By WILLIAM MACLEAN, NOOR KHAMIS
and MOHAMED AHMED (REUTERS)
When Abdullahi slipped across the Kenya-Somali border to join the fighters of Islamist militant group Al Shabaab in 2009, the livestock herder from northern Kenya found himself among recruits from around the globe. There were ethnic Somalis who had grown up in Australia, Britain, France and the United States. But there was also a large number of fellow Kenyans in the group’s ranks. They included, unexpectedly, dozens of young men who did not share his Somali ancestry or language but came instead from the heartland of Kenya where Christianity is the dominant religion. Abdullahi, then aged about 20, initially dismissed those men as opportunists who had pretended to convert to Islam to win work as guns for hire. Then he saw them in battle.
“They were good fighters. I saw the way they would advise us to fight, to defend ourselves,” Abdullahi said of his two years in Al Shabaab, during which time he fought Somalia’s weak United Nations-backed government. “I fought one battle outside Mogadishu. Half of us died... (The Kenyans) were very brave, the way they ran towards gunfire.” That’s exactly what worries Kenyan and Western security agencies. Al Shabaab has been waging an insurgency against Somalia’s fragile interim government since 2007 and formally became part of Al Qaeda last year. Abdullahi’s account is part of a mounting body of evidence — including intelligence picked up by security agencies, research by the United Nations and accounts by Muslim Kenyans interviewed for this story — that suggests Al Shabaab is mentoring a new and increasingly multi-ethnic generation of militants in the region. That could have major ramifications not just for Somalia, which has been without a working government for two decades, but also for countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, relatively stable democracies whose economies are among the steadiest in Africa. This week, Kenyan politicians blamed a bombing in central Nairobi on Al Shabaab, which means ‘Youth’ or ‘Boys’ in Arabic.
Al Shabaab seeks to impose a strict version of Sharia or Islamic law. The group emerged as a force in 2006 as part of a movement that pushed US-backed warlords out of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. It remains Somalia’s most powerful non-government armed group and in its propaganda, promotes the idea that many Muslims are flocking to its cause around Africa. Washington and London have long worried the Somali group aimed to expand its influence in Africa. That suspicion was confirmed last July when a United Nations investigation found Al Shabaab had created extensive funding, recruiting and training networks in Kenya.
Much remains unclear about the strength of the group’s following outside Somalia. Some academics, including Kenya-based independent researcher Paul Goldsmith and University of California scholar Jeremy Prestholdt, urge caution because Kenya’s Western allies may play up the significance of the group to justify budgets and expanded surveillance powers.
Abdullahi’s story about his time in Al Shabaab couldn’t be independently verified. His account is consistent with those of other young Kenyan men involved in Islamist radicalism, including another former Al Shabaab fighter interviewed for this story, 22-year-old Mohamud, and by clerics, police officials, diplomats, security officials, lawyers, academics and social workers.
The flow of recruits continues, they say.
A skinny, bearded figure in sandals, dusty black trousers and a sports shirt, Abdullahi lives in Mandera, a few hours drive from Garissa, the town in Kenya’s dusty north where he spoke with Reuters. He quit Al Shabaab last year, he said, because he grew disillusioned with the violence and with promises of payments that never came. Back home, he is unemployed and hopes to study at university. His militant days are behind him, though he asked that his full name not be used because he is worried about official reprisals.
Pinning down the number of non-Somalis who have joined Al Shabaab is difficult. Boniface Mwaniki, head of Kenya’s Anti-Terrorist Police Unit, said it was impossible to compile accurate figures because the Kenyan-Somali border is porous and long. In separate interviews, a Western private security consultant, a European diplomat, a lawyer familiar with the militant Islamist community in Kenya, a community organiser and an independent researcher with an international non-governmental organisation all said that up to 600 non-Somali Kenyans are currently fighting with Al Shabaab, around 10 per cent of the group’s total troops. The militant group is also using its connections and social media to inspire the creation of loose networks of sympathisers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Kenya’s Internal Security Minister George Saitoti worries that this support could allow Al Shabaab to threaten East Africa.
Non-Somali East Africans have taken part in Al Qaeda attacks before, including the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the suicide bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel near Mombasa in 2002. A few have risen high in Al Qaeda: Indian Ocean islander Fazul Harun Mohamed, who led fighters in East Africa until his death last year, once worked as Osama bin Laden’s private secretary in Afghanistan. Concern has risen since a co-ordinated bomb attack on Uganda’s capital Kampala in July 2010, which killed 79 people watching the soccer World Cup final. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were retribution for Uganda’s troop deployments in Mogadishu as African Union peacekeepers. In September last year, Kampala’s High Court jailed two Ugandans on charges connected to the attack.