It all started when a mother called to inquire about the whereabouts of her 18-year-old son Nuno Ahmed whom she believed was in Nairobi and had plans of going to Mogadishu. “He left with his three friends and l have just found out that they are going back home,” she told me when she called from her home in Minnesota, US. “I would rather he is arrested and stays in a Kenyan prison than let him go back to Mogadishu and die there,” she says as if pleading for my help.
When l eventually track down Nuno, I find him at a hotel in Eastleigh, where he and other young men from the US have been hiding out since their arrival. After much persuasion, Nuno agrees to meet with me at a restaurant in the city centre, Nairobi.
Like most of the young Somalis who have grown up in the West, Nuno speaks very little Somali. We end up conversing in English, his heavily inflected with an American twang. “Your mother tells me that you have plans of going to Mogadishu, Why?” I ask Nuno once we are done with the small talk.“Young people like me are needed there to protect our country. I can do something important over there compared to what I was doing back in the US,” he says.
The five foot six inch tall, slender, 18-year-old Nuno is a far cry from the media’s stereotype of a terrorist. His trendy clothes, leather jacket and hip sneakers do not differentiate him from the many young men passing by outside the coffee shop where we are meeting. “This is my choice and no-one has made me come here as my mother would like to believe. They have lived in Minnesota for too long and now they want to forget about home. But not me,” he says quietly and with deep conviction.
Later during another meeting in Eastleigh, Nuno introduces me to four of his friends— all from Minneapolis and all in the last stages of finalising their plans of travelling to Mogadishu.
Abikar Mohamed’s story
“It feels good to be back. We are so used to life back in the US that we are forgetting where we were born. Eastleigh reminds me so much of Mogadishu!” says 23-year-old Abikar Mohamed.
The last time Abikar was in Mogadishu was when he was seven years old. His family fled to Kenya after the fall of the Siad Barre government, languished in the Dadaab refugee camp before they were relocated to the US. It was his first time back to Kenya since those days when he was living here as a refugee. “We are all here to defend what we believe in. We are all here to protect Islam and we are going to do that at all cost,” says Abikar to partially explain why he and the others in the group would surrender a life in the US where many in the refugee camps can only dream about.
This is the same reason the others give when asked why they would leave their country of asylum to fight for a home majority of them know little about. “Moving to the US was a dream for us. I mean we had nothing left back home. The camp wasn’t the best place to live and after finally getting repatriated to the US, it meant a better future and life for all of us,” says Abikar who speaks with a strong American accent.
Once in the US, Abikar and his family lived on government support and assistance for eight years before they were finally granted citizenship. Abikar and his siblings got citizenship as his parents continue to live as refugees. “This was it for me. I thought I would enjoy the same treatment and rights as any other US citizen, but that was never to happen,” he said. Abikar says it was impossible to get a job or even a scholarship to further his education after high school. “In as much as we are citizens, we are never treated equally. What is the use of granting us citizenship if they don’t treat us equally?” he says. Abikar explains that he finished his high school at Sixth Street, Minnesota, and emerged among the top five students. “All the rest got scholarships to go to college; most of them did not deserve because they come from rich families. I was in need and I did not get it even when it was clear I deserved the scholarship,” he said.
He said this incident opened his eyes to the flagrant discrimination that the system meted out to Somali Americans and other refugee minorities. “I even went with my family to school to ask why I was denied the scholarship but they did not have any real reason for denying me the opportunity,” said Abikar. Abikar had wanted to go to college to study literature, become a lecturer and also a writer. This will not happen now.
On their arrival from the US, the four lived at different hotels and guest houses in Eastleigh as they waited to be joined by other young men, most of them in their late teens, who were coming from different parts of the world.
All of them had the same agenda: to travel to Somalia and join the Al Shabaab— the militia group loosely associated with Al Qaeda which is fighting to remove the transitional federal government (TFG) which they believe is a western imposition.
