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A Radical Islamist Takeover Drives the Young From Somalia

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Scenes from Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp, one of the world's largest and oldest facilities for displaced people, located on the border with Somalia. Refugees from Somalia's violent conflict sometimes wait months to be registered by camp officials, at which point they are eligible for food rations, vaccinations and other aid.

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 22, 2008

DADAAB, Kenya -- By the time Mohamed Abdi Ibrahim decided to leave Somalia, life in the southern city of Kismaayo had become, as he put it with consummate understatement, "complicated."

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Young men there had long shouldered AK-47 assault rifles and joined clan militias. But as an Islamist militia known as al-Shabab took control this year, it had become a place where boys were paid $50 to throw bombs, soccer fields served as militia training camps, and Islamist leaders walked into classrooms to take names of potential recruits.

Ibrahim and two friends fled several months ago, just after the Shabab began beating people not attending Friday prayers and just before the group publicly stoned to death a 13-year-old girl it had convicted of adultery.

The options for young men like them, it seemed, had narrowed to two: sign up or run.

"For us, it was not good to join," said Ibrahim, a lanky 22-year-old who fled to this overflowing refugee camp across the Kenyan border. "Because if we join one side, the other side will hunt us and kill us."

The scenario now unfolding in Somalia is the one a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion nearly two years ago had been intended to thwart: a takeover by radical Islamists.

At the time, Ethiopian forces ousted a relatively diverse Islamic movement that had briefly gained control of the capital, Mogadishu. In its place, they installed a transitional government headed by a warlord who allowed the United States to launch counterterrorism operations in the moderate Muslim nation.

But the policy backfired, inspiring a relentless insurgency of clan militias and Islamist fighters that has left Somalia's first central government since 1991 near collapse. On Sunday night, advisers and supporters of President Abdullahi Yusuf -- who has been accused of obstructing a possible political compromise to help end the insurgency -- said that he would resign Monday, although as with everything in Somalia, the situation remained fluid.

The two-year insurgency has energized the most radical Islamist faction, the Shabab -- "youth" in Arabic -- which the United States has designated a terrorist organization.

Rallying young men with anti-Ethiopian rhetoric and a promised ticket to paradise, the group advanced this year across much of southern Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu. Analysts predict the Shabab will extend its control after the Ethiopians withdraw, which they have promised to do within weeks.

The United States and the United Nations are now supporting a political settlement that shifts power from Yusuf and his circle to an opposition coalition that includes some of the Islamist leaders cast as extremists two years ago, as well as clan leaders who had been excluded by Yusuf's government. Backers of the Djibouti agreement hope that the Ethiopian withdrawal, along with the political deal, will rob the Shabab of its cause.

But the situation on the ground -- and in swelling refugee camps such as this one -- suggests that the group is only gaining strength.


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