’t know which man you kill there. Is it a Muslim, is it not a Muslim, is it a Christian? I don’t need to mind that at that moment. Because, they say, when you go there, ‘do everything, kill everybody.’ No I didn’t ask questions. Those were the orders.
  9. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (03:17) And you must follow the order. At first, before you join the group, you must have one child and you must have a real wife. If not, you are not qualified to join the group because when you die, they’ll take your child and teach them. They’ll provide him with everything, even education. That way he will be able to grow and commit suicide, because he wants revenge.
  10. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (03:48) I met her there. She was forced to get married to me. I told you we have women there, most of them are married to Al Shabaab men. Because those Al Shabaab men, they don’t have time to go find women outside. Most of them they kidnap them, others were forced to join the group, in order to make women work in the group.
  11. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (04:13) At the time I married, she was 9 years old. Yes, a 9 year-old girl. Because in the religion of Islam, they say you must marry a virgin.
  12. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (04:24) Yes, I have one daughter in Somalia. Now, I left my family there, and I came back to Kenya to start a new life. The only group we’re going to change of the Al Shabaab, are those in training. In the training, they killed around 8 of them. They died in the training. The only thing I did… They sent me to the next town, because we were going to people there. They killed many children. And I started to cry, and when I was crying, I needed to hide. When we see blood, we try not to cry. They said, ‘Don’t cry. Don’t cry for the dead. Don’t cry for anything.'
  13. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (05:11) When I reached there I started crying. I saw blood, people crying. I saw a lot of children dead at that moment. They were forced to play football not with shorts, but trousers. Women were forced to wear Hijabs.
  14. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (05:27) When you refuse they kill you. I started to plan, for around one week, to escape from there.
  15. soundbite (English)
    Ali, Former Al-Shabaab Fighter: (05:37) When you say Jihad, it’s not only the war where you go to to kill somebody. Jihad is many ways. I can do my Jihad by only talking to people. That is part of Jihad. When I talk to you. Let us make peace. Islam is not a bad religion. Islam is a good religion. Islam is not the way people say, Islam is not Al Shabaab. Islam creates peace. Let Islam be a religion of peace. That is the religion of Islam.