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A Somali teen's path to jihad

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.

Mohammed's mother died when he was 6. He and his siblings moved to Mogadishu, Somalia's whitewashed, war-scarred capital, to live with their uncle. Most of the city's public schools had been destroyed or shuttered, and like most families, Mohammed's was too poor to send their children to private school.

So Mohammed attended a free Koranic school run by religious leaders and al-Itihaad members. The Islamists had founded a system of Islamic courts that dispensed sharia law and provided social services such as health care and education, filling the void left by a shattered state system.

In addition to memorizing the Koran, he learned Arabic. He never missed the obligatory five prayers a day and attended Friday prayers at the mosque with devotion.

"I opened my eyes inside the Koranic school," Mohammed said.

He grew distant from his family and spent more time at the mosque. He listened to conversations about the plight of the Palestinians and shared the anger over the support of Israel by Washington and its allies.

"The world seemed to him black and white," recalled Abdiraheem Addo, a former spokesman for the Islamic courts who is now a military commander in Somalia's transitional government.

'He had my heart'

On Sept. 11, 2001, Mohammed said he felt empowered as he stared at the television screen. He was proud that Muslims had learned to pilot planes to target America and defend Islam.

"I was like any other young Somali who was happy with striking the nonbelievers," he said. "Osama bin Laden was my hero. He had my heart."

In the aftermath, the Bush administration declared al-Itihaad a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda. U.S. officials had implicated the group in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Money-transfer networks that Somalis depended on were also shut down as concerns grew that they were being used to move money for al-Qaeda. At Mohammed's mosque, anger punctuated the sermons and people grew more resentful of the United States.

For the first time, Mohammed said he felt that the United States and its allies were directly targeting him and his countrymen.

"America's response after September 11 was too aggressive," he said. "That created anger and only added fuel to the fire."

As U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, Mohammed was tormented by the deaths of fellow Muslims in airstrikes and bombings. "I was convinced they were victims of an oppressive invasion," he said. "I felt America wanted to occupy the whole Middle East."

Mohammed began to view Somalia's own history through the prism of Sept. 11. He was happy that American soldiers had been killed here in 1993, some brutally, their bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

"It was wrong of them to come here," he said. "The sense that America was the enemy was growing inside me."

'The right path'

One day in the summer of 2005, when Mohammed was 16, a group of men approached him at the mosque. They wanted him to join a new militia called the Islamic Courts Union. "They were interested in children like me," Mohammed said. "I didn't have much knowledge. I had no idea where to find a job."

By then, the Islamic Courts was fighting a coalition of warlords that many Somalis believed was being covertly financed by the United States. The warlords presented themselves as a counterterrorism alliance determined to root out radical Islam and al-Qaeda in Somalia. But to the Islamists, the warlords were puppets of Washington.

And that's how the men, over cups of hot sweet tea, convinced Mohammed.

"They told me I was joining a jihad to liberate my country and my religion," he said. "Eventually, I decided this was the right path."

His uncle was devastated.

"I felt like my heart was taken away from me," Ali recalled. "They tricked him."

Six weeks after learning how to fire an AK-47 assault rifle and rocket-propelled grenades, Mohammed was dispatched to the front line. In mid-2006 he helped to wrest his home town of Jowhar from the control of a powerful warlord widely thought to be on the U.S. payroll.

"We overwhelmed his fighters," Mohammed said with pride. "I felt no fear. I was hearing the sound of the bullets, nothing more."

Mohammed quickly earned a reputation as a fierce fighter. Ali Abdirahman Abukar, an Islamic Courts fighter, remembered how Mohammed single-handedly defended a position for more than an hour during a clash in Mogadishu.

But what Abukar and other comrades remember most about Mohammed was his extreme devotion to Islam, how he gravitated to the group's radical factions. "He was a hard-liner," said Abukar, now 20 and a soldier with Somalia's transitional government.

Mohammed's mentor, Aden Hashi Ayro, was a veteran of al-Itihaad who had trained in Afghanistan and had ties to al-Qaeda. He allegedly orchestrated the assassinations of 16 people, including four Western aid workers, according to the International Crisis Group, a respected think tank.

In December 2006, Ethiopian troops, with covert backing from the Bush administration, invaded Somalia to oust the Islamists. Somalis viewed Ethiopia as "the Israel of Africa" because it received support from Washington despite its aggressive policies, said Sheik Mohammed Asad Abdullahi, an al-Shabab commander who defected.

Many Islamists believed they were engaged not only in a nationalist struggle but also in a larger clash between Islam and the West.

"It was very clear that we were not only fighting the Ethiopians but also the Western world," Mohammed said.

In a fierce battle outside the coastal town of Baidoa, a bullet tore through Mohammed's leg. He crawled away from the battlefield. Two weeks later, he returned to the front lines.

The Ethiopian forces pushed the Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu. A few months later, a rift broke apart the Islamists; two militias, al-Shabab and Hezb-i-Islam, emerged as independent forces, more radical than ever. Some of Somalia's powerful clans backed al-Shabab to counter the Ethiopians and an African Union peacekeeping force that replaced the Ethiopians last year.

