In Kenya's capital, Somali immigrant neighborhood is incubator for jihad

Worshipers gathered at Eastleigh's Masjid Sahabi mosque, where clerics preach a moderate message. Imams at other neighborhood mosques, however, have become increasingly radicalized, praising and recruiting supporters for Somalia's al-Shabab militia.
Worshipers gathered at Eastleigh's Masjid Sahabi mosque, where clerics preach a moderate message. Imams at other neighborhood mosques, however, have become increasingly radicalized, praising and recruiting supporters for Somalia's al-Shabab militia. (Sudarsan Raghavan/the Washington Post)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Sunday, August 22, 2010

NAIROBI -- Behind the blue gates of his Islamic school in Nairobi's Eastleigh neighborhood, Ahmed Awil cannot escape his country's civil war.

Schools and mosques where extremist views are taught are reshaping this Somali immigrant community that for years has lived peacefully in the capital of this predominantly Christian country. Moderate imams now compete with hard-line preachers pushing a strict interpretation of Islam. Bookstores sell anti-Western literature. Residents speak fearfully of militant spies, and children like Ahmed are taught to praise al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked militia, for waging jihad in Somalia against the U.S.-backed government.

"My teachers tell us al-Shabab is fighting for our religion and for our country," said Ahmed, a skinny 11-year-old who fled Somalia after al-Shabab fighters slaughtered his neighbor and tried to recruit him. "Sometimes they ask us if we would like to go there and fight."

Eastleigh, a run-down enclave where tens of thousands of Somalis live, has become an incubator for Islamic extremism, Kenyan officials and community leaders say. It has also emerged as a micro-battlefield in the war on terrorism, attracting American funds.

"What most worries me is that this extremist ideology will continue to grow," said Dualle Abdi Malik, the director of Fathu Rahman, a moderate Islamic school. "We have to confront it before it is too late."

Somali immigrant communities across the Horn of Africa and Yemen have come under greater scrutiny since twin bombings last month targeted World Cup soccer fans in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Al-Shabab asserted responsibility for the attacks, its first major international operation since it rose to power several years ago in Somalia.

Members of al-Shabab, which in Arabic means "The Youth," and other Somali militants freely travel to Nairobi to raise funds, recruit and treat wounded fighters, according to U.N. and Kenyan security officials. Somali-American jihadists have met contacts in Eastleigh before heading to Somalia to fight with al-Shabab.

"Eastleigh is a copy of Mogadishu," said Mohamed Omar Dalha, Somalia's social affairs minister, referring to the Somali capital. "Everything that happens in Mogadishu happens in Eastleigh, except the fighting."

Fertile ground for radicals

At the al-Huda Islamic bookshop, a closet-sized stall nestled near one of Eastleigh's radical mosques, several youths browsed the fare on a recent day. Koranic tomes pack the shelves. Recordings of lectures and debates that glorify the neighborhood's radical Somali preachers are sold openly.

"Our religion calls on us to kill everyone who does not believe in Allah and his Prophet Muhammed deeply," Abdulrahman Abdullahi, a black-clad imam, declares in one DVD.

Al-Shabab has long threatened to attack Kenya, which has been targeted by extremists over the years. In 1998, al-Qaeda operatives bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and in Tanzania; in 2002, an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa was bombed. Earlier this year, protests erupted in downtown Nairobi over the arrest of a radical Islamic preacher from Jamaica.

Eastleigh, community leaders say, is an ideal breeding ground for radicalism. The neighborhood is poor and isolated; few Kenyans enter it. Local authorities have ignored it: Roads are unpaved, muddy and covered with trash. The smell of raw sewage wafts across the terrain.


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