The Lost Boys – GQ

Far removed from the Kenya of beach resorts and safaris, the Dadaab refugee camps on the country’s border with Somalia are home to 300,000 people displaced by its volatile neighbour’s civil war. For Islamic terrorist group al-Shabaab, the camp’s children are easy targets for recruitment. Is this supposedly safe haven the breeding ground for the next generation of African jihadis?

Out here, in the camps, the boys disappear. No, that’s not right. They disappear the boys. The kids don’t just go missing. They are never rediscovered after an ordeal and welcomed back to anxious, teary parents, like runaways. Rather, the boys are there one day – eating, playing football, going to school – and then one day they are not. One day, a parent wakes up to find their child is gone forever. The boys are disappeared.

It happened to Marian Abdi’s little brother, Mohammed, last year. He was only 14 when a recruiter from Africa’s most fearsome Islamist militia, al-Shabaab – a group with strong links to Al-Qaeda, which now controls most of Southern Somalia – approached him. Mohammed was living with his sister in the same mud shelter in which I am sitting now.

Marian is 24. Her handsome, inquisitive face is wrapped in a blood orange hijab. Before her brother evaporated last year she and her family already knew too well the viciousness of civil war, but somehow, she manages to recount their story without rancour. She tells me the whole, awful tale in two minutes.

She says she came to this refugee camp on the Kenyan-Somali border in 2008 with her baby boy, her shopkeeper husband Hussein, and her younger brother, because of the fighting in Mogadishu. Life in the Somali capital had, she says “become impossible – you could not leave the house.” But, later that year, penniless and desperate, Hussein travelled back to his homeland to find work. Marian never saw him again. On his return to Somalia, local al-Shabaab officers attempted to recruit him to fight in the civil war. Hussein was an observant Muslim, but he was no holy warrior, and so he refused. The militia men shot him where he stood.

It took months for the bad news to filter back to Marian, by which time Mohammed was also on a dangerous path. She knew nothing of it at the time, but has since been told by his former classmates that, over a series of weeks, her younger brother was groomed by al-Shabaab men working in his camp.

“They told him that he needed to save his religion,” she says. “I think they forced him, but I don’t know for sure. He was a nice boy. I know they gave him money.”

However his recruitment was achieved, Marian tells me that Mohammed returned to Somalia to train as a suicide bomber, and that he blew himself up in September 2009. If her sources and dates are correct – and there is no realistic way to verify them – Mohammed was one of five suicide bombers who attacked the African Union base in Mogadishu on 9 September 2009, killing two African Union peacekeepers and three civilians.

He was, in short, disappeared.

Both Mohammed and Hussein’s deaths were vile and unnecessary. But Mohammed’s story is nightmarish. Children should never be soldiers, and a 14-year-old is a child in the eyes of the international criminal court. It is evil in the extreme to coach kids to commit suicide in the name of holy war. Tragically, as I discovered on the fragile border between Somalia and Kenya, it is also not unusual.

What I wanted to discover was this: are these disappearances more than individual tragedies? Do they signify a greater trend? Could Somalia’s conflict become a catalyst for a new generation of African jihadis? Has it already?

First, you need to understand where we are. This is Kenya, but not a Kenya you would recognise from the safari brochures. Here, in the refugee camps at Dadaab, in which nearly 300,000 people live in makeshift housing, where herds of camels block the dirt roads, and where the sun beats down, year-round, hot as a baker’s oven, it is another country: a state of limbo. The population is overwhelmingly Muslim, and speaks Somali as its first language. This is unsurprising. Just a few miles down a pot-holed road is Somalia, which is – by pretty much any index, and against stiff competition – the world’s number one failed state.

The trouble is, that word – failure – does Somalia’s situation no justice. The country has ripped itself apart for two decades. Indeed, ever since the dictator Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, the country has been in a state of near-constant civil war, the current manifestation of which is a conflict between the Transitional Federal Government of moderates (who are backed by the US and defended by the African Union), and the extreme Islamist militias, of which al-Shabaab is currently the most prominent. At the time of writing, the TFG holds no more than a few streets in the capital Mogadishu. Meanwhile, pirates ravage its coastline and militias infect its interior.