Ayro became a top leader, and Mohammed was among the first to be recruited as a commander in charge of 60 fighters. Most were younger than he was. He was paid $400 a month, a princely sum here.

"He believed in al-Shabab's ideology," said Abdul Rashid Noor, 23, a former Islamic Courts member who now fights for the government. "We knew we were different from each other."

Many al-Shabab fighters believed they were waging jihad against America and its allies who backed Somalia's transitional government and the peacekeepers, Abdullahi said. "Many were brainwashed by September 11 and the events after."

Within months, al-Shabab had taken over much of south and central Somalia, nearly a third of the country. The militia imposed a harsh interpretation of Islam, carrying out public amputations and banning movies, soccer, even bras. Mohammed witnessed the beheading of two men accused of being informants. Their heads were posted on poles in a market to serve as a warning. It didn't upset him, he said.

Nor was he troubled when a young woman accused of adultery was stoned to death. "When a woman commits adultery, she will be killed by stoning. That's the law under Islam," he said, adding that her partner should have been stoned to death, too.

Then on May 1, 2008, an American airstrike killed Ayro inside his home. "They killed our hero," Mohammed said. "I knew the Americans were interfering in Somalia all the time after that."

An international attack

Another date also haunts Mohammed: Dec. 3, 2009.

On that day, an al-Shabab suicide bomber dressed as a woman detonated explosives during a medical school graduation ceremony at the Shamo Hotel. The attack killed 22 civilians and three government ministers.

"Many students and their parents died. Many young doctors died," Mohammed said. "That was the turning point."

In the weeks before the bombing, he had begun to notice that more foreign al-Shabab fighters were attending meetings for the militia's senior leaders. "Decisions are being taken by foreigners, not Somalis," he said.

Mohammed said he was startled by the militia's severe tactics. He was fighting to get rid of American and Western influence in Somalia, to enshrine a pure brand of Islam - not to indiscriminately kill innocent Somali civilians. "Those who have direct contact with al-Qaeda want to export jihad to the West," he said. "But I know that many Shabab only want to liberate their country from the foreigners."

In February, al-Shabab publicly declared allegiance to al-Qaeda. While he still considered bin Laden a hero, Mohammed was conflicted by the development. Nearly a decade after Sept. 11, many in the Muslim world were questioning bin Laden's philosophies and tactics. In Somalia, al-Shabab's harsh measures and al-Qaeda-like attacks were increasingly alienating the population.

"I thought we would lose the support of the normal people of Somalia," Mohammed said.

Some of his former comrades, who now worked for the government, encouraged him to leave the militia. Four months ago, he hopped into a taxi, crossed into government-controlled territory and defected.

In July, al-Shabab orchestrated bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, killing more than 70 World Cup fans. It was the militia's first international attack.

'I am a warrior'

Mohammed moved to Villa Somalia, a compound of buildings that includes the home of Somali President Sharif Ahmed, a moderate Islamist who once led the Islamic Courts. Government security officials placed Mohammed there, in part to protect him, and in part to make sure he's not a spy or a double agent.

Two camouflage uniforms hung on a clothesline in his room. In one corner were his life possessions: a small radio, a bar of soap, a bottle of body lotion and a green bag stuffed with clothes.

He has no plans to settle down. "I am a warrior. I do not need a wife," he said.

In another corner, a stack of Somali news clippings, downloaded from the Internet, were scattered. They were about al-Shabab's brutality; the most recent was dated Aug. 16, 2010. It was about a man whose tongue had been cut off for speaking out against the militia. "Any bad thing they do, I collect it," Mohammed said. "I am their enemy now."

His ideology, though, has not changed. Mohammed said, "You can't be Muslim without accepting sharia." He approved of al-Shabab's ban on soccer, arguing that youth would join the militia as an alternative and help liberate their country. He said he believed that women should cover their face and that limbs of convicted thieves must be hacked off.

"My religion does not allow music. It is forbidden for Muslims," Mohammed said. He added that "our religion forbids" racy Bollywood films, too. And women should not wear bras.

"Bras are like creams to whiten skin. They are a trick. You should be normal," he said. "That's what it says in our religion."

Mohammed refuses to believe allegations of Ayro's brutality. Instead, he said, Ayro was "merciful" and those who led al-Shabab after his death "are merciless and more radical than he was."

He said he no longer considers America "a legitimate target." But when asked by this journalist, an American, what he would have done if he had met him a few months ago, Mohammed replied without hesitation: "I would have slaughtered you. And they would have promoted me."

Few trust Mohammed. A few days earlier, a mortar landed in the compound, near his building, killing four African Union peacekeepers. Shortly after he allowed this journalist to visit his room, Ugandan peacekeepers threw Mohammed in prison for breach of security. Somali security officials secured his release, but Muhammed was summoned that night for interrogation. He was later asked to leave the government compound.

On a recent day, Mohammed passed through a desolate patch of Mogadishu. He walked fast. His eyes darted left, right. Then he glanced behind his back. He knew al-Shabab spies worked in government-controlled areas.

Since his defection, his former comrades have delivered death threats. He has no salary. His life hinges on his only skill.

"I am ready to fight," he declared. "I am ready for anything."

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