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Somalia’s foreign legions

16/12/2009

Another week passes and more stories of young Westerners showing up on Somalia’s battlefields. Two distinct tales jump out this time – first, the recent bombing in Mogadishu was the work of a Danish-Somali suicide bomber; and second, an 18 year old Italian-Somali handed himself over to government forces claiming that he was sent over to fight by his father.

The first case appears to be what can increasingly be described to be the traditional model of recruitment for al-Shabaab. Drawn by a combination of religious zeal and nationalism, 25 year old Abdulrahman Ahmed Haji moved back to Somalia from his adopted home just outside Copenhagen about 18 months ago, taking a pregnant wife with him. Friends report that he was a gregarious young man who used to party and play football, but that recently he had started to withdraw into himself. A local leader in Copenhagen claimed that the young man had increasingly turned to religion.

The young man’s father claims that Abdulrahman has apparently been made a scapegoat as he was the only person who was not recognized amongst the dead in the hall – he claims he was invited to the graduation ceremony that was bombed by a friend who was also killed in the blast. As is typical of Shabaab, they denied responsibility for the attack which killed 24 including 3 government ministers. The bomber allegedly masqueraded as a veiled woman, and since the attack took place during a graduation ceremony at the local medical university there was further chaos afterwards at local hospitals.

The second story is stranger, and was initiated when a young man started waving a white flag on the battlefield in Mogadishu, surrendering to local government forces. Under interrogation, the 18 year old revealed his Italian roots and claimed “I have no intention of being a suicide bomber. My father sent me into this hell. He wanted me to fight jihad, holy war. But none of this interests me.” Born in Mogadishu, Asad Shami Sharif Abdallah joined his father in Padova, Italy when he was four, where he went to school and obtained an Italian passport. According to his father, he was awkward in Italy and wouldn’t always go to school, wandering instead around the city.

The father’s account has been called into question – according to the son, it was the father who at 16 filled his head with stories of jihad, told him about his religious duty as a holy warrior and took him as far as Dubai on the path to fight. Once in Dubai his father put him a separate plane which took him to Mogadishu where he was met by three men who took him to Chismaio for training. The father denies this, however, claiming that he did indeed send the boy back to Somalia, but because his mother had called for him. The Italian press has focused on the fact that the father would choose to send his son from il bel paese to war-torn Mogadishu, but it is also worth pointing out that it took the boy almost three years to hand himself in.

Whichever the specifics of these two cases, they do point most clearly to the continuing strength of connection between diaspora Somali’s and the conflict that ravages their home country. While the west has not seen any tangible backlash yet (the specifics of the Melbourne case remain unclear), and the numbers remain relatively small, there have been numerous cases in the past that demonstrate that returning jihadis can produce problems.

I have written a bit about this topic, including this paper for the ASPI and a shorter piece on the Minneapolis group. Grazie to Lorenzo for his thoughts and tips on this topic.