Since 1991, because of the dire situation of its neighbour, Kenya has hosted thousands of Somalis on this desolate frontier, under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The camps around Dadaab now form the most populous refugee complex in the world. The 300,000 or so people who live here do so in settlements intended for 90,000. Indeed, so entrenched is the refugee problem that the camps have become cities in the desert, with schools, shops, beauty salons and butcher’s shops all rendered in corrugated tin, mud and tarpaulin. Many Somalis have stagnated here since 1991. Many children and young adults know nothing but these camps. And, just recently, the numbers of new arrivals have swollen. Most have fled not only the fighting, but the strictures of al-Shabaab, the current administrators of the section of southern Somalia, just across the border.

Al-Shabaab is a relatively new, and particularly nasty addition to the Somali problem. Formerly the hardline youth wing of a previous Somali government, the Islamic Courts Union, it has become, in the past four years, a flourishing movement in its own right. Its policies include the strict imposition of Sharia law, the proscription of any clothing, behaviour or effect deemed, in its eyes, to be “unIslamic” (this includes the wearing of bras for women, or the watching of televised football for men), and brutal punishments for those who transgress. Its broad aim is to establish Somalia as a caliphate ruled under its own strait terms.

In November 2008, al-Shabaab pledged its allegiance to Al-Qaeda. Quite what this pact means is hotly debated in counterterrorism circles. One cannot help noticing, however, that Al-Qaeda tactics – in particular, the suicide bomb – have made their way into al-Shabaab’s repertoire. There is also an ambitious new slant to the group’s activities. When two suicide bombers attacked the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in July, killing 74 people as they watched the World Cup Final, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility. They were retaliating, they said, for Uganda’s decision to send troops to the African Union force in Mogadishu. But the intention was also, surely, to remind the world of its reach. The cell that carried out the attack on Kampala was named after Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was, before his assassination by US Special Forces in 2009, Al Qaeda’s leader in East Africa.

Al-Qaeda has long had a foothold in East Africa, particularly on Kenya’s eastern coast. It was, for instance, Al-Qaeda who set off the double bombs at the US Embassy in Nairobi and in Dar Es Salaam in 1998, and at the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa in 2002. But the presence of a strong Al-Qaeda ally in Somalia is, security experts agree, a worrying development. Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, warned recently that the terrorist training camps run in Somalia by al-Shabaab had become a magnet for Islamist fighters who pose a direct threat to British security.

If Evans is concerned, it is because al-Shabaab is much more than a Somali phenomenon. Many new arrivals in the camps have a story of meeting “foreign” combatants – men who have arrived from overseas to train for and fight in a holy war. Indeed, outsiders form a significant cadre of al-Shabaab’s high command. Of these, the best known are Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, “The American”, who finances and trains foreign fighters; Shaykh Muhammad Abu Fa’id, a Saudi who provides financial support for al-Shabaab; and Mahmud Mujajir, a Sudanese who recruits suicide bombers. Moreover, there is a significant crossover between al-Shabaab’s high command and the high command of Al Qaeda East Africa. This structural link is personified in Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, an experienced Al Qaeda fighter in East Africa – a man wanted by the US for his part in the 1998 bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam – who has now taken overall responsibility of al-Shabaab’s military operations.

“It’s a problem,” says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a US-based expert on al-Shabaab, “that is being thought about in very advanced terms in American counter-terrorism circles. They are worried about it. What we don’t know is what Al Qaeda’s strategic goals are in Africa.”

The more immediate problem for the people of Southern Somalia, however – and the reason so many of them have fled to Kenya – is that al-Shabaab is proving a monstrous overlord.

Said Ibrahim Abdi knows this better than most. He is 33 years old, and lives, with his brother, in the Ifo refugee camp at Dadaab. Until recently, he worked as a farmer just outside the Somali coastal city of Kismayo, now an al-Shabaab stronghold. We can’t shake hands because he has only one, his left, and that supports his crutch. He needs his crutch because his left foot is also missing. So, instead, he looks me in the eye, holds out his stump, which I take in my right hand, and says salaam aleikum: peace be upon you.