Al Shabaab seized control of much of Somalia in 2006 until Ethiopian forces at the request of the TFG and with the backing of the US invaded the country. The militia group was pushed out but has since been fighting to regain control and oust the government. This ‘invasion’ prompted the political awakening among young Somalis in the Diaspora.c“We know there is another group from Minneapolis, California and Minnesota but we have also been told others are coming from Norway and Sweden,” Abikar and his colleagues tell me.
Later that day, at 4pm, Nuno Ahmed calls saying all his friends had arrived and they were agreeable to an interview.
At the agreed venue, I meet up with Nuno and nine other young men— the youngest at 17 while the oldest was 24 years old. All of them are convinced that their reasons for making the perilous journey to Somalia are right.
None of them were born in the US or any of the European capitals from where they are from. They started their journey as refugees from Mogadishu and spent several years at the Daadab refugee camp, established in the early 1990s to take the waves of Somali refugees who streamed into Kenya after the fall of the Siad Barre government and the start of the civil war which has continued since then.
Abdirahman Gullet’s story
“From 2008 when Burhan went back to Mogadishu, we have all been seen as terror suspects. Police regularly storm our houses and conduct searches without permission,” says 19-year-old Abdirahman Gullet.
Abdirahman recalled several instances when he was walking on the street and had been forcefully taken away by men claiming to be FBI. The men would interrogate him for several hours about what he knew about Al Shabaab and demand to know whether he was a member.
“It never crossed my mind to join up with the Al Shabaab. Even when Burhan went, I thought it was a stupid thing he did. Now I understand why. I have had first and experience,” he said.
Burhan Hussein Ahmed, known as Little Bashir, was only 17 when he disappeared from his home in Minneapolis in 2008 and in November that year, called his family to say he was in Mogadishu.
The family received a call from Mogadishu informing them that he had died. The family still believes that Burhan was murdered by the Al Shabaab when he refused to carry out a suicide bombing.
A month earlier, 26-year-old Shirwa Ahmed became the first known American suicide bomber when he drove a car loaded with explosives into a government compound in Puntland in October 2008 killing 30 people. He had left Minneapolis for Saudi Arabia before making his way to Mogadishu.
Shirwa was one of 20 Somali Americans who left Minneapolis for Somalia in a trend which became the focus of a large terrorism investigation in the US. Some of these fighters are suspected to have made their way to Mogadishu through Kenya. “We came to Nairobi just like any American citizen. None of the officials at the airport suspected anything,” Abdirahman said.
Interviews with the nine young men at Eastleigh confirmed that Nairobi was the preferred jumping off point for many of those headed to Somalia to join the Al Shabaab.
Once they arrive, each of them is given the address and contacts of a place where they all converge. They did not tell me where they all congregated for security reasons. One of the contacts who organised the young men’s arrival in Kenya and was making arrangements for their trip to Mogadishu also refused to be interviewed citing security concerns.
Adan Hussein’s story
Adan Hussein is 24 years old. He is also from Minneapolis. Adan had just cleared his college studies in Information Technology at one of the private colleges near his home. “I had an opportunity to leave with my friends who left before me but I wanted to continue with my studies. We write each other mails and they send photos of how things are in Mogadishu. They told me they had even met with a cousin of mine who had been left behind when we fled the war,” he says.
It is his cousin who explained to him how half the family left behind was killed in the fighting that has been going on since the collapse of the Barre government. “He told me that through Al Shaabab they are protecting the larger part of Somalia and saving lives although the media would report otherwise,” he says.
Adan said he and his friends attended a mosque where one of the elders kept them updated with the news coming from Somalia.
“He had first-hand information about what was going on at home. He would travel to Somalia and back to the US until recently when he was banned from traveling. “They stopped him because he would come back and tell us how the US, the country we had grown up in, was helping Ethiopia to kill our families,” Adan says.
He is sad to have left his mother and two younger sisters without telling them of his plans to travel to Mogadishu and fight with the Al Shabaab.
He hoped that his mother, who in her daily devotions prayed for Somalia, will eventually understand his reasons for leaving home. “There is a chance I might never come back here and might die protecting my religion, it’s a price I’m willing to pay,” he says.
