The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)
Part III. THE DIASPORA
Chapter 12. The Somali youth time-bomb
London, July 2011
It was late on 1 July, Somali Independence Day, and the crush to get into the Tudor Rose nightclub in Southall, west London, was so dense that my arms were pinned to my sides. The bouncers, three over-inflated men with shaved heads and earrings and black and orange bomber jackets, looked on from the other side of a strong mesh door with heavy-lidded eyes, indifferent to the discomfort of the crowd and the cat-calls of impatience from the back. It was a warm evening, for London. The heady smell of scent and soap rose from the many young women in the crush, some of whom had spent a lot of time preparing for this evening, a big night out in the Somali exile calendar. There were hundreds of young Somalis trying to get in, and they had converged on this spot from every corner of the city. The girl in front of me looked understandably grumpy as the blue and white stars painted on her cheeks started to run. There was a sudden forward surge as the door was opened and five more people ahead of us were allowed to wriggle through the crack.
‘Good evening, sir,’ said one of the bouncers through the grill, ‘are you quite sure you want to come in here?’
It was a reasonable question. I was the only non-Somali he could see apart from the other bouncers, a shining white beacon in an ebony sea. I was underdressed compared even to the Somali men here, and a good twenty years older than the average customer in the queue.
‘I’m with her,’ I said, indicating my companion and guide for the night, Ayaan, who had been channelled away slightly by the squeeze of people.
Several heads turned to look, and the bouncer actually laughed. Ayaan was beautiful by any standards, a mesmerizing mixture of African and Arab with her sculpted cheekbones and delicate, skijump nose. Tonight, however, she was shimmering like a supermodel. She stood tall and proud in a traditional, off-the-shoulder silk dress called a guntiino. Long sparkly earrings dangled beneath her blow-dried coiffure. She was wearing blue eye-shadow and glossy red lipstick, and her breath smelled of honey and menthol from the Lockets she sucked.
‘Mind how you go then,’ grinned the bouncer, swinging the door open for us. Ayaan sashayed regally through, and I trailed smugly after her. At last we were in.
Ayaan’s outfit had come as a surprise when I picked her up from her council flat in the Ealing suburb of Greenford. Despite the late hour, I had come mentally prepared for a work assignment. I had asked her where I could see young Somalis having a good time, for once, and she had offered to accompany me to the Tudor Rose, arguing that I couldn’t possibly go to such a place on my own; she said it would look weird, and might even be risky. And now she was making a night out of it, a feisty, 30-something, single Somali girl with an obviously older white man on her arm, determined to have a good time too. She knew she was pushing the boundaries of convention by appearing here with a gaalo. It looked racy. But it was just as obvious that she took a mischievous, sassy delight in that, and especially in the confusion and affront on the faces of some of the younger men, all of whom mistook us for a couple on a date.
We had been introduced by a British journalist friend who had met Ayaan while researching a story about Abu Ayyub al-Muhajir, whose family Ayaan had come to know in the course of her job as a part-time social worker for Ealing Council. Al-Muhajir, whose real name was Ahmed Hussein Ahmed, was a 21-year-old Somali from Ealing who dropped out of his business studies course at Oxford Brookes University in 2007, flew to Kenya, crossed the Somali border on foot, and blew himself up in Baidoa in a suicide attack that killed twenty Ethiopian soldiers.
He was the classic example of a diaspora al-Shabaab recruit, the sort that most alarms the security services; his case was one of those that the former International Development Minister Andrew Mitchell had in mind when he remarked, in late 2011, that there were ‘probably more British passport holders engaged in terrorist training in Somalia than in any other country in the world’.1 The law of averages alone makes it likely that there are other would-be suicide bombers at large in Britain, or, an even scarier possibility, British passport holders who have received explosives training from al-Shabaab in Somalia and have already returned.
No one knows for sure how many Somalis call Britain home. The Office of National Statistics estimated there were 108,000 Somali-born immigrants in 2010, although most other sources, including those within the Metropolitan Police, believe the real figure is closer to 250,000 or even 300,000. Even at 108,000, the UK’s Somali community is far and away the largest in Europe. Britain’s past colonial involvement in East Africa had drawn Somali émigrés to her shores ever since the mid-nineteenth century, forming a natural magnet for the hordes of civil war refugees who followed on at the end of the twentieth. The UK’s immigration rules in the early 2000s were liberal compared to most other Western nations – or lax, depending on your political affiliation – leading to even greater inflows, including a significant amount of secondary migration from other European countries, particularly from Scandinavia. By 1999, for whatever reason, over half of all applications for asylum in Europe by Somalis were made in the UK.