One day in October 2009, Said was working in his fields with his brother and a friend when they were arrested by al-Shabaab officers who accused them of stealing (Said insists they are innocent of this charge), and of being “un-Islamic”. In the brothers’ case, their religious crime was to visit the graves of their grandparents, which was interpreted as worshipping spirits.

The three men sat in a cell for days, before one evening, everything changed. They were taken in chains to the centre of Kismayo. As they drove, Said saw militiamen cruising around town, instructing the local population – men, women and children – to witness a display of justice. Businesses were shut for the night. The town square was packed. An al-Shabaab judge then read out the offences, and the punishment to be meted out to the perpetrators. Said heard his friend’s name, and then the words “his left leg will be cut.” He then heard his own name, and his brother’s, and the words “both the right hand and the left leg will be cut.”

A man from al-Shabaab shouted “Takbir!” into a loudhailer: an exhortation to the crowd which literally means “Declare!” They replied, Allahu Akbar: “God is Great!” This call-and-response continued throughout the performance.

Said watched from “barely a metre away” as his friend’s chains were removed by men wearing hoods. The friend was then restrained by five men while his left leg was amputated with a sword, without anaesthetic. He then saw his brother struggle as five men on each side pulled his arm, so as to dislocate his wrist; amputate his right hand; and then hold him down to perform the same operation on his left foot. Said watched all this, knowing he was next. When it came to his turn, the only thing he can remember is not being able to hear his own cries – because the noise from the crowd was too loud.

After the mutilation, Said recalls little. He passed out for hours, and woke up in a local rudimentary hospital where he had been dumped, along with the other victims. As he recovered there in the ensuing weeks, he was visited once more by the men from al-Shabaab. They were “foreigners” – he thinks Yemenis or Pakistanis – and spoke through an interpreter. They wore black headdress, and showed him a video of a beheading. “This,” they said, “is what will happen to you if you go to the government or to Kenya.” He disregarded their advice, and encouraged his family to pay a people-trafficker to move him and his brother across the border to the Kenyan camps, where he has remained, often in agony, for the past year.

Given the fierceness of their ideology, and the ruthlessness with which they implement it, you would think a boy would need a mean streak and a strong stomach to join al-Shabaab. Not so, apparently. In the refugee camps’ warren of makeshift back-streets, where I spent a week talking to mothers who had lost sons, and sons who had resisted the lure, I heard time and again how “good boys” had been disappeared.

Mohammed Issa Ali, is a 45-year-old plumber and odd-job man. He arrived in Ifo camp in 1998, has four children, and is so nervous about telling me his story – and being discovered by al-Shabaab agents – that we meet in cloak-and-dagger circumstances, with no photographs allowed. Despite his worries, Mohammed’s story is typical. His eldest son, Omar, was 18 when he went missing in February 2010. Mohammed and Omar used to work together every day. He was, says his father, “a very popular boy around the neighbourhood – he was not only my son but a good friend.”

One Friday, father and son had lunch together. After eating, Mohammed returned to work, but Omar never showed up. His father looked everywhere for him, and soon saw that some other parents were also searching for their children. No one knew where the boys were. After two months of worry, Mohammed discovered that Omar was in Mogadishu, fighting for al-Shabaab. A month later, he called his father to say “I’m sorry, I’m not coming back.” That is the last time Omar and his father have spoken.

Mohammed has now learned, through friends in the community, what happened to his son. “Omar was contacted long before he went missing,” he says. “They taught him all the ideology. It was a slow process. We worked together every day, but I didn’t notice any changes. I don’t know when they spoke to him. If I had known it was happening, I would have done something.”

What did they offer him? “I hear they promised him paradise,” says Mohammed. “And 300 dollars.”

Most refugees are understandably too scared to blow the whistle on al-Shabaab’s recruiters, but not all. One sweltering afternoon, I met Mohammed Olow Odowaa, a long-term refugee known as “Father Keyse” to his friends, after a benevolent Catholic priest who used to work in the area. Keyse is 27, with film star good looks, and, it would appear, balls of steel. He fled from Somalia in 1992 and has lived in Ifo since 1993. He now works as a tracing officer for the Kenyan Red Cross within the camps.

