Jihadists find global Somali communities ripe for recruiting

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 4, 2009 

NAIROBI, Kenya — Late last year, 17-year-old Aliow Ali Hassan vanished from his adopted home in Kenya, leaving behind a teenage wife, three children and a family that feared the worst.

Finally, three months ago, his elder brother Bashir received a phone call from Somalia. It was Aliow calling to explain, in a voice so clear it was unsettling, that he'd joined al Shabaab, a radical Islamist militia that's allegedly linked to al Qaida.

"He said, 'I'm fighting for jihad,' " or holy war, said Bashir, 29, seated on the floor of his dingy apartment in a rough immigrant enclave in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. "He said, 'I'm not coming back, so you should forget about me.' "

Aliow's indoctrination into jihad, which his brother said occurred over many months in mosques and religious schools that Somalis frequented in Nairobi, was one more small triumph for the wide-ranging ambitions of the Islamic extremists in al Shabaab.

More than two years into their vicious and increasingly sophisticated insurgency, the organization is finding recruits from all over the world: in neighboring Kenya, among the large Somali diaspora in the United States and in poor Somali communities in countries as far-flung as Sweden and Australia.

The arrival in Somalia in recent months of what United Nations officials estimate to be several hundred foreign fighters is a sign that the insurgency has radicalized a small but battle-hungry segment of the more than 1 million Somalis who live abroad, experts say. It also suggests serious miscalculations by Bush administration officials, who backed an Ethiopian military campaign and then periodically launched missiles at suspected terrorist targets in Somalia, policies that Somalis and many analysts think fueled the insurgency.

With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arriving in Kenya for talks with Somalia's besieged president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, police in Australia said Tuesday that they'd arrested four men who were "allegedly involved in hostilities in Somalia" in connection with a domestic terrorist plot. Australian news reports said that the men, Australian citizens of Somali and Lebanese descent, were inspired by al Shabaab and may have traveled to Somalia for training.

In the United States, the FBI is investigating the disappearances of as many as 20 Somali-Americans from the Minneapolis, Minn., area, allegedly to join al Shabaab. Three are thought to have died in Somalia; one, Shirwa Ahmed, 27, blew himself up along with about 20 others in October in what authorities say is the first known case of an American suicide bomber.

Few expect al Shabaab's recruits to carry the group to victory in Somalia, where it controls large swaths of territory but remains locked in a stalemate with government forces, African Union peacekeepers and rival militias. Many are forced to join up, said one senior Western envoy in Nairobi, adding that if 10 foreign fighters come to Somalia, seven to nine will flee within days.

To Somali experts, however, the recruitment effort reflects the influence of al Shabaab's "foreign wing," a small group of commanders with links to extremist groups in the Middle East and other regions. Under their leadership, al Shabaab has morphed from a homegrown law-and-order movement into a wanna-be al Qaida affiliate in East Africa, with designs on carrying out attacks in foreign lands.

"Their agenda is to internationalize al Shabaab," said Mohamed Mohamud Gurre, an expert with the Center for Peace and Democracy, a Somali research center. "The foreign wing has the resources; they can mobilize people. They like Somalis who are holding international passports. If there's recruitment going on, that group is directing it."

Experts say that Kenya, the key U.S. ally in East Africa and home to more than 200,000 Somali refugees, is a fertile recruiting ground.

"No question, radicalization is happening," said the Western envoy, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol. "There's forced recruitment and then there's indoctrination, the traditional call to jihad. Both are happening."

The flow of refugees into Kenya, as with expatriate Somali communities worldwide, began with a 1991 coup that plunged Somalia into a civil war from which it's never recovered. Many have settled in Eastleigh, less than three miles from downtown Nairobi, a chaotic maze of rutted roads and clapboard kiosks that locals call "Little Mogadishu," after the Somali capital.

To many Kenyans, who're predominantly Christian, Eastleigh feels like a foreign country. Signs are written in Somali or Arabic. Women walk the streets in hijab, the full-length dress favored by conservative Muslims. In the afternoons, street vendors sell khat, a narcotic leaf chewed by Somali men.

