A Somali teen's path to jihad

Somalia is a failed state and one of the world's most lethal post-Sept. 11 battlegrounds outside the theaters of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 12:00 AM

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA -- Abdul Qadir Mohammed remembers the imam's powerful voice bouncing off the mosque's white walls. It was 2001, a few weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a decade into Somalia's anarchy. "Our religion must dominate until we die," the preacher declared.

On that day in the mosque, his heart pounded as he joined the worshipers in thunderous chants of "Allahu Akbar" - God is Great.

"It was the day I was born," Mohammed recalled.

Mohammed was 13 years old. He had never picked up a gun. But boys like him would soon be asked to sacrifice their lives for Islam. Mohammed felt no fear, only a sense of divine calling. "Everything in my life was about jihad," said Mohammed, now 22, who has a boyish face, faint mustache and walks with a slight limp.

"Everything still is."

Mohammed is part of a generation of young Somalis who, seeking solutions to their chaos, have embraced a messianic brand of Islam that today drives a brutal struggle for power and identity in the Horn of Africa. His path opens a window on the forces that have altered Somalia, a failed state and one of the world's most lethal post-Sept. 11 battlegrounds outside the theaters of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Mohammed and his peers came of age when Somalia's Islamist transformation was already underway. But it was Sept. 11 and its aftermath that gave the Islamist message new weight, shaped by U.S. counterterrorism policies and the animosity they have generated in the Muslim world.

His journey would take him from the mosques to an Islamist revolt against Somalia's secular warlords to al-Shabab, a militia linked to al-Qaeda. He would fight in battle after battle, driven less by clan loyalties or politics than a conviction that his religion, and his nation's soul, was under siege. Ultimately, he would question al-Qaeda's role in his country, a progression experienced by many militant Muslims since Sept. 11.

Mohammed, two sisters and a brother grew up in Jowhar, a south-central town founded by an Italian duke in the 19th century. His father was a cattle herder who often vanished for months at a time.

When Mohammed was 3, the socialist government of President Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed. Clans and warlords began fighting for control of territory.

As their country fractured, many Somalis sought comfort in a fundamentalist Islam that called for society to repent and rededicate itself to Allah's divine principles. Money from Saudi Arabia flowed in to build ultraconservative Wahhabist mosques, weakening the influence of the nation's moderate brand of Sufi Islam. Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, a militant group loosely linked to Osama bin Laden, emerged in the early 1990s.

Against this backdrop, Mohammed's perceptions were colored by religion from an early age. He remembers his neighbors describing the American troops that led a 1993 United Nations peacekeeping mission as "nonbelievers." He did, too.

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