Keyse tells me that it is not only al-Shabaab, but the Western-backed TFG who recruit inside the camps. In fact, it is well documented that the TFG have used child soldiers in its war against the militias. Keyse says that between October and December 2009, dozens of boys were ferried by Kenyan Government forces to military training camps within Kenya, where they were prepared to fight for the TFG against al-Shabaab in Somalia. He says that he gave information to Human Rights Watch on this issue (and on the problem of police brutality towards refugees) last year, after which they compiled a report decrying the Kenyan government’s complicity in recruitment. For a while, the negative publicity worked. But, when I visited the camps this November, Keyse said another TFG recruitment drive had started again.

“The reality,” says Keyse, “is that both groups come for the boys. With the TFG, it comes in waves. With al-Shabaab, it’s a daily process, and they do it very discreetly. The Kenyan border is not like a fence. People come and go all the time. I think a lot of these boys [who are recruited by al-Shabaab] are being trained in Somalia and are coming back into Kenya. I frequently report on these activities, and now I’m starting to worry about my own safety. I’m worried about being kidnapped, and no one ever seeing me again.”

Keyse’s worries are well-founded. In March 2010, two men from al-Shabaab arrived at his house in Ifo. They were Somali, but were wearing long Arab dress.

“They told me to stop what I was doing,” he says. “They said, ‘if you don’t stop giving information to these muzungus [whites], your life is in danger.” And then, before they walked away, they gave Keyse a chance to join them. “They said ‘come with us to Somalia, and you can be head of a region. We could use an organiser like you.’ But I was angry at having been threatened. I told them that my Islamic way is better than theirs.”

Some months later, Keyse started receiving menacing calls and text messages from Somali numbers he did not recognise. He shows me his phone as if to prove his point. One SMS exchange, from 17 July 2010, is worth reporting in full.

Unknown Number: Are you Keyse?

Keyse: This is Keyse.

Unknown Number: You are fighting in a Jihad against Muslims. Remember we are aware of your movements. We will declare Jihad against you, and we know where you are. The only treatment we give to people like you is to behead them.

Keyse: How can I be fighting in a Jihad against Muslims? I am myself a Muslim. I am at my house and I am doing my work. Instead of threatening me through texts and calls, come and approach me like a man.

Keyse’s experience resonated when we visited Liboi, a town which sits flush on the border, and a gateway for dozens of Somali refugees every day. Despite our armed guard, we knew that two muzungus overstaying their welcome were at risk of being kidnapped by al-Shabaab, who held the town of Dobley, a few dusty miles away. Indeed, we left earlier than we had hoped, after a local “security chief” informed us that “they are aware of your presence here.” Soon, messages started appearing on other phones in our group. As we went to fetch petrol, our translator urged me via text message to “hurry plz b4 alshabaab moves in, or waylays.”

By that time, however, we had learned enough. At the Ali Arif Hotel – a flophouse for new arrivals with a few shillings to spare – Abdi Sheikh Abdi, an unemployed “youth leader” in Liboi, said he had seen every kind of refugee. Most interesting, he said, were the two “Middle Eastern” men who had stayed at the hotel recently. They wore trousers cut off at the mid-calf, and T-shirts, but, “they weren’t African… they didn’t look like us.”

“It’s obvious that these Al-Qaeda guys are coming through here,” he said, in faultless English. “Traffickers take them from Somalia through to the refugee camps. Because the border is long and porous, it’s almost impossible to see who is getting in and out of the country. There are buses full of young combatants coming across the border every day. There’s no way to screen who’s coming and going. The Kenyan government has no way of knowing who’s here.”

If there are militants coming from the Middle East, through Somalia, and into Kenya, what is their mission? Where are they going to? Abdi shrugged his shoulders. How should he know? Even so, his testimony was electrifying. Most of the evidence gathered until that point suggested that al-Shabaab were recruiting men and boys from the camps purely to fight in Somalia’s civil war – a tragedy, for sure, but a local one. In Liboi, however, there were whispers that fighters from the Middle East were entering Kenya with a view to taking jihad to other parts of Africa.

