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.

Heba Aly
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
Friends of Tawakal Ahmed gathered in his village of Isiolo, Kenya. Tawakal, who grew more and more radical, was killed in the fighting in Somalia.
Heba Aly
A woman of Isiolo, which has a wide mix of cultures, wears the ‘niqab,’ covering all but her eyes.

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.

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.

TAWAKAL'S FAMILY and friends say they know which path lead to his death. But they don't know exactly how he died. They've heard different stories, from different sources. They've been told that Tawakal strapped on an explosive belt and walked onto the base of African Union peacekeepers in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. They've also been told that he was killed while fighting with Al Shabab insurgents trying to overthrow the Somali government or slaughtered when he tried to escape them.

The only thing of which they are certain is that one day in November 2008 the phone rang in their home in Isiolo. Someone speaking Somali said: "Your son is dead. May his soul rest in peace. He died in the cause of Allah."

THE YOUNGEST of his siblings, Ta­wa­kal Ahmed was born into the Harti clan and a Somali family that had lived in Kenya for three generations. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by his aunts and older cousins.

As a child, his friends were a mix of Kenyans – some Muslim, some Christian, some ethnic Somalis, some of the Bantu and Turkana tribes. Together, they played soccer and chewed khat, a stimulant illegal in many countries but a staple in Somali society.

Tawakal's family and neighbors are Muslims, but not strict adherents. They don't pray five times a day, and khat and cigarettes are an integral part of daily life. Most of Tawakal's friends speak English better than they do Somali or Kiswahili, Kenya's national language.

Upon graduating high school, where he was chairman of the Muslim association, Tawakal tried unsuccessfully to find a job. He started the process for getting immigration papers to find work in Europe.

But slowly, Tawakal's course changed. First he began frequenting a madrasa, or Islamic school, in town. Within a year, he had memorized the Koran.

Then one of his more religious friends took him to the local mosque, Masjid al-Nur, just steps from his home. He began spending all his time at the madrasa or at the mosque. He often disappeared, say family members, for a month at a time. They say he was performing Tabligh, in which Muslims travel from village to village, preaching while sleeping in mosques.

He became so religious that he could no longer sit in the same room as his family members – whose smoking and chewing of khat bothered him.

"He didn't like that company," says a cousin who does not want to be named for fear of retribution by extremists in the community or by the Kenyan government. "He never used to talk to anybody."

One day in 2006, Tawakal abruptly left for the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Today, some family members recall that he went to look for a job. Others say he went for religious studies. Some say that he just left, without saying anything.

Family and friends disagree over where the indoctrination began – in Isiolo or in Nairobi. But it's clear that when he returned to his village, Tawakal was a changed man.

FOR TWO YEARS, no one heard from Tawakal. Friends say they finally learned that he had been seen attending Beit al-Mal madrasa and frequenting the Sixth Street mosque in Eastleigh, a crowded, poor suburb of Nairobi, inhabited mostly by Somalis. Family members went looking for him, without success. Then they heard he had gone to Somalia, where he was using a different name and fighting alongside Islamists.

His disappearance coincided with a heightening of the conflict in war-torn Somalia, where in late 2006, Ethiopian troops invaded to overthrow a Union of Islamic Courts that had taken power. The Ethiopians' success sparked a new wave of insurgents among the ousted Islamists, who wanted sharia (Islamic law) installed and foreign troops off Somali soil.

Tawakal would later tell an Isiolo village elder that he'd been fighting "pagans" in Somalia.

According to the elder, Hussein Noor Roble, "He went to Somalia when the Ethiopians came.... He said: 'I went to jihad.' He said he was fighting with the Islamic Courts Union.... I said [to myself], 'The boy is not the way he used to be.' "

Tawakal said he had been sent for training in the southern Somalia port town of Kismayo. He was then deployed to the front line in the Dinsoor area. But as government and Ethiopian troops continued gaining ground, Tawakal was pushed back with his fellow fighters to the insurgent stronghold of Raz Kamboni, the most southern tip of Somalia, on the Kenyan border. Raz Kamboni fell to the new Somali government on Jan. 12, 2007.

IN THE SPRING OF 2007, Tawakal called home. His aunt was on her deathbed and he was urged to come home. He showed up in Isiolo a few weeks later.

His aunt died the same day he arrived: April 1, 2007. He only stayed a few days. He told his family that he regretted missing the chance to speak to her, and participated in her burial service.

But he slept at the mosque, not at home. He regularly held long telephone conversations in private.

He harangued his friends when it was prayer time. He criticized them when they wore T-shirts portraying the American rapper Tupac Shakur and when they listened to music.

"He started calling me some [derogatory] names," says his boyhood Christian friend, Frank Metro, "and telling our friends: 'Don't listen to him. He's a lost one.... He's a kafir [infidel].' "

Tawakal seemed to have more money than before. He had changed his entire wardrobe to costly kanzus, the knee-length garment worn over trousers cut above the ankle. He was more generous than usual, buying his friends sodas.

He avoided the subject of Somalia with his family. But he did tell Kamar Hussein, the village elder's wife and the mother of one of Tawakal's closest friends, that he had gone to Somalia with 15 other Kenyans and met another 20 there. "We were 36 in total from Kenya," he told her.

His family urged him not to go back. But within a week of his aunt's funeral, he was gone again. He told his family he was going to Nairobi to pick up a certificate from his studies. He said he'd be back in three days.

That was the last time they saw him.

TAWAKAL'S TRANSFORMATION – "We didn't realize the magnitude of it," says Mr. Metro – mirrors a radicalization within Isiolo and other parts of Kenya.

Over the years, newcomers from Somalia made-over two of Isiolo's mosques with their ideologies. Visiting Somali clerics and graduates of Saudi Arabia's theological colleges spread a more conservative, fundamentalist form of Islam.

Residents say they're now told not to consume "infidel" products, such as Coca-Cola. Old traditions have been labeled un-Islamic. Last year, as village women gathered to celebrate the birth of the prophet Muhammad, according to the village elder's wife, a group of young boys from one mosque stoned and beat the women with sticks, claiming that only God should be revered.

The man who runs both Masjid al-Nur and Taqwa Mosque in Isiolo goes by the name Dalai. He came to Kenya from Somalia some years ago, as a young refugee. He was eventually appointed imam, though he was still a young man in his early 30s.

Tawakal's friends and family hold Dalai's mosques responsible for Tawakal's death. In his sermons, residents say, Dalai tells youths to fight for their religion in order to go to heaven. They say the imam likely influenced Tawakal to go to Nairobi and possibly connected him to extremists there.

But analysts are skeptical that such recruiting is directed from Somalia. The most militant insurgent group, Al Shabab, is not a monolithic entity with a clear hierarchical structure and does not necessarily have strong links directly into mosques.

"Sometimes Al Shabab's work is done for them by others, unwittingly," says Rashid Abdi, a Kenyan-Somali analyst at the Nairobi field office of the International Crisis Group. "Al Shabab is basically tapping into a wave, a radicalization phenomenon which is happening in the Muslim world."

Tawakal's family warned this reporter not to contact Dalai directly because, she was told, it would be unsafe for a foreign journalist, and for them.

According to Abdul Adam, the mosque's treasurer, Dalai denies any responsibility for Tawakal's fate. "He says it was Tawakal's own wish," Mr. Adam says.

Analysts say this radicalization is happening across Kenya, but they warn against reading too much into it. "I wouldn't place all the blame on radical Somalis," says one diplomat in Nairobi. "It's more diffuse than that.... Not every radical mosque is a hotbed for recruitment."

Still, some Isiolo parents now have private Koranic lessons for their children at home, instead of sending them to the mosque. Some residents are trying to raise money to build their own, less-strident Islamic school.

"The danger is imminent because of the desperation level in all the young people and the indoctrination that is going around," says Tawakal's boyhood friend, Metro.

The relative wealth displayed by those who control the mosques also leaves some residents suspicious. "Whether it's coming from the Middle East or Mars, I don't know," says Milgo Ahmed, Tawakal's older cousin. "But money is there. Money is being poured all over the place. That is how our children are being used and taken away."

Asked if a hard-line message was leading Muslim boys astray, one of the more moderate Isiolo sheikhs answers affirmatively, but then panics.

"Anyone who preaches against these people will be shot. I don't want to be shot on the pulpit," he says.

He begins to suspect his interviewer is from Al Shabab, or an agent of Al Qaeda. He refuses to give his phone number, and then insists that he not be identified in this story.

"If I die, it is you who killed me."

Despite their fear, Tawakal's friends and family say the only way to fight this perceived encroachment on their town and their vision of Islam is to speak out. "After losing him, we started to understand the magnitude of this thing – of a young man being poached to do bad things in the name of helping his family," Metro says. "It made us realize our vulnerability."

Ms. Ahmed, Tawakal's cousin, worries for the five recent graduates in her home who seem to have no opportunity for the future: "Tawakal is dead. He will no longer come [back]. But many, many other Tawakals are going to have the same fate if the international community does not take action," she says.

Her family feels helpless, she says, with no protection from extremists and nowhere to turn. Complaints to Kenyan authorities fall on deaf ears.

"We are in big trouble," Ahmed says. "We have nowhere to go…. Our children are not safe." •

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