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

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Sunday, August 22, 2010; A08

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.

Kenyan police have long harassed Somalis, demanding bribes under threat of arrest or deportation, generating resentment. Since the Kampala attacks, police have rounded up hundreds of people in Eastleigh and other areas, including four Kenyan Muslims who human rights activists say were illegally extradited to Uganda for interrogation.

"The community is suffering," said Abdufatah Ali, an Eastleigh representative on the Nairobi City Council. "The police stop you and take your phone, and say 'You are al-Shabab.' They enter your house and rape you, and say 'You are al-Shabab.' "

Radical preachers are filling the void, playing a key role in recruiting and fundraising for al-Shabab. They operate the largest mosques in the neighborhood, providing ideological leadership and a resource base for militants, according to a U.N. report on Somalia in April.

"They have a very big influence in terms of radicalization," said Nicholas Kamwende, Kenya's anti-terrorism police chief. "Eastleigh provides the best grounds for recruitment."

Influencing young minds

At the Ansaaru primary school, where Awil attends classes, boys and girls study biology, chemistry and geography. In religion class, they are taught that it is every Muslim's duty to "liberate" Jerusalem and its sacred al-Aqsa mosque, Awil and three other students said.

Sometimes, the students said, the teachers show them video clips of jihadists fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

"They tell us that al-Shabab hates Western countries like America," said Zakeria Omar, 11, a student. "And that it is all right to cut the throats of every citizen of these countries."

Ali Jama'a, a Koranic teacher at the school, asserted that the teachers do not discuss jihad or al-Shabab. "Those classes may happen in the mosques, but not here," Jama'a said.

Moments later, the imam of al-Hidaya mosque, which U.N. investigators and community leaders describe as among the most radical in Eastleigh, arrived at the school. He was there to teach a class.

He declined to be interviewed by a Washington Post journalist.

Moderate clerics fear what will happen to their community. One well-known imam tells young people not to be enticed by militancy and speaks out against suicide bombings as un-Islamic. "We have a war on our hands to stop our youth from being taken to the battlefield," said the imam, who asked that his name not be published because he had been threatened.

Moderates raise voices

Shine Abdullahi's hip-hop group, Waayaha Cusub, or "The New Generation," is fighting back. The artists -- both men and women, all Somalis, most of whom once lived in Eastleigh -- released a CD in February with the help of funding from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

This year, the United States has allocated $96,000 for job creation, education and tolerance programs, mostly directed at youth, to bolster moderate views of Islam in Eastleigh.

Waayaha Cusub's song "No to al-Shabab" has become a hit in Somali communities, including those in Minnesota, Ohio and Virginia. The group has handed out 7,000 free copies in Eastleigh.

"Our goal is to show that al-Shabab has neither a Somali nor an Islamic agenda," Abdullahi said. "They are nothing but a militia run by al-Qaeda's chiefs."

In June, Abdullahi received the first of many death threats in the form of a text message from a Kenyan cellphone number: "You work with the infidels and Americans. You are a spy for them. Do you want to stop that work or do you want to die?"

Today, the group does not play large shows, fearing an attack by suicide bombers. None of the members live in their old neighborhood anymore.

"It's very easy for them to kill us in Eastleigh," Abdullahi said.

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