This view was reinforced when I returned to the camps and met a man who had, albeit briefly, been a member of al-Shabaab himself. Mohammed Ahmed Dahir is 30, but looks older – with a spindly frame, a goatee and a balding head. He was living in Afmadow, near the border, and working as a labourer, when al-Shabaab took control of the town from a rival Islamist militia Hizbul Islam. He was, he says, then forcibly recruited.

“We couldn’t get out of the town without al-Shabaab, and they wouldn’t let us leave,” he says. “They made us join them. Initially, I refused, but they beat me and beat me and gave me this scar on my head. The al-Shabaab men were not local residents, but from other parts of Somalia. I heard they had foreign fighters with them, but, to tell you the truth, I never saw them.

“When I refused, they put me in a cell in the local al-Shabaab headquarters. They accused me of having bad intentions and motives. They beat me. I was in jail for 12 days. Every morning, they tried to make me join them. I was adamant I was not going to accept. I didn’t want to kill or beat people. I have so many friends who have been killed in the civil war. I have so many friends who have joined al-Shabaab, only to be found dead a few days later. In my eyes, al-Shabaab are the enemy.”

While he was in jail, Mohammed witnessed al-Shabaab’s training regime at first hand.

“I heard them giving lessons where young boys were prepared specifically for suicide bomb attacks,” he says. “They were told they could attack any foreign country. They [al-Shabaab] talked about making gains in any country that was unIslamic. These young boys were being taught that any person or group that is ruled by an unIslamic authority, they had a right to kill. I had heard about [this training] before, from friends, but when I heard it for myself, it made me hate al-Shabaab even more.”

After twelve days, Mohammed couldn’t take any more beatings. He signed up. But, on his first day on foot patrol with his new comrades, he dropped off the back of the group and ran away. He was “lucky enough” to find a bus to take him to the border, and, from there, he found a way to the camps. His wife was not so fortunate. She remained in Afmadow, where, as punishment for her husband’s desertion, she was forced to remarry a local al-Shabaab commander. Meanwhile, while Mohammed has found life in Ifo more secure, he has not left the conflict at home behind. He has been the target of several recruitment drives, most recently by the TFG.

When did they last approach him?

“Yesterday,” he says.

A day’s bumpy drive from the border, is Eastleigh, the chaotic “Little Mogadishu” district of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Its buildings are caked with dirt and its potholes so vast they could swallow a minibus whole. This is where the lucky, ambitious Somali refugees come looking for better lives. But it is also, like the refugee camps, a breadbasket for recruiters.

In the Hotel Andalus, Eastleigh’s social nucleus – where politicians and businessmen exchange salaams on the staircase, and fabulously apparelled women dine in separate compartments from the men – our party is advised to reserve its own section of the first-floor restaurant, behind a curtain. The manager assures that we “will be quite safe here.” I had no thought that we would not be. Our translator explains that there are “bad people” in the hotel who might be interested in a couple of muzungus discussing recruitment, hence the caution.

There are good people too. Over a sweet tea, I meet Omar Mohammed Musa, a garrulous, charming 23-year-old refugee who works as the Chairman of the Somali Youth Diaspora. In essence, his organisation tries to provide activities for listless young Somali men while they live in Eastleigh. There are, he says, dangerous distractions. To make his point, he describes to me the methods used by recruiters here.

“It’s not the combatants, but people who work for them,” he says. “There are agents for al-Shabaab here, but also other groups, who have contacts at every level of society. Through those fixers and link men, they know everybody.” Omar suggests to me that there is an unsophisticated pyramid scheme to ensure that everyone in the chain gets paid when a boy is recruited.

“I know so many boys who have gone back,” he says. “It’s a problem. Even the good boys, they go.”

Why? “It’s not just a question of money,” he says. “They give them education, an ideology… These guys have a continued commitment to them the whole time, and they care about them. I was in mosque recently where the Imam said ‘anyone who wants to join the fight, please raise your hands.’ They’re everywhere. They’re even here now.”

