Somalia's Al Shabab recruits 'holy warriors' with $400 bonus
The Al Qaeda-linked militant group, Al Shabab, is recruiting new 'holy warriors' in Somalia with
cash bonuses. One former fighter says its more about the money than Islamic militant ideology.
Nairobi and Dadaab, Kenya
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Back home in the Barawa district of southern Somalia, his parents and younger brothers and sisters were living on less than a single meal per day. His mother was too weak to fetch firewood to sell in the market, and too poor to buy the all-covering veil that was now required by Al-Shabab.
So when a recruiter from Al Shabab (whose name means “the youth” in Arabic) gave him $400 and the promise of a regular salary, Dahir joined willingly. He knew that even if he didn’t survive the war, his family would have a better chance to ward off starvation.
By the time Dahir arrived for six months of training at a camp in the densely forested southern coastal town of Ras Kiamboni, it was clear that he was just one of hundreds of young recruits preparing for war. It was clear, too, that deserting from Shabab – which has declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda – would be dangerous.
“When they recruited me, I was told I am going to fight against the African Union troops and against the Transitional Government, which didn’t want an Islamic government,” says Dahir, a talkative young man with a lean frame, who deserted Al Shabab late last year and now lives in hiding. Looking nervously from side to side as he spoke with a reporter in the Dagahley refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, he continues. “I was given $400 before I left home, and this I gave to my father and bid my family goodbye. They didn’t want me to leave. My father looked at me in tears and prayed for my safe homecoming.”
When the government of Somalia launches its long-threatened offensive against Al Shabab, it will be young men like Dahir who will be in the front lines, recruited by unscrupulous businessmen, trained by Pakistani, Afghan and Arab experts, and guided by a harsh ideology of jihad promulgated by Al Qaeda and its Islamist followers.
Al Shabab losing its appeal?
Somalia has been largely ungoverned for nearly 20 years, so the appeal of a hard-talking government based on religion has strong appeal in certain quarters. But the testimonies of several Al Shabab deserters interviewed by the Monitor shows that the Islamist militia is built less on a firm ideology – seen by many Somalis to be alien to their understanding of Islam -- than on a combination of monetary lures and threats.
“Everybody hates to die, and everybody wants to go to heaven, but to go to heaven, you have to die: that is what they tell recruits,” says Omar Sharif, a Somali businessman who travels between Mogadishu and Nairobi, and who has family members on both sides of the looming fight. “Shabab is in a decline right now, because people are not happy with what they are doing, but they still have a strong impact on youths inside the country, as well as here in Kenya.”
Yet as long as Somalia remains war-torn, and as long as Somalis remain poor, Shabab will be able to find willing fighters, Mr. Sharif says. “Somalis have a lot of children, and the school system is destroyed, so for many poor families, the madrassas (religious schools) are the only option where children can get at least a basic education. That is where Shabab goes to recruit.”
Virtually unknown four years ago, Al Shabab has rapidly grown to become the strongest military force in Somalia, imposing its own selective interpretation of Islamic law on the southern half of Somalia that is under its control. Al Shabab troops in the very heart of Mogadishu prevent the weak Western-backed government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed from extending its authority beyond a few square blocks of the capital, along with the airport and Mogadishu’s seaport.