NAIROBI, Kenya — Three Kenyan men who briefly fought for al Shabaab, the Somali insurgent group that claims ties to al Qaida, said that they were driven by the promise of money, not jihad.
"They promised me $300 a month," said Ali Abdi Ahmed, a 38-year-old with sunken cheeks who was recruited from the Kenyan town of Garissa early last year. At the time, he'd lacked steady work for several months, so he took the advice of a town elder and went to help fight Ethiopian forces in Somalia.
With its porous border and large ethnic Somali population, Kenya has become a major conduit for money, weapons and fighters for the Somali insurgency, and a place where injured fighters sometimes come to receive medical treatment.
The Kenyan recruits likely numbered in the hundreds, but they were rarely the most serious fighters. Each of the three men interviewed by McClatchy encountered dozens of foreign jihadists, most from Arab nations, easily identifiable by their sharp features and the fact that they didn't speak Somali.
In the makeshift, open-air Shabaab camps the foreigners enjoyed VIP status — they gave weapons instructions to younger fighters, slept far from the rank-and-file and sometimes had bodyguards.
"These people were very educated," said Ahmed, who learned that two of the foreigners in his camp were Egyptians. "They had knowledge of all different kinds of weapons. They were brought by the big men of our camp and we had to give them a lot of respect."
What drove Ahmed and other Kenyans to quit was al Shabaab's rules against smoking, drinking alcohol, consorting with women or chewing khat, a narcotic plant — all of which are forbidden under the group's strict interpretation of Islamic law.
"If you feel like being with a woman, you're at the end of your rope.
You could be killed for that," said Issa Abdi Ismail, a 30-year-old fighter who was recruited last year from Nairobi.
Abdiaziz Issak, a broad-shouldered 32-year-old who was among the Islamist forces that fought for three days to seize the port of Kismayo earlier this year, said he couldn't stomach combat and hated firing his AK-47. After four months he'd earned about $400 and jumped on a bus back to Kenya to rejoin his wife and two children.
"They were shocked to see me alive," Issak said. "I just pray that Somalia one day becomes peaceful. I cannot imagine going back."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2008