"I dream, mostly, of leaving," says 20-year-old Ahmed Aden of his home. He has been living in the Dadaab refugee camp for 11 years, ever since his father was killed in Somalia's civil war and his mother fled across the Kenyan border with her four children. The camp of some 120,000 Somalis, awash with arms and surrounded by bandits, is hot, increasingly desperate, and dangerous, Aden says.
Western donors, overwhelmed with requests for funding to deal with new crises and for new refugee camps elsewhere, has all but forgotten Dadaab. The World Food Program (WFP), which provides all of Dadaab's food, was forced to cut its meal portions by half earlier this year. By February, it expects to be out of corn. Cooking oil will be gone by May.
Some of this void is increasingly being filled by a Saudi Arabian-based Muslim aid organization called Al Haramain Islamic Foundation - a group the US says has ties to Al Qaeda.
So it is not surprising that ever since last month's bombing of a hotel in Mombasa, Dadaab has been on the lips of every investigative team in town. The FBI, the Israeli Mossad, and local Kenyan intelligence are investigating how Al Qaeda, which has claimed responsibility for the attack, was able to bring in weapons (including two surface-to-air missiles that were fired at an Israeli passenger jet), and where it recruited its agents. The answer may lie in the camp.
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Fund for Peace in Washington has been saying for the past two years that Dadaab, 60 miles inside the Kenyan border, is becoming fertile ground for terrorists. In interviews with camp refugees between August and December 2000, Kathi Austin, director of the NGO's Arms and Conflict Program, found an intricate web of communication links and arms transfers going from Somali border towns through the refugee camps to downtown Nairobi.
"I had specific information [about terrorist training in Dadaab] before Sept. 11," says Austin. "I was looking at arms networks going from Somalia into Kenya, and I ran into terrorists competing with criminal elements and clans to take advantage of those networks."
Austin, whose team returned to the camp in August, says that Dadaab is an "important pit stop" in the arms pipeline and also a "perfect" training ground for terror organizations. "There are a large number of people in a confined state with little scrutiny.... Meanwhile, more-radical Islam is taking hold there and being imposed on those not interested," she says.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Kenyan government, and the myriad of NGOs working in the camp all say they have not seen any such terrorist activity. Emmanuel Nyabera, UNHCR's public information officer in Kenya, says that Al Haramain in Dadaab is "not Taliban style," but rather "a normal, religious foundation which can't be denied camp access." But none of the officials here reject the possibility that radical ideas and training are seeping in.
With the renewed suspicions about Dadaab, the Kenyan ministry of home affairs has begun limiting journalists' access to the camp and asking that visitors be accompanied by a ministry representative.
Al Haramain's role in Dadaab is not large, but is welcomed by camp officials. It has set up religious schools; started social programs; and even begun distributing rice, sugar, and, during the holy month of Ramadan, offering up slaughtered camels and goats.
Still, the US is wary of the group's activities there and elsewhere. In March, the US blocked funds of the Somalia and Bosnia branches of Al Haramain, saying those offices were diverting charitable donations to terrorist groups. "The Somalia office of Al Haramain is linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and Al Ittihad al-Islamiya (AIAI), a Somali terrorist group," said a March 11 Treasury Department statement. "Over the past few years, Al Haramain Somalia has funneled money to AIAI by disguising funds as if they were intended for orphanage projects or Islamic school and mosque construction."
After the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi that killed 219, Kenya revoked the registration of five Muslim NGOs, including Al Haramain, accusing them of links to the Muslim militants who carried out the attack. Kenya's High Court later blocked the deregistration. No ties between Al Haramain and the bombing were ever established.
On its website, Al Haramain says it is not a radical group. "If anyone's definition of radical is to be 'extreme or extremist,' then we, indeed, separate ourselves from that since our deen [Islamic law] is not one of extremes," it says on the site.
In another section, however, the foundation challenges the US definition of "terrorism" and says that "defending Islam and the Muslim community ... involves taking up arms against the enemy."
Meanwhile, the Sunday Times of London reported last month that the CIA had information linking Al Haramain to the recent bombing in Bali in which some 180 people were killed. According to the Times, Omar Al Farouq, Al Qaeda's senior representativein Southeast Asia who was arrested in June, told interrogators that Al Haramain was the "principle source" of funding for the Indonesian Islamic group suspected of carrying out that attack.
"Our religion does not say to kill anyone," says Aden from the camp. "And I don't support bin Laden. But there must be others who do here. Clearly. Someone is doing the killing."
In the case of the Mombasa bombing, that someone may be Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan who, according to officials, owned the vehicle used in the suicide bombing. Investigators found bombmaking material in his home on Monday. Kenya's daily, The Nation, reported Tuesday that Mr. Nabhan was believed to have fled into Somalia. No ties between Nabhan and Dadaab have yet been determined.
While it is illegal to leave the camp without permission, many escape the fenced confines and head to Nairobi. There are, according to aid workers, 20,000 to 100,000 illegal Somalis living in the Kenyan capital - most of them in the teeming neighborhood of Eastleigh.
"You want a new generation Kenyan ID card? No problem," grins Salim, a young Somali sipping strawberry yogurt at Eastleigh's Lebanon cafe. "You want a Kenyan driver's license? Easy. A pistol? $60 only. A cellphone, perhaps?"
Outside, the "Dadaab express" - a colorfully painted bus dragging its muffler behind it - grinds to a halt and unloads an incredibly large number of passengers, each carrying stuffed briefcases or baskets.
"Everything comes through here," explains Ali, an older Somali with a red tinted beard, who, like others interviewed in the cafe, refused to give his last name. "Narcotics, electronics wholesale from Taiwan, cigarettes, messages, arms."
Both Ali and Salim started their Kenyan life in Dadaab, but now spend their days in Eastleigh ordering up spaghetti, chewing the popular stimulant khat, and "doing business." Would they, or their colleagues, work with terrorists - pass along messages, move arms from one place to another, spy?
"Who is a terrorist?" they ask. "We don't know and don't ask. We just do business."