Lessons Learned from Student-led Initiatives to Prevent Violent Extremism in Kenyan Universities

Kirill Nikitin / Alamy Stock Photo

This Policy Brief is a summary of the key lessons learned from a preventing/countering violent extremism (P/CVE) project in Kenyan universities. The brief offers recommendations for similar youth- or student-led interventions in a university setting.


Universities can be attractive to violent extremist organisations (VEOs) as sites of potential radicalisation and recruitment. 1 Historically, violent extremist (VE) groups have considered universities as sites that can provide recruits with specialised technical skillsets typically not offered by generic recruits or so-called ‘foot soldiers’. VEOs also identify learning institutions as targets for recruitment because of their ‘transitionary, permissive, biographical, secular and socialization space’. 2 In Kenya, concerns emerged that universities were being taken advantage of for recruitment to the East Africa Al-Qa’ida affiliate Al-Shabaab following the 2015 terror attack at Garissa University. The attack led to the death of 148 people, mostly students, and caused deep trauma at the university and in the surrounding environment. In the aftermath of the attack, investigations revealed that one of the attackers was a former university student. From April 2015 onwards, reports that university students were being recruited to VE groups began to emerge. 3 However, despite this situation, remarkably few preventing/countering violent extremism (P/CVE) projects were undertaken in Kenyan universities to reduce the risk of VE recruitment.

At present, however, a limited yet expanding body of literature is emerging in Kenya and globally on the role of education in P/CVE efforts. 4 Evidence suggests that education interventions are likely to create resilience capacities that prevent or suppress terrorism ideologies. 5 In light of this, RUSI Nairobi received support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the Netherlands to deliver two iterations of such initiatives. This Policy Brief is a summary of the key lessons learned from the project and provides recommendations for similar youth- or student-led interventions in a university setting.


In 2019, the Dutch MFA-funded project led by RUSI Nairobi was initially implemented in two universities with the aim of undertaking research to understand the nature of radicalisation and recruitment into VE, and supporting students to design, lead and own VE prevention activities in response to the research findings.

A year later, the second phase of the project – which focused on addressing key learnings and thematic findings from the initial phase 6 – expanded the geographical scope of the project, resulting in the addition of two further universities. 7 The universities were selected based on recommendations from Kenya’s National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) – the lead agency mandated to drive the P/CVE agenda in the country – and open-source research, including a desk review of media reports and other publicly available information. Consultations and research were critical in providing evidence of students’ radicalisation and recruitment into VE groups, informing meaningful university selection. Substantial evidence of VE-related activities, including radicalisation and recruitment, was particularly noted in nine Kenyan universities. However, due to budget considerations and advice from the NCTC, the project was implemented in only four universities. This Policy Brief therefore highlights policy insights derived from implementing the P/CVE project in these four universities.

Methodology and Limitations

This Policy Brief is based on project-generated data, as opposed to standalone research, with a focus on sharing lessons learned from the implementation of the VE prevention project in Kenyan universities. The collection of project-relevant data was undertaken at two levels. The first level entailed assessing student-led VE prevention activities against their own set targets to determine whether the project was implemented as planned. The second level of data collection involved assessing the extent to which student-led projects contributed to the achievement of the intermediate outcomes and impacts. The process was largely iterative and adaptive, involving a mixed methods approach. A quantitative semi-structured survey was shared with project participants at the start and end of project implementation. Conceivably, data collected using this approach could face challenges in demonstrating attribution because of self-reporting. However, mechanisms for building trust and rapport were instituted to promote accurate reporting and reduce non-response and social desirability bias. Additionally, 16 focus group discussions were held with participating students and their peers, with each group discussion capped at between six and eight participants to ensure any form of bias due to dominance was reduced. A total of 24 key informant interviews with staff and faculty members who had interacted with the project were also conducted.

