Saturday, 19 September 2009

Somalia's leading export: its civil war

Nearly two decades on, Somalia's warring sides are globalizing their conflict and violence. Geoffrey York reports from a Somali suburb in Nairobi being overrun by extremists while moderates make appeals to diasporas in Canada and elsewhere

EASTLEIGH, NAIROBI — From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Saturday, September 19, 2009

A young security guard named Hassan sits under a palm tree outside a Nairobi school, watching for Somali radicals who might want to lure away the children.

In another quarter of the Kenyan capital, a former Somali prime minister is conferring with his supporters in a luxury hotel. He is guarded by nine armed men alert for assassination attempts.

In a third neighbourhood, a moderate Islamic leader who fled Mogadishu last year is raising money from Somali exiles for media to counteract extremist propaganda - and to pay for his own militia.

Somalia's vicious 18-year civil war is spilling out into Kenya and beyond, spiralling into a global struggle that enmeshes the Somali diaspora from Africa to Europe to Canada. It is fought with guns and dollars, preachers and teachers, radio and TV, refugees and exiles; it's waged in schools, mosques, slums and skyscrapers.

Back in Somalia, the conflict is itself becoming a proxy war: Al-Qaeda radicals, including many from Pakistan, have imported the ideology of suicide bombings to the once-moderate nation. The United States, meanwhile, is shipping weapons to the official Somali government; this week, the Pentagon flew in special-forces helicopters to kill a Kenyan-born terrorism suspect.

Two regional rivals, Ethiopia and Eritrea, are also deeply embroiled, with Eritrea backing the extremists and Ethiopia twice sending in troops to bolster the government.

Despite this support, and more from thousands of African Union peacekeepers, the government is steadily losing ground to the extremists, who have seized many districts of Mogadishu over the past year. Nearly 300,000 refugees have fled to the badly overcrowded camps on the Kenya-Somalia border. Hundreds of thousands of others have sought shelter in Nairobi - only to find the battle has followed them to their supposed haven.

It's part of a global struggle between conflicting interpretations of Islam. Moderate factions, including Sufis, are clashing with a radical brand of Islam allied with al-Qaeda and funded by wealthy businessmen from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

And one of the key battlegrounds is the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, known as Little Mogadishu. The impoverished, overcrowded slum is home to about 400,000 people and the dusty streets are often flooded by burst sewer pipes. Many Kenyans regard it as a hotbed of weapons, violence, terrorism and smugglers.

Yet it is also the business hub for Somali exiles, with some of the highest rents for shops and offices in Nairobi - some in Kenya say Somali pirates invest their profits there, putting upward pressure on rates throughout the city.

Eastleigh is increasingly infiltrated by the radical militia known as al-Shabab ("the Youth"), which has close links to al-Qaeda. Of the 5,000 to 8,000 Somali refugees who cross to Kenya every month, as much as 10 per cent are al-Shabab members, according to the Kenya-based Institute for Security Studies.

A prominent Somali businessman was killed in Eastleigh this month; last month, Kenyan police raided it searching for al-Shabab recruiters who reportedly worked for groups that posed as charities and humanitarian agencies. Ten young men were arrested for having agreed to become al-Shabab fighters. Terrorists were also reported to have planned a series of bomb attacks for the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Only two of the mosques and schools in Eastleigh have resisted the lure of anti-Western ideology, and those are fighting for survival.

Fathu Rahman primary school was established last year by leaders of Somalia's Sufi Islamic community. It teaches Islam, but also secular subjects such as English, Swahili and mathematics. Unlike the extremists' schools, it allows girls and boys to share classrooms. And that makes the plainclothes security guard a necessity.

"There's a risk of infiltration by al-Shabab-affiliated men who are working every day to put their ideas forward," says Khalif Maalim Hussein, the school's principal. "Their message is crossing directly from Somalia to Kenya. They are targeting young people who are uneducated, who don't know much about Islam, and they convince them that they are the real Islam. They are even targeting teachers. Their nerve is unimaginable."

He says the recruiters offer payments of $10 or $20 (U.S.) a day, and cellphones stocked with credit - irresistible lures to impoverished children. If they accept, they go to extremist schools and then are sent to Somalia to join al-Shabab.

"They are exploiting the hopelessness of the Somali people," the principal says. "They offer money and the promise of heaven. But it's the opposite: If they kill an innocent person, they will go to hell. Our Islamic religion is a religion of peace and tolerance and respect - not beheading people because they are not Muslims."

Abdi Mohamed, a 14-year-old student, fled Mogadishu in 2006 with his sister and brother when his school was closed. In Eastleigh, his sister unwittingly enrolled his brother in a radical school. "They taught him to fight against Ethiopia and join the war as a jihad," Abdi says. "They taught him that foreign forces were spreading Christianity in Somalia, like crusaders."

When their mother later joined them, she found her son drastically changed. "He would have gone back to Somalia to fight," Abdi says. "When my mother saw that he was becoming very different from other children, she decided to take him out of that school."

