Originally published Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 6:03 AM

Somali boys escape militia for poverty in Nairobi

A tribe of young Somali men trained to be suicide bombers has fled to Kenya and now they are fodder for extremist clerics.

Los Angeles Times


NAIROBI, Kenya — When his parents were killed in a rocket attack, the only person to show a lonely Somali boy named Abdi any kindness, or say a caring word, was a family friend named Abdufazil.

The man bought him meat and camel milk. Then he sent the 13-year-old to a training camp to become a suicide bomber.

Abdufazil was a commander of the militant Islamist militia al-Shabab in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, and he told the boy that Christians had killed his parents. He and other al-Shabab fighters urged him to take revenge for the attack.

"I wanted to do it," said Abdi, a slight, awkward boy with large, round eyes and shabby, too-small clothes.

Lying on his thin mattress in the camp in southern Somalia last year, the yearning for his parents was so deep it hurt. He longed for someone to love and protect him.

"I used to wake up and think of my parents and remember that I was alone," said Abdi, whose last name is not being used, to protect him from possible reprisal. "That was the first thing I would think every day."

He had one constant companion.

"Death would always be there," he said. "I was always afraid of death. I was always thinking, 'When will I die?' "

Now 14, he has escaped the training camp and lives in Nairobi's Eastleigh neighborhood, a throbbing hub of Somali immigrants where boys, ankle-deep in mud, push heavy carts in narrow streets lined with kiosks selling camel milk, rice and pasta. He has to share a mattress in a tiny room; when the other tenant goes to work during the day, Abdi can sleep. At night, he hangs around the streets, begging for food or coins.

Abdi is Kenya's worst nightmare: a trained suicide bomber in the heart of the capital, illiterate, alienated, hungry, bored, despairing. There's a tribe of young men like him in this country, fodder for extremist clerics preaching the glories of jihad and sacrifice.

The potential for violence escalated exponentially last month when Kenya, which had never invaded another country, pushed into Somalia to destroy al-Shabab. The surprise military operation, critics say, had more to do with the United States' counterterrorism policy than any major threat to Kenya.

Al-Shabab immediately vowed to unleash major suicide bombings in Kenya. So far, the incursion into Somalia has widespread support in Kenya, but analysts say that may evaporate if al-Shabab does carry out retaliatory attacks.

Promises made, broken

The promised strikes could come from young al-Shabab fighters trained in Somali terrorist camps. Most, like Abdi, were recruited in Somalia, but many also come from Kenya and neighboring countries.

Young Kenyans, some converts to Islam from Christianity, are given a cellphone and $5,000 to join al-Shabab and a promise that their families will get the same amount monthly, said Phyllis Muema, director of the Kenya Community Support Center, a not-for-profit group in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa that works on rehabilitating Somali fighters

After they join, the recruits' phones and ID cards are taken and some families never hear from them again. The families are told that their sons have been killed, said Sheik Juma Ngao, a moderate imam in Mombasa, who said young people were used as cannon fodder in battles.

"They teach them to kill," Ngao said during a recent visit to Nairobi. "The youth are just duped, and when they go there they're militarized. It isn't easy to escape. If they try to come back to their country, they're killed."

Abdi's story

Abdi's story cannot be independently verified but it is consistent with other accounts of the recruitment and training methods that have surfaced in Kenya through organizations such as Muema's.

The boy often feels out of place, and can't help showing it. He lowers his eyes and fiddles with his hands as he tells his story, or stares numbly ahead.

Abdi, who has never been to school, was molded by his mentor, Abdufazil, whose al-Shabab group is fighting the Western-backed transitional government in Somalia — and the African Union forces who protect it — often by shelling civilian neighborhoods indiscriminately.

Abdi's parents were sleeping when their house was shelled in the Huruwa neighborhood of Mogadishu in 2009. He believes the African Union forces, known as AMISOM, were responsible. The largest backer of AMISOM is the United States, which has designated the al-Shabab a terrorist group.

After his parents' deaths, Abdi was homeless for a month. Abdufazil, who knew the family, took him in to cook for an al-Shabab unit based in a large vacant building in Mogadishu.

"He used to buy things for me. He used to get me delicious food, special food from outside the camp. It was meat and camel milk. He used to speak to me in that kind way. He would tell me, 'You're a good man.' It made me feel good and boosted my spirits."

But Abdufazil and other al-Shabab fighters also told Abdi that he must seek revenge. They gave him a pistol to defend himself, and showed him how to use it.

"I was always afraid to carry the gun," he said.

Trained to die

A little more than a year ago, Abdi was sent with 90 other young recruits for training in the south. He still had to cook for the group, but he was also trained to die.

About 15 of them were chosen to be suicide bombers, and taught how to drive. The others were trained to be fighters and to use explosives. The first week of the suicide-bomber training, they watched videos every day from Somalia and Arab countries.

"I used to be frightened watching it. It was all about suicide bombings and death," Abdi said. In the videos he saw two suicide bombers loading vehicles with explosives, driving them into targets and blowing themselves up. After the first week, they watched videos every other day.

They were taught how to blow things up, make explosive devices and lay booby traps on roads. The training terrified him.

One day he learned that four boys from one neighborhood, forced to join al-Shabab, were planning to escape. They recruited Abdi, because as the cook he could move around the camp without suspicion. They delegated the most dangerous part to him: stealing guns they could sell to pay for the journey to Nairobi, out of reach of al-Shabab. If the militia caught them, they would be beheaded for deserting.

He managed to steal two pistols on a Muslim holiday, one of the few days when the recruits were allowed out of camp. They sold the weapons for $100 to some livestock traders who were on their way to a market in northern Kenya. They walked to the border with the traders, and paid $10 each in bribes to cross.

The boys took another $10 each and separated. Finally, Abdi got to Nairobi.

Abdi has few prospects in Kenya. He can't read or write and doesn't speak Swahili.

Things are so bleak that he doesn't allow himself to hope.

"My dreams are closed," he said. "I have no dreams, no life, no future."