Project Approach

Overall, supported students were trained in VE prevention methods and approaches before project implementation. 8 They were particularly trained in VE concepts, radicalisation trends, drivers of VE recruitment, and roles of different actors on P/CVE in Kenya. The government partner, NCTC, delivered a component on ‘how to act in an active shoot-out situation’ with the objective of promoting students’ situational awareness in the event of an attack. Based on the learnings from the training and students’ own agency, students developed and implemented a wide range of activities and materials, including: a sporting event; inter-religious dialogues and debates; cultural events and P/CVE social media content; and P/CVE materials such as posters and banners carrying messages of peace, harmony and religious tolerance. In some universities, students formed and registered P/CVE clubs and associations. However, it is worth noting that the project had to navigate some challenges, including implementation delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated containment measures, as well as student, faculty and staff strikes. Crucially, these challenges were mitigated by the team through its adaptable phased project implementation approach.

Student-led projects encouraged inclusion and tolerance by incorporating learners from diverse backgrounds in respect of gender, religion, academic discipline and place of lodging – on versus off campus. Ensuring gender diversity was particularly important for making female students feel comfortable to participate and share information relevant to the success of the project. Despite this, the number of female students participating in the project was slightly lower than that of male students, due to the design of some activities that appealed more to the latter. 9 Thus, one of the lessons learned related to the inclusion and involvement of female students from the design stage of a project, to ensure that their needs and interests are considered from the outset. Supported students also ensured diversity in religion among participants in order to promote buy-in and enhance the reach of student-led activities within the university. In Kenyan universities, religious student groups form an integral part of university life, including through connecting students to communities outside the university.

The project also ensured that supported students came from diverse academic disciplines, including political science, engineering-related courses, medical sciences, literature studies, business and finance. This was critical because, traditionally, students with social sciences orientation are more likely than those from other backgrounds to respond and engage in P/CVE subjects. Furthermore, students with a social science background often have difficulties reaching out to those undertaking engineering or other ‘technical’ disciplines. Intentionally targeting students from different faculties, therefore, encouraged supported students to connect with others, fostering greater cross-disciplinary engagement. The inclusion of students pursuing engineering-related disciplines was informed by evidence suggesting that a disproportionate share of individuals who engage in VE activities in Kenya 10 and elsewhere have engineering backgrounds. 11

The project also ensured that students living both on and off campus were supported and reached by project interventions. This deliberate targeting was informed by the need for the project to address contextual and environmental factors influencing individuals’ vulnerability to VE. Noémie Bouhana’s seminal work on the ‘moral ecology of extremism’ particularly notes that an individual’s propensity to develop extremism or crime-promoting behaviour is contextual, as it is influenced by their constant interactions with their environment. In Kenya, reports suggest that some university students joined VE groups because they lived in environments known for VE activities. 12 The project contracted intermediaries – university personnel – at each university to support students during the implementation and sharing of project output data for real-time learning and adaptation. However, it became clear over the course of the project that the role of intermediaries was dependent on individuals. Some intermediaries were either too busy or not committed enough to the project, causing delays in achieving project deliverables.

In project delivery, informal outreach, such as sporting events and mountain hikes, was more effective than traditional approaches, such as structured lectures. Informal outreach created more opportunities for dynamic and meaningful engagements, promoted empowerment and guided conversations towards areas of interest, as such strengthening the relevance of activities. 13

Several challenges were experienced, including slowness of universities’ bureaucracies in issuing approvals to register P/CVE clubs, the limited capacity of students to manage projects and finances, and difficulties in managing time between project and academic work by some students, particularly during examination periods. Covid-19 and its associated restrictions also disrupted university calendars, causing delays in project implementation. Finally, in some universities, students deviated from the objectives of the project during implementation and placed significant emphasis on how to act in the event of an attack. This redirected much of the students’ resources – money and time – from the project’s core VE prevention activities.


