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Somalia's Al-Shabab Spreads Its Message In Kenya

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Somalia's Al-Shabab Spreads Its Message In Kenya

Somalia's Al-Shabab Spreads Its Message In Kenya

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

People are also crossing borders in East Africa, which is where we're going next. Al-Shabab is the militant Islamist group that's been trying to bomb and shoot its way to power in Somalia. But al-Shabab's ambitions and reach do not end there. The group has also been making inroads in neighboring Kenya, raising concerns in the government and among more moderate Muslims. NPR's Frank Langfitt has our report.

(Soundbite of traffic)

FRANK LANGFITT: The neighborhood of Eastleigh is a short drive from downtown Nairobi, but it seems a world away. Eastleigh is home to tens of thousands of Somali refugees. People here call it Little Mogadishu.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

LANGFITT: Somali music flows through the streets. Women in headscarves sell khat - a leafy stimulant popular in Somalia - from garbage bags. Residents here say another aspect of Somali life is gaining ground, as well: the radical ideology of al-Shabab.

Imam DINI (Muslim Preacher): (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: In the last five to six years, their influence has been growing more and more, day after day. This is Imam Dini, a local Muslim preacher. He says al-Shabab has gained sway at two major mosques here, where radical imams now encourage followers to return to Somalia and fight with the group.

Imam DINI (Through translator): They use people for their political agenda. They pay people money. We don't know where they get it. They bring together children, women, people who are uneducated.

LANGFITT: I'm chatting with the imam in a restaurant across from his moderate mosque in Eastleigh. It's empty this afternoon, and seems a safe place to talk. Some workers arrive to begin setting up the kitchen for dinner. Then I asked this: Should Americans be worried about al-Shabab?

(Soundbite of pounding)

LANGFITT: A worker slams a kitchen utensil in anger. He comes over to our table, scowling...

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: ...and orders us to leave.

To give you a sense of al-Shabab's influence here, when I just asked that question, the imam slapped me on the arm because the restaurant where we were talking was actually al-Shabab-controlled, and they just ran us out. So we're back now over at the mosque, where it seems a little bit safer. But that's a pretty good example of kind of the divisions in the Eastleigh.

Sheikh Ibrahim Moalim Nor is another moderate imam. He spent three years teaching in Eastleigh, and he says al-Shabab influences the lessons in many madrassas here.

SHEIKH IBRAHIM MOALIM NOR (Through translator): They tell children to kill other Muslims, Christians and Jews. And they say if they kill them, Allah will grant them paradise. And they say that's jihad. That's holy war.

LANGFITT: Nor says he knows many of the teachers from their days back in Mogadishu. He says he tries to reason with them, but it's tough.

SHEIKH NOR (Through translator): I told them this is totally wrong. Last night, when I finished praying, I argued with a Shabab teacher for three hours. I was trying to tell him that this ideology is totally bad, but he didn't listen to me. Three hours later: no agreement.

LANGFITT: Al-Shabab wants to create a strict Islamic state in Somalia. It's also been willing to strike elsewhere. In July, it took credit for bombings in Uganda, killing more than 70 people. Support for al-Shabab remains largely behind closed doors in Nairobi, but sometimes it boils over in public. Earlier this year, Somalis and Kenyan Muslims launched protests when the government here expelled a radical Muslim cleric who was visiting the country.

People in the crowds even waved the black flag shared by al-Shabab and al-Qaida. Kenyan police responded by arresting hundreds. George Saitoti, head of Kenyan Internal Security, was blunt.

Mr. GEORGE SAITOTI (Director, Kenyan Internal Security): The intelligence we have, we know that there are elements sympathetic to al-Shabab, and there may very well be that even some of them around here.

LANGFITT: Some people in Eastleigh are trying to fight al-Shabab. Khalif Moalim Hussein helped open a moderate Islamic school two years ago called Fathu Raman. He says he teaches a tolerant version of Islam, a deliberate alternative to Shabab's. But Hussein says competing with the group isn't easy. He says Shabab supporters recruit students for their schools with offers of money and free cell phones.

Mr. KHALIF MOALIM HUSSEIN (Through translator): A lot of Somali parents who live here are worried their children will be taken to Somalia to fight for al-Shabab.

(Soundbite of song, "No to Al-Shabab")

WAAYAHA CUSUB (Rap Group): (Rapping in foreign language)

LANGFITT: A Somali man has even weighed in against al-Shabab. The group is Waayaha Cusub, which means New Era in Somali. The song is called, No to Al-Shabab.

(Soundbite of song, "No to Al-Shabab")

WAAYAHA CUSUB: (Rapping) We're looking peace, love and unity (unintelligible) over money and power. Al-Shabab's killing every minute, every hour. It's gotta stop.

LANGFITT: The song was popular in Kenya and Somalia, but not - as you might imagine - with al-Shabab. After the song was released, al-Shabab supporters sent death threats to the band.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Nairobi.

(Soundbite of song, "No to Al-Shabab")

WAAYAHA CUSUB: (Rapping) Al-Shabab (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Frank is one of the NPR correspondents who work to find out for you what's happening in the world's dangerous places. And his reporting on Somalia's war continues tomorrow, right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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