Earlier in 2011, in Nairobi, I had met the future British ambassador to Somalia, Matt Baugh, over a beer on the veranda of the heavily guarded British Residence. As a glossy green ibis pecked its stately way across the immaculate lawn below us, he described how Somalia had become the destination of choice for would-be jihadis from the UK. Until recently, he explained, British policy had been to try to ‘contain’ the security threat these people undoubtedly posed, both to East Africa and to the British homeland. But the government had now realized that ‘containment’ was never going to work.
‘Somalia represents a kind of threat we haven’t seen before. It’s got the longest coastline in Africa and a huge porous land border. There are massive numbers of Somalis living in all the neighbouring states as well as around the world. It is not a traditional, geographical country, but a diffuse, global entity – and that is not physically containable.’
This was nowhere more true than in London, where the vast majority of British Somalis had settled: at least 80,000 of them, and perhaps as many as 200,000. The enormous size and variety of the capital’s Muslim community, of which the Somalis are just one small part, made it almost impossible to police adequately.
‘The international community needs to wake up,’ said Baugh. ‘Will it take another terror attack in the West to make them do that?’
In early 2010, Baugh continued, David Cameron’s new National Security Council had formally abandoned the old containment strategy for Somalia in favour of one of ‘engagement’ with the ‘main drivers’ of the security threat. For the Foreign Office, this meant helping the TFG to end al-Shabaab’s insurgency much more proactively than before, while urging them on with the process of political reform. For the security services at home, it meant working with Muslim communities to try to counter the causes of radicalization that led to terrorism, instead of just trying to catch the terrorists by themselves. The new emphasis was on prevention rather than cure. This is why, since 2007, the main domestic ‘workstream’ in the Home Office’s counter-terrorism strategy has in fact been called Prevent – a strategy that was formally ‘refocused’ following a judicial review in 2011.
Al-Shabaab’s diaspora recruits have a well-known profile. They tend to be young, disaffected males, alienated both from their families and from their adoptive society, and it was this dark side of the diaspora that I hoped Ayaan would help me explore. As a London social worker, she had spent years working among troubled Somali families, an experience that had made her an almost perfect bellwether of extremism. She had, it seemed to me, an extraordinarily acute feeling for what was happening at the bottom of the Somali exile heap, in part because that was a place where she had once been herself.
Ayaan’s life story, told to me a few weeks previously in a scruffy KFC restaurant in Northolt, was like a Dickensian parable of urban suffering and redemption. She had arrived in London alone in 1993 at the age of fourteen. Her father was absent in those days, working as a chef in Saudi Arabia. Her mother, desperate to get her away from the civil violence raging around the family’s home city of Burao in Somaliland, had taken her to Addis Ababa, the capital of neighbouring Ethiopia, and put her on a plane to London in the care of a nicely spoken young Somalilander she had just met in the airport, and who was going the same way. This stranger promised to deliver her daughter to a cousin who lived in east London. On arrival, however, he took Ayaan to his own family in west London, where she was effectively enslaved.
‘They took away my travel documents and put me to work, cooking and cleaning. I didn’t speak any English. I didn’t have a clue where I was, and I was very sick.’
She hadn’t told her mother that she was, in fact, pregnant by her best friend’s father back in Somaliland.
‘That’s life,’ she shrugged, without rancour or further explanation.
Ayaan never made contact with the cousin from east London, and was too proud, or too scared, or too broke to phone home. After eight weeks of being shunted between houses belonging to various relatives of the man from Addis airport, she ran away. She ended up in a care home in Wembley, a council-funded orphanage for runaways, where she eventually had her baby, a girl who was now seventeen. The two of them had lived in council care for the first four years of her daughter’s life, and still live together in Greenford.
Ayaan was certainly no Islamist, yet that did not translate into outright condemnation of al-Shabaab.
‘They’re Somalis, not aliens from outer space,’ she said. ‘They’ve got a different ideology and I don’t agree with it, but they still have to be part of the solution. We have to talk to them.’
She took a dim view of AMISOM, whom she called ‘mercenaries’. The Westerners who employed those mercenaries, meanwhile, were ‘hypocrites’, especially Britain.
