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Exporting insurgency

Somalia's largest terrorist group may be losing its grip within the country but is moving across borders with violence and persecution

Exporting insurgency

COMMITTED TO ISLAM: A man from a Somali tribal clan supporting al Shabaab carries an AK-47 and the Islamist black flag with the words “There is no God but Allah and Mohamed Is the Prophet of Allah.” (Associated Press/Photo by Farah Abdi Warsameh)

Handout photo

NO EASY LIVING: Garane consoles Jaceyl (in bed) at a Nairobi hospital.

Mursal Isse Siad became one of the latest victims of Islamist violence in Somalia when two masked men shot and killed the 55-year-old on Dec. 8. The assailants fled after gunning him down in Beledweyne, his hometown 200 miles north of Mogadishu, the capital.

Siad received death threats on his cell phone for leaving Islam, local sources told Morning Star News: “He failed to attend the mosque for prayers and used to pray at home. He used to share with us about Jesus,” explained his 15-year-old daughter. A Muslim resident in Beledweyne said he “deserved to die” because he was no longer committed to Islam.

A UN-backed government in Somalia—supported by an 18,000-strong African Union force—has made important gains in recent months against al Shabaab, the terrorist movement fighting for control in Somalia. Al Shabaab has lost key cities, including the port city of Kismayo, which fell to AU forces in October, but it still controls large parts of central Somalia. There the militants have banned radio stations from playing music and outlawed bell ringing to signal the end of classes “because they sound like church bells.”

Siad and his wife, who converted to Christianity in 2000, moved to Beledweyne in central Somalia after the government and AU forces captured the town from al Shabaab last year. Siad had taken a job with a local nongovernmental organization but was known to have left Islam. His death is a reminder that targeted violence against Christians in Somalia hasn’t diminished, and al Shabaab, even on the losing end of war, has promised to rid the country of Christians, who are mostly converts from Islam. 

Of mounting concern to Somalia’s neighbors is that as the Islamic insurgency movement gets squeezed in Somalia, it is finding new life in nearby countries, particularly Kenya. 

From Somalia across Africa, alarm is spreading about the rise of Islamic extremists, some with ties to Pakistan-based al-Qaeda. U.S. Defense Department officials plan to seek new authorization from Congress in the new year to go after such groups after one al-Qaeda offshoot took over territory in Mali last year and is fighting its government. The U.S. administration has called the Mali situation a “powder keg,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

“The conditions today are vastly different than they were previously,” Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa command, told the Journal. “There are now non-al Qaeda-associated groups that present significant threats to the United States.” He said a debate over new authorization is a “worthy discussion.” 

In East Africa, cross-border attacks from Somalia against Kenyan churches are on the rise, with all the markings of al Shabaab violence. Somalis have taken refuge from their country’s violence not only in sprawling camps near the border but for years in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. Not all are destitute: New luxury condominiums and other real estate boons are the result of bounty offloaded by Somali pirates, locals say. 

But Kenya is also experiencing a dramatic rise in terrorist violence, particularly in Eastleigh, a clogged suburb east of Nairobi’s central business district also known as “Little Mogadishu.” Kenya’s Christians make up 85 percent of the country’s population, but entering Eastleigh is like arriving at an Islamic, even Arab, enclave. Women dress in full-length black head coverings, and calls to prayer blare from megaphones mounted over shopping malls. 

With the changes have come rising violence directed at Kenyans, and particularly Christians in Eastleigh. Last November a grenade attack killed seven residents, and authorities say they traced it to al Shabaab. In December militants killed 14 people in three separate attacks in Eastleigh, the worst killing at least 10 people when a bomb exploded on a minibus full of passengers. And on Dec. 16 another grenade explosion injured one resident.

I met with one of Eastleigh’s Christian leaders in an upstairs apartment stocked with bookshelves full of NIV Bibles and Bible commentaries. He is not named for security reasons—as he is a former Muslim who studied and trained for a time, he said, with jihadists associated with militant jihadist groups. In 2006 after becoming a Christian he moved to Eastleigh with his wife: “We used to do outreach in Eastleigh but now there is only one church remaining.” 