Aden like some of the young recruits could not pay for his ticket to Nairobi as most of them were students so the elders funded their trips to Nairobi and to Hargeisa, Somaliland, from where they will proceed by road to Somalia.
He denied suggestions that they had been brainwashed by the elders at the mosque. “The mosque is just a meeting place. Coming back to fight for our home is our own free will. “We are not doing this to please human beings. It’s not our intention. We are protecting our religion and our reward is in heaven,” says Adan.
Born in 1986, Adan left Mogadishu after his father was killed in 1993. Coming to Daadab, he was relocated with his mother and two young sisters to the US.“To avoid attracting any kind of suspicion, all of us will book our tickets individually while a second group of Kenyan recruits will make their way by road all the way through Liboi,” says Adan.
Omar Hassan, 22, went to Canada to join his family who had been granted asylum there. He has been living in Canada as a refugee for the last ten years. He was just a class four pupil at the Daadab camp when he left for Canada. He came to Nairobi on several occasions to plan his travel to Canada but something would always crop up with his papers. “Finally when I got the visa to travel, I could not believe it, my family had paid so much money for me to join them, I knew this would be a good thing for me,” he said.
Once in Canada, Omar did not continue his education, he joined his family’s business and at the age of 20, he married a second generation Canadian Somali woman.
Very soft spoken with plastic spectacles, Omar tells me that discrimination is a big part of his adopted country. “There has never been integration of Somalis and native Canadians. Why do you think we all live at the same place and they stay far away from us?” he asks.
He adds that the discrimination is what makes many young people join Al Shaabab and to take any chance they can get to go back home.
Omar says he knows thousands of refugees would swap places with him to have the kind of life he has had in Canada. “I am willing to give all that up for my religion. I have always cared about material things that this life has to offer but I have not seen the benefit of it,” he says.
His understanding is that Al Shaabab is not a terror group but believers committed to ensuring Shariah law is observed in all of Somalia. “Somalia is a Muslim country and the law of the Quran should be observed by all,” says Omar.
Omar denies that the motivating factor behind most of the youth joining up is the stipend that each of them gets when they join up and the monthly payment they receive. With his Somali accent, he tells me that they were promised $30 (Sh2,400) per day for their services but it’s not what motivates them, “yes I might take the money for my basic use while in Somalia but it’s not the motivation,” he says.
He tells me that the group coming from abroad were promised $ 200- $250 (Sh16,000-Sh20,000) per month and there is a high possibility that this might go up. “Like I said it’s not about the money, my family’s business makes more than this,” he added.
“It’s not about the money; it’s to protect what I believe in. This is a holy war and all the young people who have died before us have done that for the sake of religion,” he says.
Abdinassir Osman’s story
“I was only 20 when some policemen stopped me and started interrogating me. They said they suspected me of having links with Al Shabaab. They did not believe me when I told them I knew nothing about the organisation. “At the time I had no links or even knowledge of Al Shabaab. I didn’t know much about them,” recalls 22-year-old Abdinassir Osman.
Osman has been living in Ohio for the last 12 years. He said he had been unable to get a job since he did not have a high school diploma. Even when he applied for blue collar jobs, Osman said he was passed over just because he was an American Somali.
“Everywhere I would go, I would be treated differently because I am a Somali. I can understand if I can’t get a good job and I accept that fact as I quit school early, but even a cleaning job? It does not make sense!” he said. “I did nothing there. Instead I was in a gang and I know l was wrong. Now I can do something good back home in Somalia.” Osman decided to join two of his friends who were travelling to Mogadishu.
Born in 1985, Ali Mohamud, known to his friends as Amad, left Daadab refugee camp in 1995 after his family fled Kismayu. They were relocated in Ohio. “It was cool at first. We were treated well since we were just children. But when we finished school, there were no jobs, not even for those of us who were qualified,” he said.