Another student, 16-year-old Faisal Hussein, says he is glad that the school hired a watchman. Recruiters "talk to people on the streets," he says. "Some children disappear. If they are taken to these schools where they are taught jihad, they lose contact with their parents and nobody knows where they are. They take them to Somalia."

One of the school's founders is a prominent Sufi leader, Sheik Hassan Qoryoley, who long ran a moderate religious centre in Mogadishu. He has been a target of the extremists since the 1990s. First, they tried to buy him off, offering him $70,000 in cash and a university post in Saudi Arabia to leave Somalia. When he refused, the death threats began.

By 2008, he was one of the top names on the death lists of the extremists who controlled most of Mogadishu. For a few months, Sheik Hassan held out in his Sufi religious centre, guarded by armed security. But it was too dangerous. He fled to northern Somalia, then Ethiopia and finally to Kenya.

The Sufi sheik is a key supporter of the militia known as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama ("followers of the Prophet Mohammed"), who picked up their weapons in Somalia this year, alarmed by the dramatic gains by al-Shabab, with its hard-line beliefs in amputations and stonings and its brutal attacks on Sufi followers.

"We send money and manpower to the government areas of Somalia," Sheik Hassan says. "In the last few months we've begun sending envoys to North America and Europe, asking them to help us confront these radicals. The government forces are mostly clan militia and ex-army officers, mainly fighting for money - their salary. But our fighters are fighting for our beliefs, our religion, our ideology. When you believe in what you're fighting for, you can fight."

Sheik Hassan himself, however, concentrates on propaganda and financial cam-

paigns, especially in the Somali diasporas in Europe and North America. He is raising money for the militias, but also for a planned network of radio and TV channels - which he calls an essential tool.

"These radical groups took their fight to the media," he says. "They're using local radio and television stations in Somalia. We have to establish our own media to broadcast our religion. We're hoping we will get the finances we need to wage this media war."

That war has already begun, even on Twitter, where the Sufis briefly experimented with their own feed, featuring a background photo of a machine gun resting on a copy of the Koran, and offering cheerful updates such as, "Ahlusunna fighters have been wiping out the foreign terrorists in hiiraan region of somalia."

But the extremists are equally up-to-date. "They have created their own cable-television system in Eastleigh," Sheik Hassan says. "They've put television cables in every building. They are making 24-hour broadcasts. ... They tell everyone that they offer free education in their schools. All of these things are making them very attractive to poor people."

For his own safety, the sheik lives far away, in a different suburb of Nairobi. And when he has meetings in Eastleigh, he prefers private back rooms. "I'm aware of the risks," he says. "I try not to sit in the crowded areas of mosques."

If the threats are great for Somali exiles, they are worse for those who dare to return home. Awad Ahmed Ashareh, who came to Canada as a refugee and is now a Canadian citizen, has been a member of Somalia's official Parliament since 2004. Yet he has travelled to Mogadishu just once this year, preferring to spend his time in Nairobi instead.

In fact, the vast majority of Somalia's 550 MPs live mainly abroad, making it almost impossible for the government to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass legislation.

"There was only one sitting of Parliament this year, and it was very difficult, very dangerous," Mr. Ashareh says in an interview in a Nairobi café.

"The government controls very little in Mogadishu. The African Union peacekeepers protect the airport, the seaport, the president, the prime minister and the parliamentary speaker - but not the MPs. There are flying bullets, bombardments, explosions. When you're in the presidential palace, they're throwing rockets at you."

Mr. Ashareh says he has to hire his own bodyguards in Mogadishu, costing nearly half of his official $1,200 monthly salary - which hasn't been paid for months anyway.

Salad Ali Jeele, a former Somali deputy defence minister and still an MP, has travelled to Mogadishu for parliamentary sessions. But they are held in the mayor's office, too close to the front lines, he says.

"Mortars and shells are coming close to the building every day," he says. "We are patiently staying there. But if you're afraid for your life, you can't do your work."

Ali Mohamed Gedi, who was Somalia's prime minister from 2004 to 2007 and is still an MP, is a top target of the Islamic radicals, who accuse him of allowing Ethiopian troops to enter Somalia. He says he survived five assassination attempts before finally fleeing to Nairobi. Even here, he is obliged to stay away from Eastleigh for fear of assassination.

"The enemy is strong and has financial support," Mr. Gedi says as he relaxes in the lounge of an expensive Nairobi hotel. "They are very well organized in the whole Horn of Africa. The same people who operate in Somalia are here in Eastleigh - it's no secret. They are crossing the border from Somalia daily."

Mr. Gedi cites the case of the slain Somali businessman. He believes that the killers were militants from Somalia. "You can count these incidents on a daily basis."

Mr. Gedi says he is guarded by a nine-man security detail. But the bodyguards are so discreet that they are almost impossible to spot in the five-star hotel as the former prime minister holds meetings with other Somali exiles.

Asked about this, he smiles enigmatically: "It is better that you don't see them."

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Africa.

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