‘When I arrived here the IRA were bombing London. And I thought, this place is another warzone, it’s not so different from Somalia: how interesting! And Martin McGuinness was a hardliner, but now look where he is.’
She disapproved of al-Shabaab’s terror tactics – ‘Their bombs kill women and children. All Somalis hate that,’ she said – and yet she understood why the Ealing student, Abu Ayyub, had felt the need to blow himself up in Baidoa.
‘If the UK wants to stop Somalis joining al-Shabaab, maybe the UK needs to change its foreign policy and stop bombing Muslim countries.’
Ayaan’s views on everything were shot through with a fierce, combative pride that could supplant all logic and reason.
‘Well done to them!’ she exclaimed when I asked what she thought about piracy. ‘The shipping is a legitimate target: a gift from Allah. Foreigners stole our fish and destroyed the reefs with their toxic dumping. I think you deserve it. I hate your navy warships. They behave like bullies in a playground.’
Given her upbringing, it was perhaps no surprise that she saw the world as a dangerous, hostile place. More bothersome was her deep, visceral belief that the only way to survive it was always to fight, as though the best form of defence was invariably to attack, whatever the odds. This was the strategy of the successful street-fighter. It was also the sometimes baffling philosophy of the nomad – what Gerald Hanley called ‘this continual challenge, this nomad machismo . . . the sharp, impatient bloody-mindedness of the Somali’.
There was plenty of machismo on display in the Tudor Rose that night. The dance floor was hot and dark and packed.
‘We Somalis are very strange,’ Ayaan yelled in my ear. ‘We run away from each other at home, but no matter how far we run we always end up seeking out other Somalis when we get there.’
The music was too loud for a sustained conversation. The club was a regular stop on the London reggae circuit, and the sound system was correspondingly immense. The hall was hung about with Jamaican and other Caribbean flags, and the bar at the back sold Red Stripe on tap, although there were no takers for lager tonight. Indeed, the area in front of the long counter, much to the bemusement of the staff behind it, was the emptiest in the entire room. Whatever vices these Londonized Somalis might have had, a taste for alcohol was not among them. It was as though the customers feared contamination by osmosis through the soles of their shoes, for the floor by the bar was gummy with old spilled beer.
From time to time, an MC in a baseball cap shouted incomprehensibly into a microphone on the tiny stage at the front. Later on he was briefly joined by a man in a white jalabiya – ‘Very traditional!’ bawled Ayaan – and, equally mysteriously, a military officer in full dress uniform, who stood at ease with his hands behind his back as he beamed at the crowd below. He never said anything, and no one else tried to explain his presence. It was impossible to tell whether he was a real soldier or a man in fancy dress – a freelance representation, perhaps, of some forgotten hero of the struggle for independence.
The DJ, operating from a kind of cage to one side, played music in the rap-meets-calypso Somali style. The dancers grinned as they moved to the slower numbers with a sinuous African grace, their hips swaying, their hands outstretched before them. I was pleased that I actually recognized one of the tracks, a number called ‘Deeqa’ by a young exile from Somaliland, Aar Maanta. Written in the pentatonic scale with traditional alliterative lyrics, it was a melancholic protest song about the racist abuse he once suffered at the hands of immigration officials at Heathrow airport: a modern interpretation, perhaps, of the incident in Berbera in 1895 with which the legend of the Mad Mullah began. Deeqa, a popular girl’s name meaning ‘gift’, was also the name of the defunct Somali national airline, a playful double-entendre typical of Somalia’s long bardic tradition. The Sayyid himself would have approved of Aar Maanta.
The crowd sang along happily to this music of exile, as they did to the national anthem, ‘Soomaaliyeey Tooso’ (Somalia, Wake Up!), the words of which clearly still meant something to the audience here, despite having been written in 1947. When it was played for the first time, I was standing near a group of four demure young women dressed in blue and white headscarves, one of whom smiled and shyly offered me the corner of the national flag she was holding. Then we all waved it gently up and down, like nurses changing a bedsheet.
Somalis wake up,
Wake up and support each other
Support your country
Support them forever.
Stop fighting each other
Come back with strength and joy and be friends again
It’s time to look forward and take command
Defeat your enemies and unite once again.