Entrenching P/CVE in student-led projects: Empowering students to lead P/CVE efforts is crucial to building resilience against VE in university settings. Through student-led activities, students demonstrated a high level of ingenuity and innovation, and of responsibility in designing and leading activities that raised awareness of VE issues in their universities. In some instances, students’ groups leveraged their associations to increase the reach of the project’s messages and awareness of its interventions. Religious associations in Kenyan universities are viewed by students as trusted and reliable. Layering of P/CVE interventions with other ongoing initiatives at universities, especially with ‘organised’ groups, offered an opportunity to promote project sustainability. The project’s data showed that where VE prevention efforts would have contributed to resilience, linking P/CVE interventions with other initiatives at the universities would serve as a natural next step. Critically, students were keen to embed P/CVE interventions into their responses to their lived experiences and other pressing issues, such as mental health, alcohol and drug abuse, and sexual violence.

Raising awareness of VE-related issues in a university setting: Student-led projects succeeded in improving students’ knowledge of VE groups operating in Kenya. From the discussions with students, a majority were able to identify a wider range of VEOs, such as Al-Shabaab, Al-Qa’ida, Islamic State and Al-Hijra, towards the end of the project. The project intervention contributed to a considerable number of students recognising Al-Hijra – a historic Kenyan franchise of Al-Shabaab – that has been linked to VE activities in the country. In spite of this, some students conflated VE groups with those engaging in criminality and political violence. 14 This finding implies that there is still a need for capacity building and training activities to strengthen students’ understanding of VE as detailed in Kenya’s P/CVE frameworks and legislation. Further to this, projects in universities need to consider the local meaning of VE and how issues are portrayed in the media, and the fact that the violence is associated with many different groups. This finding is corroborated by a study in Kenya that notes that ‘individuals interpret and give meaning to violent extremism based on their attribution of feelings, emotions, intentionality, experiences, and beliefs to each other’. Evidently, talking about these issues openly and deliberately is an important step in engendering learning.

Improving relations between student and staff: The initial phase of the project noted that poor student–staff relations could be a potential driver of VE in a university setting. Early literature in the P/CVE space, particularly on the frustration–aggression hypothesis, suggests that any form of frustration – whether from real or perceived wrongs – can, if left unattended, lead to instances of aggression, including culminating in acts of violence and terrorism. Project-generated data during the second phase established that student–staff relations had improved, especially outside the classroom, and that this was partly attributable to student-led activities, such as sporting and cultural events, which brought improved relations: both horizontally among students and vertically between students and staff/faculty.

Interfaith dialogue within the university community: Several interfaith dialogues were conducted in all four universities – some were initiated by the students, and others by the project-engaged coordinators. Project data showed that the interfaith dialogue contributed to open interactions and relationships between Christian and Muslim students. Religious leaders, who were vetted by the university administration, were highly knowledgeable and fluent in religious matters. They were specifically able to infuse broader societal and structural issues that are complementary to preventing VE in universities into their religious teachings. However, given the complexities of discussing religious matters in areas known for VE activities, there is a need for P/CVE projects with an interfaith component to vet religious leaders to determine their credibility, their understanding of religious matters, and their knowledge of current affairs, socioeconomic problems and other local grievances. Critically, a large literature shows that VE is not entirely a religious or ideological issue but can be a product of many factors – structural issues, opportunism and even threats and coercion.

Increased capacity to lead P/CVE projects: Evaluation data showed that student-led activities helped supported students to build their capacities to implement P/CVE projects in a university setting. Students particularly showed competence in understanding drivers of VE, as well as in proposal writing, project management and reporting. Despite these positives, this evaluation determined that students were not able to effectively frame the language and determine the operable parameters that are necessary for engaging with fellow students. Evidently, students struggled to draft the objectives of their P/CVE clubs. Thus, they frequently failed to acquire administrative approvals for the draft constitutions of their clubs. Terminologies used by students largely applied to counterterrorism, rather than to the P/CVE space. The need to further support students in the process of developing clubs and associations emerged.

Key Recommendations

With the findings identified, the project puts forward several actionable recommendations for future iterations of similar interventions.

