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Problems with jihadi tourism

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Nairobi SiegeIn 2011, it was revealed in WikiLeaks cables that the United Nations special envoy to Somalia was so concerned about rebels linked to al-Qaeda that he urged the United States to initiate strikes against targets in the region. 'Stating that the threat is critical, Ould-Abdallah urged targeted operations on terrorists in Somalia.' The British proved slow on the point, though the director-general of MI5, Jonathan Evans, warned about threats in 2010.

These have not proven to be hollow. Sixty-seven individuals lie dead after the President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta formally declared the siege over. The attackers on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi were linked to a Somali based outfit calling itself al-Shabaab, a standing affiliate of al-Qaeda operating in the Horn of Africa. They have been said by Kenyan army chief Julius Karangi to be an eclectic following of recruits. 'We have sufficient intelligence that this is global terrorism.'

British and US connections have been suggested. This is not as surprising as it seems. Samantha Lewthwaite, married to the 7 July suicide bomber Jermaine Lindsay, has been elusive in East Africa after allegedly being involved in a streak of bombings in Mombasa. Her presence looms, though a direct link has not been proven. As do, it has been suggested, the Minnesota Martyrs, a US based Somali group which has been recruiting in the state.

Outfits like al-Shabaab tend to find local areas of recruitment in Somalia dry. Their market lies elsewhere, among the 1.5 million Somalis who live outside the country. The theme of radicalisation rings better from a distance.

The reasoning behind 'recruitment drives' varies. The imagery of holy war and the trammelling of holy sacred land by the enemy are powerful, though not always accurate. Drone-warfare and Western involvement stemming from Yemen to Waziristan figure highly on the list. Videos are released showing recruitment and imminent glorious death. As for the attack on the Westgate shopping mall, Kenya's involvement in targeting al-Shabaab in Somalia and creating a buffer was seen as the trigger point.

Jihadi tourism is big business, oiled by a global recruit base from which various diasporas can be tapped. In the Somali instance, investigations have taken place in Minnesota, home to 32,000 Somalis in what has been termed 'Little Mogadishu'. The FBI has been particular keen on the Minneapolis-Mogadishu link, have been involved in a six-year investigation called Operation Rhino. The US Attorney for Minnesota has an estimate that 20 young men left for Somalia between 2007 and 2009. Convictions have also been secured in some instances for terrorism offences related to conspiracy and the supply of material support.

The Somali case is far from unique. The Afghanistan and Iraqi conflicts netted their fair share of foreign recruits in the fight against US-led forces. Most recently Syrians have found themselves conspicuously involved in various sides of the seemingly interminable conflict. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, between 140 to 600 Europeans have gone to fight in Syria since the conflict began in early 2011 'representing 7–11 per cent of the foreign fighter total'.

ASIO has also counted some 100 figures whom they suspect are directly involved, with the number possibly being as high as 200. In the words of former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, 'We are all aware of it and I probably can't go further because I can't comment on matters of security and intelligence but the relevant agencies are fully appraised of this.'

The situation is not entirely gloomy. Various western governments have implemented strategies to curb this global radicalisation of grievance. The United Kingdom has been running the Channel anti-radicalisation program since April 2007 to target youths at risk of involvement with extremist groups. It should be noted that, while the majority of those in attendance are Muslim, 10 per cent of cases have involved individuals from the far right. There are 500 individuals who have been said to be of immediate interest from a larger group of 2500.

In the United States, Muslim leadership has been enhanced by such groups as the Islamic Society for North America (ISNA), an organisation powerful in its condemnation of the Nairobi attacks. A formidable partnership with Jewish leaders has also been sought, promoting Abrahamic links between synagogue and mosque.

Groups like al-Shabaab are sustained by a range of factors, some opportunistic, and others systemic to the youth in question. Nor have unwise foreign interventions, some of them ongoing, helped. Authorities must accept that a global, jihadi franchise is only as effective as its inspiration. Most Somalis in the diaspora repudiate the attacks in Nairobi. Expatriate Somalis fear retaliation for the actions of the few. While images of radicalisation remain, the processes and programs seeking to defang the radical forces are already under way. 


Binoy Kampmark headshotDr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Kenya, Nairobi, Somalia, jihad



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Existing comments

"Jihadi tourism": you point to a dangerous worldwide phenomenon. This may be over-simplistic, but I think much of the al-Quaeda linked jihadi terrorism is due to a perceived Western "invasion" of the Islamic World there. George W Bush's "War on Terror" was seen as his "War on Islam". It is interesting, in the al-Shihab context, that Somali community leaders have continually pointed out in Australia that the unsupervised religious training classes for young people are easily taken over by extremists. To date the government, which partly funds these courses, has done nothing about this. Sensitivity and awareness to this sort of community approach might obviate the need for much more complex and expensive intervention later. In the grand scheme of things it might count for little against highly complicated advice from individual experts and think tanks but it may be considerably more effective. Perhaps this might be a way of building a more responsive and pluralist Australia at grass roots level? I firmly believe Islamic extremism in Australia can only be successfully countered with the active assistance of Australia's Muslim community. This is already happening. We need to encourage the trend.

Edward Fido | 27 September 2013  

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