He and Osman listened to the stories and exhortations of the mosque elders and they decided that they were needed more in Somalia to fight for their homeland than wasting time looking for jobs. “My services are needed back home, to protect Somalia and Islam. I am here out of my will and it’s the least I can do for my religion,” he says.
He stayed with his mother and young brother who is currently in college in Ohio. “This will break my mother’s heart I know, I told her of the plan and she completely refused but hope she would understand my reasons.”
Khalif Abdi’s story
Khalif Abdi’s decision to return to fight with Al Shabaab is rooted in his belief that there is a conspiracy in the West to get rid of Islam as a religion. The 24-year-old from Sweden cites the ban of the wearing of the burqa by some of the European governments, the banning of minarets on mosques as proof of this conspiracy.
“They have done it to us in Sweden and France. We cannot do much there but at home we can make a big difference and that is why I’ am going,” he told us as he waited for his contact in Nairobi to complete his travel arrangements to Mogadishu.
He admits he remembers very little of a country he left behind when he was barely ten years old. “I have no fear of going back. I have been following what is going on there and l have decided that l should join the Al Shaabab who are protecting Islam. I want to be part of that,” he says. He like many of the young people we have talked to moved with his single mother when he was just two years. “I had no idea of what was happening, all I knew is we were in Kenya and then moved from here, but that has never stopped me from learning about my home country,” he tells me, speaking the perfect English among all in the group. “We used to go to the Madrassa and we would learn so much about how the civil war started, what is happening now and although we have been absorbed in the US culture, it’s not home,” he tells me.
Dressed in a blue sweater and black shades with clearly very expensive Nike shoes, he tells me that the elders in Sweden told them that another group was coming from the United States. “We knew they were coming and am glad that it’s a big group, it will prove a point,” he said.
He also denied claims that they were recruited back home. He says they were just told of what is happening in Somalia and they made their own choices. “I have a son, they are now staying with my mother but they don’t know where I’m since I just left but I plan to call them and go back to my son,” he said. “You know there is a chance of you not going back once you are in Somalia,” I tell him, “I’m sure that this is a war that we will win and I will go back to my family and maybe once there is peace, I will come back with my son,” he says.
A Kenyan Somali, Mukhtar Abdi believes it’s his responsibility to ensure that Sharia law is imposed in every country where the majority of the citizens are Muslims. “We must and will protect our religion. The bonus is that there is also some money in this so I can send back some of it to my family,” he says.
Mukhtar was looking forward to earning $30 (Sh2,400) per day when fighting for the Al Shabaab. He said the money is enough to lure many Kenyan Somali youth who are idling in Eastleigh and other towns.
Talking to Mukhtar, I got the impression that for him the monetary reward was much more of an incentive than the religious cause. Although his payment is not as high as the Mujahideens from abroad, he says that it’s enough since he wouldn’t get it when he is just idling in Eastleigh.
“Sh2,400 is more than enough for one day. I can send it to my family back home and I can fight here for a while and make enough money to start a business in my neighbourhood,” he tells me.
For Mukhtar, joining the Al Shabaab was also an adventure. He expects to return from Somalia and regale his friends, family and relatives with stories. “I paid nothing. My flight to Hargeisa was paid by a man who was organizing our trip,” he said.
Mukhtar was completely different from the rest as his Somali was really good and could not speak much English. During the interview, while the others conversed animatedly in English, he was quiet.
I ask him what he thinks of his colleagues who have left a life abroad that many Eastleigh youths would die for.
After taking some time, he shakes his head and says that they cannot even survive in Somalia as their lives are completely different.
“Somalia is so much like Eastleigh, if I was them I would never even think of coming back to Somalia, It’s not a wise choice,” he tells me.
For him, he says, he understands that joining Al Shaabab is not a wise choice but there is good money to be made and that’s all the motivation he wants. “It’s not about religion; it’s about me making $30 per day.”
|Fatuma Noor found out what moves young Al Shabaab recruits from the US and other Western countries and faced grave danger in the process.|
Part 2:ON THE ROAD WITH AL SHABAAB RECRUITS