P/CVE practitioners are recommended to:

  • Let students lead. Allowing students to truly own and lead VE prevention activities is crucial for successful implementation. Student-led activities were found to be more productive and impactful, and resonated better with the target audience than those controlled – partly or wholly – by faculty or administration.
  • Focus on prevention. The emphasis of student-led projects on complex prevention issues such as cohesion and religious tolerance should be maintained. While students must know what to do in the event of an attack, this should not be the focus of interventions.
  • Build on existing efforts and structures. The capacity of students to set up P/CVE clubs and associations in a manner that contextualises the sensitivities of P/CVE in a university setting should be built. This would provide clarity of interpretation of VE terms, enhance the capacity of students to translate knowledge into VE awareness-raising interventions and, more importantly, ensure ownership and sustainability. Furthermore, there is a need to encourage students, staff and external actors to continue organising activities through established structures to enhance cooperation, collaboration, and more importantly, linking students to livelihood opportunities.
  • Ensure gender commitments. Recognise that male and female students may not lead or participate in the same activities or even be in the same spaces. From the outset, student projects need to develop clearer targets for the inclusion of women and girls in project leadership and participation.
  • Phase the approach. Phased implementation would help manage and navigate both foreseen events and unforeseen occurrences. This approach ensures effective monitoring and evaluation and creates opportunities for continuous feedback.
  • Governance and leadership are key. It is crucial to continuously adapt and innovate mechanisms for managing difficult or uncooperative project intermediaries. Carefully elaborating selection criteria, and following up on these, would help in recruiting the right personnel to work as intermediaries in supporting student-led activities.

Donors, governments and universities are recommended to:

  • Support informal outreach engagements. Informal approaches to outreach create the greatest impact and opportunities for dynamic and meaningful engagement. Outdoor engagements, which are relevant, enjoyable and interesting, should be facilitated in order to gather a wider spectrum of audience and guide conversation towards areas of interest.
  • Support students to use social media platforms responsibly. Social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp are popular among university students and provide opportunities for sharing messages to a wider targeted audience. The students, however, have limited training in how to facilitate online conversations, how to redirect conversations towards the key topic and how to avoid the risk of platforms being used for other purposes that can divert the focus and potentially harm the project.


Despite the dearth of P/CVE projects in Kenya and globally where students can learn how to design and implement their own VE prevention activities, project data showed that student-led activities increased awareness of VE issues in universities, thereby contributing to the reduction in their vulnerability to the risk of radicalisation and recruitment into VE groups. More importantly, the project has contributed to the evidence base and practical experience that supports the implementation of contextually appropriate and locally owned student-led P/CVE initiatives. This is critical because much P/CVE work in Kenya is perceived to be imposed from the outside, and as ignoring local reality and lived experiences. 15 This Policy Brief notes that lessons learned from this project demonstrate that stakeholders interested in conducting P/CVE work in university settings are well placed to address widespread perceptions that P/CVE programming is an external imposition, rather than a product of locally led agendas inspired by students’ lived experiences.


