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How Kenya's 'Little Mogadishu' became a hub for Somali militants

The Somali enclave of Eastleigh in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, is now a recruiting and financial center for hardline Islamists fighting in neighboring Somalia.

By Heba AlyCorrespondent / August 26, 2009

Somali women in veils walk along the main street in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi on June 25.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters


Eastleigh, Kenya

The streets of Eastleigh, a Somali enclave of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, are crowded and dirty. Sewage and rotting garbage flow through gullies. Police are virtually nonexistent; restaurants are locked, even when open, for safety reasons; and guns are readily available for sale at the market.

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No one ever said "Little Mogadishu" was paradise, but now the sprawling neighborhood has become a hub of financing and recruiting for militant Islamists waging holy war in neighboring Somalia, according to residents, security analysts, and diplomats.

"Those who kill people in Somalia are also here – scattered all over the place," says an elderly Sufi Muslim sheikh matter-of-factly. "This is the hotspot of the Somali fundamentalism.... They are recruiting right here in Nairobi."

In the latest chapter in a civil war that has raged since 1991, Somalia's radical insurgents this week rejected the Western-backed transitional government's call for a cease-fire during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Militant and moderate Islamists are battling for control of the rubble-strewn streets of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, fighting that has forced more than 1.4 million people to flee their homes and caused what the United Nations on Wednesday called the country's worst humanitarian crisis in 18 years of war.

But here in Eastleigh, the war takes a different form. Little Mogadishu has become a port through which Somali insurgents raise money and recruit fighters, especially for the militant group, Al Shabab, which has been labeled an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization by the US government.

"What we know is that Al Shabab is very popular in Eastleigh," says Roland Marchal, senior research fellow at the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research. "Al Shabab has been able at different moments to bring a number of people in Eastleigh to fight in Somalia. It's very likely that a number of economic operators in Eastleigh try to collect money and support this organization."

Why young Somali-Kenyans join militants

Outside a small green-gated home in Eastleigh, the elderly sheikh – who declined to be named due to the grave threat to anyone talking about Somali militant operations – says agents of Somali insurgents have recruited from across the country dozens of Somali-Kenyans, most in their early 20s, who are missing and presumed dead in Somalia. Though their parents were moderate, a lack of employment or alternatives led them to become students of madrassas (religious schools), where they adopted more extreme ideologies, he says. (Read our in-depth story: How one youth was drawn to jihad in Somalia.)

Estimates of the number of recruited Kenyans range from dozens to thousands, most – but not all – Somali-Kenyans. The insurgency benefits from an effective recruitment network that works out of Eastleigh. Diplomats say recruiters use a combination of money and brainwashing to pull in the youths, many of them from refugee camps and areas along the Somali border.

"These young men have no ID papers, no future," says the sheikh. "The only future they see is blowing themselves up and going to heaven." Insurgents in Somalia are increasingly relying on suicide bomb attacks in their offensives.

One woman, the sheikh says, lost her 12-year-old son. She went looking for him in Somalia's southern port town of Kismayo, under insurgent control, and found him training to be a suicide bomber. She returned home emptyhanded. "If she'd tried to bring him, she'd be killed," the sheikh says.