Of 200 churches in the area, all but one, called Deliverance Church, have been destroyed or forced to shut down. In a case that made headlines and eventually went to court, a group of Somali backers managed to secure the deed to property for one of the largest churches, a 13-acre site on a prominent corner where Eastleigh’s Gospel Furthering Bible Church had met since 1968. Missionaries held services on the property going back to the 1930s. The Somalis eventually forced out the congregation and bulldozed the church, leaving a mostly vacant parcel surrounded by 20-foot-high corrugated metal barriers.

“Kenya is a free market country, so they are buying for commercial use and sellers don’t ask questions,” said the Christian leader. Adding to the growing Islamic presence, Somali and other investors with ties to Islamic groups have built shopping malls with retail space on the bottom two floors and a top floor set aside for use as a mosque. From the street in Eastleigh’s shopping district such malls display loudspeakers positioned on the rooftops for Muslim calls to prayer, and in some cases, minarets rising above dress boutiques. Inside, the imams are preaching radical Islam and some say raising funds for al Shabaab.

The transformation is forcing Christians who live in Eastleigh—Kenyan, Somali, or other—underground. “On Sundays we used to carry our Bibles and go to church,” said the Christian leader. “Now we have to hide. We have to be underground.” Worship and fellowship take place in houses away from public view, he said, and many who come are refugees—from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Democratic Republic of Congo—believers who say that despite the rising violence and persecution, they have nowhere else to go.

Fourth estate in exile

Mohamed Garane, Mohydin Hassan, and Maahiye Abdinoor Yusuf have one thing in common: They are all Somali journalists exiled in Kenya as a result of war and terrorism in their country.

In 2008 there were about 380 journalists working in Somalia, but according to Garane, more than 80 have been exiled to different countries in East Africa. Many have fled as a result of persecution by militias and other groups hostile to the media. Life as a refugee isn’t easy, and restrictive laws in the countries where they are exiled make it hard for them to continuing working—and for important stories from Somalia to be told. 

Some, like journalist Hassan Jaceyl, don’t survive the war-time duty. Jaceyl died last year in a Nairobi hospital of injuries he suffered after coming under attack in Somalia.

Garane, who serves as training secretary of the National Union of Somali Journalists, says the 18 Somali journalists living in Nairobi cannot be employed legally because the government of Kenya refuses to give them the necessary documents. He’s worked to initiate talks with the Media Council of Kenya and the Kenya Union of Journalists to win recognition and accreditation from the Kenyan agencies for Somalis. And to secure their protection.

Mohydin Hassan, a news editor for Radio Shebelle in Mogadishu, had to flee the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, in 2012 after two men accosted him as he left work. They shot him and left him for dead. The assailants, suspected al Shabaab militants, fired seven bullets at him, and one hit him just above the chest. In April doctors flew him to Nairobi for further treatment and to escape from further suspected targeted attacks. Warring sides in the Somalian conflict target journalists to intimidate them into silence, Hassan said. Even after leaving Mogadishu, his assailants continued to threaten him through email, via his cell phone, and on Facebook. 

Maahiye Abdinoor Yusuf, another journalist from Somalia, has lived in exile in Kenya for the last two years. Like Hassan, he ran away from Baaidoa, an al Shabaab stronghold, after militants threatened his life. While he longs to work, and is prohibited, he also cannot go back home because of insecurity. 

In late August Somalia’s parliament overwhelmingly elected a new president, the first planned legitimate transfer of power in the country in more than 20 years of civil war. Since that time government forces fighting alongside African Union troops have made important gains against al Shabaab and other militant groups. Representatives of media organizations, human-rights groups, and union officials launched a campaign to bring militants to trial for their crimes, and to raise concern over the upsurge of human-rights violations against journalists. In 2012 nine journalists were killed, yet no one has been held accountable for those crimes.

Mohydin would like also to see a return of peace in his country so that he can return. For now, the exiled journalists living in Kenya have formed an umbrella organization, Somali Exiled Journalists Association. But they are waiting for a new level of stability under the new government—so they can get back to work.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.