Timothy Kimaiyo

Project Assistant

RUSI Nairobi

View profile

Khadija Suleiman

Mentorship Manager

RUSI Nairobi

View profile

Martine Zeuthen

Associate Fellow - Quality Assurance

View profile


See, for example, Tania Saeed and David Johnson, ‘Intelligence, Global Terrorism and Higher Education: Neutralising Threats or Alienating Allies?’, British Journal of Educational Studies (Vol. 64, No. 1, 2016), pp. 37–51.
Fatuma A Ali, ‘Understanding the Role of Gender Relations in Radicalising and Recruiting Young Muslim Women in Higher Learning Institutions in Kenya’, The African Review: A Journal of African Politics, Development and International Affairs (Vol. 45, No. 1, June 2018), p. 70.
See, for example, Cyrus Ombati and Kipchumba Some, ‘Parents’ Agony as Two Students Join Al-Shabaab’, The Standard, 5 July 2015, <https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/Kenya/article/2000168047/parents-agony-as-two-students-join-al-shabaab>, accessed 5 November 2023.
See, for example, Besa Arifi, ‘Education in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism: Considerations for the Western Balkans’, Resolve Network Policy Note, September 2022, <https://resolvenet.org/system/files/2022-12/RSVE_PolicyNote_WB_Educations__Arifi.pdf>, accessed 5 November 2023.
UNESCO’s Preventing Violent Extremism Through Education notes that education initiatives are mid- to long-term prevention strategies that equip learners with the skills necessary to ‘challenge ideologies, myths, conspiracy theories and exclusionary world views often at the base of violent extremism’. UNESCO, Preventing Violent Extremism Through Education: A Guide for Policy-makers (Paris: UNESCO, 2017), p. 69.
Key learnings included that there was: a lack of awareness of VE threat on university campuses; inadequate in-university spaces for students to engage in greater inter-religious dialogue; fraught relations between staff and students that limited space for raising concerns and identifying solutions together; and university environments providing limited space – literal and figurative – for debate on critical issues.
The names and identifying information about the four universities that participated in the two phases of the project have been withheld for ethical and security reasons.
The use of the term ‘supported students’ is based on the fact that participating students were renumerated and supported financially for participating in the project’s activities, and that they received training and guidance, including training in the initial stages of implementation on how to conduct their proposed activities.
The proportion of male versus female student participation in the project was 55% and 45%, respectively.
In 2020, Kenya’s Interior Minister revealed that ‘some of the terrorists involved in past attacks were studying law and engineering in local universities’. See People Daily, ‘Matiang’i Reveals Al Shabaab Recruitment Centres’, 7 January 2020, <https://www.pd.co.ke/news/matiangi-reveals-al-shabaab-recruitment-centres-18976/>, accessed 5 November 2023. In addition, Shaykh Ahmad Iman Ali, the founder of the Al-Hijra group (formerly the Muslim Youth Centre) – Al-Shabaab’s affiliate in Kenya – studied on an engineering course at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. See Nyambega Gisesa, ‘The Final Curtains on Controversial Muslim Youth Centre’, The Standard, 21 September 2014, <https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/lifestyle/article/2000135687/thefinal-curtains-on-controversial-muslim-youth-centre>, accessed 5 November 2023.
Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog argue in Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education that engineering students, as distinct from those from other disciplines, are more likely to self-select and join VE groups because of their personalities and the way they interact in groups, whereas social scientists are largely absent from such groups. See Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education (New Haven, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).
See Fredrick Nzes, ‘Al-Hijra: Al-Shabab’s Affiliate in Kenya’, CTC Sentinel (Vol. 7, No. 5, May 2014), pp. 24–26, <https://ctc.westpoint.edu/al-hijra-al-shababs-affiliate-in-kenya/>, accessed 5 November 2023.
Similar findings have been established in other youth programming. See, for example, Anne Aly, Elisabeth Taylor and Saul Karnovsky, ‘Moral Disengagement and Building Resilience to Violent Extremism: An Education Intervention’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (Vol. 37, No. 4, 2014), pp. 369–85.
Similar findings were established in a recent report by USAID and RUSI. See Christopher Hockey and Michael Jones, ‘Countering Violent Extremism: Governance and Communications Strategy Paper’, USAID and RUSI, August 2022, <https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PA00ZN4G.pdf>, accessed 5 November 2023.
For example, Fathima Azmiya Badurdeen and Paul Goldsmith note that most of the CVE definitions in Kenya ‘mirror donor preferences and biases of implementing organisations’. See Fathima Azmiya Badurdeen and Paul Goldsmith, ‘Initiatives and Perceptions to Counter Violent Extremism in the Coastal Region of Kenya’, Journal for Deradicalization (No. 16, Fall 2018), p. 93, <https://journals.sfu.ca/jd/index.php/jd/article/view/162/126>, accessed 5 November 2023.

Explore our related content