Aliow Ali Hassan grew up in this environment. Born in Kenya after his family fled the 1991 coup, he was the eighth of nine children. His father died when he was 3, so he was raised by his mother and older siblings, including Bashir.

Aliow was a quiet boy who took his religious studies seriously, Bashir said. However, Bashir began to notice a change in Aliow about two years ago, when Ethiopian forces were occupying Somalia and starting to come under fire from insurgents, including al Shabaab.

"He said, 'These guys (Ethiopians) are killing Muslims. They are not Muslims. They want to grab Somalis' lands. Somalis need ... our blood,' " Bashir recalled. "I told him, 'This is rubbish.' "

As he spoke, the voice of the late American rapper Tupac Shakur thumped from a room next door. Bashir, with his Western-style jeans and sneakers, had clashed with his little brother over his strict religious views. The last time they met, three days before Aliow disappeared, he chastised Bashir for chewing khat, which hard-line Islamists consider profane.

Bashir thought that his brother was indoctrinated by radical sheiks who sometimes whisked him out of town for days. Back home in Eastleigh, Aliow often attended evening meetings at mosques and Islamic schools, and he told his brother he wanted to return to Somalia.

Since his brother disappeared, Bashir has met a handful of families in Eastleigh with similar stories.

"The families are all complaining; some are crying," Bashir said. "They say these boys are being sent to die."

"Al Shabaab has a very well-oiled recruitment machine," said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia expert based in Nairobi for the International Crisis Group, a policy-research institute that studies world conflicts. "They use money, intimidation, everything in their power."

Eastleigh is Nairobi's "Chinatown," a difficult, often hostile place where Kenya's corrupt and under-equipped authorities don't exercise much control. Still, Abdi said, police sometimes conduct sweeps of mosques, so many al Shabaab sympathizers have gone underground, meeting in safe houses and private homes.

The neighborhood remains "a favorite place for recruiting," Abdi said. "These are young guys who are not getting resettled (to Western countries). They're jobless; they have no hope in life. There's a lot of desperate poverty and extreme rootlessness."

One night last week, at a tin-roofed mosque tucked inside a gated complex of gray block apartments called Ushirika Estate, several dozen young men, mostly in their 20s, gathered to hear a man known as Sheik Hassani Mohamed. A gap-toothed, turbaned man who looked to be in his 30s, Mohamed spoke for more than an hour. The loudspeakers that typically blare the prayers to the surrounding neighborhood had been switched off, so only those inside could hear Mohamed speak in a voice that was impassioned, yet even.

"I appeal to all Somali youths to come out and fight jihad against our enemy on Somali soil," Mohamed said. "Come out and sacrifice your life for the sake of God. Let us join hands together to fight our enemies."

Then one of Mohamed's aides played a DVD that showed al Shabaab fighters in training. At other meetings, leaflets are distributed. There's even thought to be a jihadist PowerPoint presentation.

Somalis say that the radicals often force people to attend the meetings, and intimidate those who oppose them. Last month, Ali Mohammed Adow, a boyish, 29-year-old religious translator, stood up at his mosque to denounce the recruitment of four young worshippers. The next day he received a call from a blocked number.

"Listen," the caller warned. "If you don't stop this kind of talk soon, your days will be over."

The addition of Somalis with Kenyan ties raises the risk that Kenya, the economic hub of the region and home to the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in Africa, could become al Shabaab's next target. Last month, armed men reportedly from al Shabaab kidnapped three foreign aid workers from a Kenyan border town and disappeared back into Somalia.

In June, Western intelligence officials received reports that Kenyan Somalis with links to al Shabaab were planning to attack two upscale shopping malls in Nairobi, more than 300 miles from the Somali border.

The Western envoy, who's followed Somalia from Nairobi for five years, said he couldn't shrug off the threat of an attack. "I have an uneasy feeling," he said.

(A McClatchy special correspondent who can't be named for security reasons contributed to this article from Nairobi, Kenya.)

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