Omar’s experience chimes with the view of the American anthropologist Scott Atran – whose recent book, Talking To The Enemy, investigates the phenomenon of the suicide bomber. Atran’s view is that dying in the name of jihad has social, rather than religious roots.  “People don’t simply kill and die for a cause,” he argues. “They kill and die for each other.” The success or failure of a jihadist recruiter rests on his ability not just to offer financial rewards, but on the lure of the group dynamic. In Omar’s words, it’s not just a question of money.

In Eastleigh, where there are high levels of unemployment – where many boys arrive with parents who have either been killed or who have remained in Somalia – the attraction of a gang, and a cause, becomes clearer. All the young men I meet here have little or no paid employment. Most of them are in Nairobi illegally, having skipped out of the camps at Dadaab without resettlement permission from UNHCR, and with no official papers.

However, it is the poorest who are the most vulnerable. In the Andalus, there are boys who have been recruited both by the TFG and al-Shabaab, some when they were in their early teens. All of them have difficult stories. But it is a gaunt 19-year-old from Mogadishu called Mohammed Mummin Mohammed – who wears a dirty, striped shirt, and talks in a whisper – whose tale speaks loudest.

Mohammed is the eldest of eight children, and the only member of his family in Nairobi. When he was 14, his father died of natural causes. Shortly afterwards, Mohammed joined the TFG army to try to make some money for the family. He was taken to Kampala, in Uganda, for training. After 8 months he was deployed back to Mogadishu, where he fought against the militias in the capital. But the fighting was brutal, and he was paid a tiny salary. Some months, he was not paid at all.

When Mohammed was injured by a grenade, he went to see his mother who persuaded him to leave the country. He has had no contact with her or his family since, and is now, he says, pretty desperate. He often sleeps rough. If he were approached again by a recruiter he would, he says, “consider it.” Before I shake his hand to say thank you, he grabs my notebook and writes, in a rounded, childish scrawl – “HUNGRY.”

Promise a poor boy paradise and three hundred dollars and he’s yours. For that sum, however, you might not buy his loyalty. Naturally, the Somalis featured here are those who have resisted the call of recruitment, or who were forced to become soldiers and fled, or whose loved ones had left them. I encountered no zealots. But even with that caveat, one does not get the impression that al-Shabaab’s brutally imposed strain of Islamic extremism has proved popular with the Somali diaspora. Most of those I met were devout, but none were demented.

Still, it only takes a few committed individuals to cause mayhem. As November’s thwarted airline bomb plot shows, the Al Qaeda threat from Yemen and the Arab Peninsula is real. Moreover, as my amputee survivor’s story shows, the leaders and methods from Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula are infusing daily life in Somalia with a fresh sadism. Many fighters from just across the water are using Somalia as a rest and recuperation centre. Some have settled in to train the new generation of holy warriors. Amid this nefarious activity, would it come as a surprise if the next atrocity – the next attack on a Western hotel, or aeroplane, or embassy – had its origins with a lost boy disappeared from the dusty scrublands at Dadaab?

What is being done to curb al-Shabaab’s influence in the camps? At present, it seems, very little. The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has at least admitted there is a problem at Dadaab.

“We’re extremely concerned about stories of al-Shabaab infiltrating refugee communities and are doing all we can to prevent it,” he said. “But the absolute worst thing that could happen is that the world closes its doors to the Somali community.”

The truth is, there is little the UN can do. As we take a flight back to Nairobi from the desolate airstrip at Dadaab, and fly over the settlements – row upon row of cramped huts and mazy streets – it’s possible to grasp the scale of the problem. There are too many dark corners here for the shady deals to stop. From this observation another question emerges: one fortified by the litany of bleak personal narratives that have streamed into my notebook. It is a question to which the answer may be dispiriting. How do you convince a bored 16-year-old orphan with no realistic chance of leaving a refugee camp for a better life – whose prospects are either purgatorial in Kenya, or hellish in Somalia – that the man offering him a cause, a mobile phone, a fistful of American money, and a place in heaven is not talking sense?