THE BLOG

Why Some Somali and Foreign Militants join Al-Shabab

30/09/2013 11:56 BST | Updated 30/11/2013 10:12 GMT

How many Westgates do we need to realize that US policy in the Horn of Africa is a major contributor to bolstering support for groups like Al-Shabab amongst Somalis and foreign fighters alike? In 2003, fresh out of university, I worked as a youth worker in Westminster on the Lisson Green Estate where I met young Bilal Berjawi who later became a senior commander within Al-Shabab. His nationality was revoked and he was subsequently killed by US drones.

I spent the whole summer playing pool and table football with young Brits of South Asian, Arab and Somali descent trying to diffuse the turf warfare between them and the Anglo-Irish community there. The turf warfare was sparked off by one of the Irish kids snatching a hand bag from a veiled girl who was walking in the local market. None of the boys I worked with including Berjawi were religious at the time, in fact the religious ones stayed away from this gang warfare, which they considered un-Islamic.

The rest, including Berjawi, felt that this was about defending the honour of Muslim women. Some had a siege mentality, born no doubt from the Global War on Terror discourse reinforced by the Media. These boys felt on the defensive. After all, what sort of home was it if you couldn't feel safe on your own patch? The incident was made worse when the boys hammered the perpetrator with a mallet in a revenge attack.

The authorities may deny Berjawi's Britishness because of his Lebanese ancestry, but this pug nosed young bruiser with a voice like David Beckham was Street London personified, from the way he hustled you in pool to the cusses you received when he scored a goal in table football. Yet, despite the street talk Berjawi was thoughtful and respectful. If Berjawi said he'd buy you chicken and chips as a result of losing at table tennis, he didn't try to get out of it. He didn't smoke and didn't do drugs like some of the others, but the boys respected him because he could scrap. Fighting was in his nature and he put it down to his Lebanese roots, where he said that guns were common amongst the various Sectarian communities, due to the civil war the country had endured.

At some point, Berjawi had a religious awakening and decided to take his faith more seriously, but how deep his understanding of religion was is unknown. Yet, like many British young Muslims, he was profoundly unhappy with US vis-à-vis Western foreign policy in the Muslim world. What drew him to Somalia was probably a combination of being married into the Somali community and US policy.

There was plenty of factual fodder to compel him to go to Somalia. The US had invested billions of dollars in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Djibouti. These countries served as the vanguard for the Global War on Terror. It is from these countries that drones are still launched to hit Yemeni and Somali tribes and clans that would otherwise have no problems with the US. It is in this region where black sites exist that are worse than Guantanamo Bay . To many young Somalis and young British Muslims, US policy was one of the main reasons for Somalia's woes.

The book, Securing Africa Post 9/11 Discourses on Terrorism, makes it very clear the extent to which US policy has contributed to the situation that we are facing in the Horn of Africa now. US policy supported the dictator, Siad Barre during the Cold War and donated over half a billion dollars in aid during the period 1983-1990 . It ignored his police state that repressed modernist or traditional visions of Islam. After Barre's fall and the initial cooling off period, the US intervened again: in 1992 eighteen marines were dragged across the streets of Mogadishu by the Warlord General Farah Aideed's men. Yet those eighteen marines came at the expense of a thousand Somalis being killed. That still smarts in the memories of the Somali community, who viewed its celluloid representation of Black Hawk Down as pure propaganda.

Following 9/11, the US adopted policies that aimed at preventing any activity that it labelled terrorist. Washington established the CJTF, a joint task force in Djibouti with 18 000 troops alongside investing heavily in Ethiopia and Kenya as their regional partners in this 'war'. The Bush administration committed 100 million dollars to counter-terrorism measures and gave birth to notorious black sites and African Guantanomos all over the region.

Due to the Whitehouse tarring all Islamist organizations as terrorist, movements like Ittihad al-Islami, a civil society organization consisting of teachers and graduates with Muslim Brotherhood leanings, were branded terrorists despite the fact that there was little evidence to that. The most effective group, the educated middle classes who could help build a stable state, were alienated when Washington supported brutal warlords against them and a civil war followed.

The lawlessness of the civil war saw the arrival of the grassroots movement known as the UIC, the Union of Islamic Courts. Whilst alien to Western liberal tradition, the UIC's version of Sharia had popular support. The relative peace that ensued was disrupted by the US supporting the warlords trying to depose the UIC . This, in spite of the UIC sending messages to Western embassies declaring their condemnation of terrorism.

The response to these overtures was met with UIC leaders being renditioned to Djibouti and when they returned they were 'disappeared' by the warlords. In 2006 the UIC defeated the warlords but the US used Ethiopia and later Kenya to depose them. To many Somalis and British Muslims, it was clear that the US would do absolutely anything to prevent Islam from taking root. And so, they reasoned, that extreme situations call for extreme measures. Hardly surprising then, that al-Shabab gained a following which it probably would not have received had the UIC been left to operate. Stig Jarle Hansen, author of Al-Shabab in Somalia, has commented that Somalia was traditionally more Sufi and later more inclined to Brotherhood ideology than Al-Shabab's version of Islam. Al-Shabab, a small faction of the UIC coalition wrested itself free from the moderating elements of the sheikhs and elders, carved out their own territory and attracted the likes of Berjawi to their ranks. Al-Shabab seemed to transcend clan warfare, could establish a semblance of law and order, possessed a global vision and conducted an effective media campaign highlighting their defiance towards US policy. All of which was attractive to those who resented US interference.

Analysts and policy makers often paint the Horn of Africa as a battle ground for AQ and do not make enough of the fact that US policies in the region have been destructive. They have given a reason for Somalis and foreigners, like Berjawi, to join organizations like Al-Shabab, because they represent defiance. The Westgate hostage crisis is callous and cold blooded, but it is a good example of how Kenya's unswerving support for US policies has led to the country being a target for militants like Al-Shabab. If there isn't a fundamental shift in US actions in the Horn of Africa, Westgate is only the beginning of further cycles of fury.