Become strong again and again
The atmosphere in the club changed as it grew later. I spotted one or two toughs who I was sure had not been there earlier, threading their way purposefully through the crowd, their unsmiling eyes bright with the expectation of trouble. All of a sudden there was a pronounced tension in the air, although it was Ayaan who sensed it first.
‘There’s going to be a fight,’ she yelled. ‘Come on, let’s leave.’
But we were too late, because back by the ticket office, our exit to the street was blocked by one of the bouncers.
‘I wouldn’t go out there if I were you,’ he said laconically. ‘Bottle fight. I’d wait twenty minutes.’
‘There’s always a fight,’ said Ayaan, rolling her eyes as we went back inside. ‘Every bloody time . . . I nearly wasn’t going to bring you here.’
The Tudor Rose, it seemed, was well-known for gang violence. In 2002, two men were shot dead on the dance floor during an anti-gun-crime event headlined by the rapper Dizzee Rascal. One of the chief suspects, Wayne ‘Brands’ Freckleton, belonged to a gang called the Church Road Soldiers from a housing estate in the borough of Brent, a place notorious among Somalis for the earlier stabbing to death of a 15-year-old schoolboy, Mogadishu-born Kayser Osman.
It was a relief when the bouncer announced that the danger had passed and we were permitted to stumble out into the cool of the night. There were no immediate signs of the earlier violence, although that, I discovered, was only because I didn’t know how to read them. As we were negotiating the club’s outer gate, I was tapped on the shoulder by a shifty-looking teenager wanting to borrow a pen. I offered him my biro.
‘That’s blue,’ he said, peering at it. ‘Have you got a black one?’
I said I didn’t. He hesitated before taking the blue one anyway, and walking off to the side of the building where he turned his back, hiding something. I couldn’t resist sneaking over to see what he was doing, and found him carefully inking a dark round dot on to the back of his left hand. I couldn’t make sense of it. Was he mad? A drug casualty, perhaps? Or maybe he was an illiterate, pretending for some reason to be able to write?
It was not until much later that I learned that he was most likely trying to simulate a ‘gang mark’ tattoo. Like most street gangs, the Somali ones tended to be highly territorial, and many of the people here were a dangerously long way from their patch. There was a particularly big group from Leyton in east London, who had come to Southall when a party there was cancelled at the last minute. It was two in the morning, and Leyton was 16 miles away, which was so far it was ‘like going to the moon’, according to Ayaan. She had never been there herself, even after twenty years of living in London. I suddenly felt a little sorry for the teenager who had borrowed my pen, for he had only been trying to bluff his way home.
The street beyond the Tudor Rose was not as empty as it first appeared. Here and there we passed parked cars containing young Somalis, all of them men, who were watching and waiting for something, anything, to happen. It wasn’t clear how many of them had even been into the club. Ayaan reckoned that most of them couldn’t afford the entry price, but had come over to Southall anyway for no other reason than that this was where the action was tonight. Somalis, she said, were ‘night people, like the Arabs’. These ones were here, as she put it, ‘to see what they could get’ – or else, she grumbled, to hassle girls. They were loitering with intent, as the police used to say, and we felt unpleasantly scrutinized as we passed down the pavement.
‘Hey, sister,’ called one of them, lowering his car window, ‘what are you doing with him? You should be with me. Is there something wrong with your brothers?’
Two Somali faces appeared over his shoulder, their eyes and teeth gleaming in the car’s dark interior, leering and egging him on.
‘Idiots,’ Ayaan retorted over her shoulder, without stopping or slowing down. ‘Don’t you know incest is illegal in this country?’
The catcaller’s mates found this putdown hilarious and shouted for us to Yo, stop!, but we kept walking.
‘God,’ she muttered, ‘don’t you hate that? Bloody kids.’
It was a relief when we reached the safety of the car around the corner. Ayaan knew what she was doing, but there was still a bit more bluster to her streetcraft than felt comfortable.
I wanted to find out more about the gangs, and in particular to explore what connection they had, if any, with Islamic extremism. I had not forgotten the criminologist Daniel LaDouceur’s theory in Garowe that al-Shabaab was in essence a big street gang, indistinguishable from those found in almost every big Western city. The impulse for joining any gang, as he told me, was the same: it was a primitive survival tactic based on strength in numbers. The Home Office’s Prevent strategy documents identified various places where young Muslims were vulnerable to ‘violent radicalization’, such as schools, universities, prisons and mosques. Muslims could also radicalize themselves, courtesy of ‘Sheikh Google’, alone at home on a computer. But the Prevent strategy made little mention of London’s gang culture, an oversight pointed out at a Home Affairs committee hearing in 2012, where it was stated that there was ‘a particular risk of radicalization linked to membership of some criminal gangs’, especially if those gang members ended up in prison.2
And a great many young Somali gang members did end up in prison. I spoke to a number of community leaders in the course of 2011, and they all said the same thing. Sharmarke Yusuf, the chairman of AMIC, the Association of Mosques and Islamic Centres, an umbrella group of seven London Somali mosques, and whose office was around the corner from the Tudor Rose, told me that a ‘majority’ of Somali youth was either currently in or had recently been through the criminal justice system. At any one time, he asserted, fully two-thirds of young London Somalis were ‘on the street’, by which he meant they were actively involved in gangs or drugs or other minor crimes. Mohammed Elmi, the Wembley-based head of the community group Somali Diaspora UK, spoke even more gloomily of a Somali youth crime ‘time-bomb’ in Britain. He had recently visited the Youth Offenders’ Institution at Feltham, and was appalled to discover that, for the first time, it contained more inmates from Somalia than from any other foreign country.
‘There were over sixty Somalis in there! More, even, than the Jamaicans,’ he added in shocked tones.3
Feltham, as the Home Office were all too aware, had a dangerous reputation for radicalization. Richard Reid, the would-be ‘shoe-bomber’ who tried to blow up an American Airlines passenger jet in 2001, famously converted to Islam while locked up there for petty theft. Muktar Said Ibrahim, the leader of the failed suicide attacks against London Transport on 21 July 2005, also once did time in Feltham for a gang-related offence. The 21/7 attacks had a pronounced Horn of Africa flavour: Ibrahim was from Eritrea, while two other conspirators, Ramzi Mohamed and Yassin Omar, were born in Somalia. Another former Feltham inmate, Jermaine Grant from Newham in east London, was arrested in December 2011 in Mombasa, having entered Kenya on a false passport; police were convinced that he was a part of an al-Shabaab bomb plot.
The Feltham connection was highly suggestive, yet Sharmarke Yusuf did not think that this institution per se was to blame for the radicalization of Reid and the others.
‘There is no overt evidence of al-Qaida radicalization within Feltham,’ he said. ‘It happens, rather, on Feltham’s doorstep, back out in the community, underground.’
He thought that radicalization, like incarceration, was an effect rather than a cause of a deeper, social problem. He pointed out that unemployment among Somali men of working age had doubled in the last ten years, to 40 per cent, the highest rate of any immigrant community. This was just an average, for the rate was far higher in some parts of London, and higher still among the young. Only half of British Somalis had any educational qualifications at all, and only 3 per cent of them had a higher education qualification.
‘Life in the UK can be overwhelming for Somali teenagers,’ he said. ‘They do badly in school, they can’t find work, and we have so many prejudices to deal with. We are Muslims, and we are black. To cap it all, we are Somali, which means that we are even rejected by other Africans.’
It was hardly surprising, he said, that so many young Somalis felt alienated from society, and no less surprising that they should turn to Islam as a means of coping with that feeling. As the chairman of an association of mosques, Sharmarke naturally saw nothing wrong with that. But, as he acknowledged, alienated young people were also vulnerable to ‘misleading influences’ – and that was when radicalization could occur.
The British government, he thought, was partly to blame for this state of affairs. Perhaps like any community displaced by a brutal civil war, the Somalis had special needs, and so needed extra support to help them assimilate into British society. Instead, however, they had largely been ignored, at least until the London bombings of 2005, when the government properly woke up to the threat of Somali extremism. The early years of the Prevent programme, however, had been ‘a disaster’.
‘The government saw the issue in black and white, but there are no quick fixes because the roots of the problem run so deep,’ Sharmarke observed.
The government was so anxious to be seen to be tackling the causes of extremism after 2005 that they granted Prevent funding to almost any Muslim organization that asked for it, with the minimum of checks as to its suitability, and little control over how the money was spent once allocated. Dozens of new community bodies were set up, some of which appeared to exist almost solely in order to get their hands on the government cash. The budgets were huge. In 2008–9, according to a report by the Institute of Race Relations entitled ‘How Not to Prevent Violent Extremism’, the government blew £140m on projects such as the Enfield ