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.

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

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.

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.

In Somalia, moderate Sufis, belonging to a traditionally peaceful group called Ahl al-Sunna wal Jama'a, have taken up arms to defend their vision of Islam against militant groups, like Al Shabab, that are not only fighting the government, but also desecrating Sufi graves and attacking their more moderate views.

In Kenya, Sufis are also fighting back, but not with guns. Instead, they are trying to keep their children alive through a "counterjihad."

"We are trying to teach our children at home. We don't even send them to madrassas.... We don't trust [the madrassas] with our children," says the sheikh. "If they knew you were writing this, you'd go back without a head."

How money flows through Eastleigh

According to a regional analyst who has studied Somalia for nearly two decades but cannot be named because his work is too politically and diplomatically sensitive, up to $3 million passes through Eastleigh to Somalia every year.

The money comes from businessmen who support the insurgency, from mosques that fundraise, and from foreign donors who sometimes funnel it through Eastleigh. Using an informal money transfer system called hawala, Somalis in any part of the world can make money available in Eastleigh within minutes.

From there, it can be carried north to the porous and badly guarded Kenya-Somalia border. The cash funds anything from guns to fuel to uniforms.

The transfers are hard to track, Mr. Marchal says, because they are generally small payments that do not attract much attention.

But money also gets to Somalia in other ways. He lays out an example: Sympathizers of insurgents knowingly buy sugar from certain vendors in Kenya. They send that sugar to Somalia, where it is resold. None of these activities are illegal, but "then the money disappears," Marchal says. "It's very efficient.... There is no profit, no fee. [All the money] goes to the organization. This is untraceable for anybody."

No entity in Eastleigh has been under more suspicion than the Sixth Street mosque, a small, unimposing building on top of a FedEx shop, hidden among laundry-cluttered balconies.

The mosque is among Al Shabab's main fundraisers in Eastleigh, according to a Nairobi-based official of the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force in Somalia who spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

"Sixth Street mosque has a history of supporting militant Islamist causes in Somalia since 1991," says the regional analyst. Its leader, Sheikh Umall, has called the Somali government an "infidel government" and a "puppet of foreign interests," he says. But knowing he is a person of interest to the US, Kenya, the AU, and the UN, Umall has sung a more moderate tune in recent months.

Fighters without borders

Unconfirmed numbers gathered by the Institute for Security Studies in Kenya suggest that as many as 1 in every 10 refugees crossing the border from Somalia into Kenya are members of Al Shabab, which has used severe forms of sharia, or Islamic law, such as amputating the hands of thieves and stoning women accused of adultery.

Al Shabab uses Eastleigh to treat its wounded and run madrassas, from which children often disappear, says the AU official.

"They have agents who are here, who brainwash these kids, who end up going there [to Somalia to fight]," he says. "It has become problematic."

The AU and UN say Somali-Kenyan recruits are joined by others from Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, even the United States and Europe – many of whom enter Somalia through Nairobi, according to analysts. Until recently, you could get a fake Somali passport in Eastleigh's Garisa Lodge mall in minutes.

Government plays down Eastleigh concerns

In June, the Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation reported that a Kenyan named Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan leads a group of 180 foreigners in Somalia, called al-Muhajirun, fighting alongside the Somali insurgents and connected to the global terrorist group Al Qaeda.

But the Kenyan government denies there is much of a problem.

"We don't believe Kenyans have gone to Somalia or have been recruited to go to Somalia," says Alfred Mutua, the Kenyan government spokesman. "We received reports of attempted recruitment, [but] ... because of our security apparatus, we've made it impossible for them."

In late 2006, when Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia to overthrow Islamists who had taken over, Kenya took precautionary measures, he says. It closed its border with Somalia, allowing only aid workers to enter Somalia from Kenya. The border is heavily patrolled by police, military, and helicopters 24 hours a day, and the government is using satellite technology to monitor vehicles crossing it, says Mr. Mutua.

Reports of recruitment are "mere speculation," he adds, as Kenya has used "very high intelligence" to infiltrate the Somali community and disband any recruiting circles.

Kenyan police spokesman Erick Kirathe says Eastleigh is under high surveillance – both overt and covert – because it is a poorer, more-crowded neighborhood where crime is more likely.

"It is much better policed than is apparent," he says. "Even visibly, there is much more police presence than in other areas."

Because the attention it has received makes it unappealing to terrorists, he argues, Eastleigh is not as threatening as people think.

Mr. Kirathe says no one has been arrested for supporting the Somali insurgency, and "we really don't consider Eastleigh a major risk as of yet."

"It's a point of concern," Mutua adds, "but we feel that we've got the situation under control."

Others beg to differ

Some observers strongly disagree. They say recruitment in Kenya is longstanding and widespread.

"We all know it's happening," one diplomat in Nairobi says, adding that the Kenyan government is unable or unwilling to stop it. The border may be officially closed, but even Mutua admits people are able to sneak through.

But sources say the Kenyan government is beginning to take the threat more seriously. "They are panicking," the diplomat says. "They were not doing their best. Now the threat to Kenya is higher than ever. They have to do something."

It seems the government is starting to feel that way, too. But it remains divided. Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula have called for sending in troops, as Ethiopia had done, to defend the Somali government.

"It will be most inappropriate and inadvisable to do nothing when our national security and regional stability is threatened," Mr. Wetangula said recently.

Authorities fear a backlash

But with hundreds of thousands of Somalis living in Kenya, strong involvement by the government and any taking of sides could expose Kenya to a big risk. Insurgents have already threatened to retaliate within Kenya if attacked.

"There's a reluctance to really mess with the Somalis," the regional analyst says.

The fear is not only on the political level. Insurgents are perceived to have such a presence in Kenya that even average citizens are wary of providing authorities with information on their operations. In Nairobi, activists who speak out against Somali extremists are threatened.

"Because I'm not one of them, then I'm on the other side," says a Somali civil society activist who goes by the name Madobe. He calls the Somali Islamist movement a "cancer spreading very fast," and the insurgents "sub-human." He believes they are tapping his phone and e-mail. "Anytime, I expect a very big knife in my back."

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