Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

How one youth was drawn to jihad in Somalia

Like the Somali-American from Minnesota who was killed this weekend, Tawakal Ahmed was recruited through mosques in Kenya to fight for Islamic militants in Mogadishu.

By Heba AlyCorrespondent / July 14, 2009

Some residents say Taqwa mosque, in Isiolo, central Kenya, preaches a radical version of Islam. Somali insurgents have been recruiting fighters from Kenya.

Heba Aly

Enlarge Photos

Isiolo, Kenya

A smattering of wispy clouds dots the blue sky as white-robed worshipers trickle into Taqwa mosque for Friday prayers. Our car is parked outside the mosque, slightly hidden by a hedgerow of tangled savannah brush that defines the mosque's perimeter. A cool, dry wind blows across this arid town – refreshing against the equatorial heat, but leaving a blanket of dust on the whitewashed buildings.

Skip to next paragraph

The car's tinted windows are rolled up to protect against the fine film of dust – and to conceal me from sight.

Isiolo is smack in the center of Kenya, far from Somalia. But the sermon pouring out of the mosque's loudspeakers is in Somali. We listen for a few minutes before the driver abruptly pulls away.

"If they catch us spying on them, we'll be stoned," he says.

AFTER ATTENDING THIS MOSQUE and another near his home, Tawakal Ahmed, a young Kenyan man of Somali descent, journeyed to Somalia. Last November he blew himself up.

At least that's what his family and friends say.

Muslim militants have recruited from elsewhere in Kenya, seeking those who will help them win control of Somalia. Until now, they've drawn from Eastleigh (Nairobi's Somali enclave), Somali refugee camps in Kenya, and areas along the Kenyan-Somali border. But if what Tawakal's family says is true, he is one of the first known cases of recruitment in Kenya outside those traditional hunting grounds.

Some analysts say this case in Kenya shows that the recruiting networks of Somalia's insurgency may be more vast than once presumed. Similar cases are also coming to light in the United States.

On Tuesday, a Somali-American 20-year-old engineering student from Minnesota was reported killed in Somalia while fighting alongside Islamic militants. His uncle, Omar Ahmed Sheikh, told Reuters his nephew, was misled by clerics in Minneapolis and persuaded to go to Somalia in November 2008. "They told him they would teach him Islamic religion ... But they are terrorists and cannot claim they are Muslims," said Mr. Sheikh.

Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Centre in Minneapolis, told Reuters Bana was one of 18 teenagers who ran away to Somalia last November after attending a youth programme at a local mosque.

ISIOLO SEEMS an unlikely place to recruit Islamic fighters. It has always been a cosmopolitan town. For decades, there have been intermarriages between tribes and ethnicities; churches and mosques share the same streets; men with sticks herd their cattle past niqab-covered women, their Muslim garb hiding everything but their eyes.

Somalis were first settled in this sleepy outpost by the British after World War I. The descendants of soldiers became Kenyans, living in shantytowns, marginalized by the Kenyan government but integrated nonetheless into this diverse town.

In the 1990s, as the civil war in neighboring Somalia intensified, refugees began streaming deeper and deeper into Kenya. Eventually they arrived here – and started to fill the mosques. With them came a new ideology, one that would change this moderate Kenyan community and the fate of at least one of its young men.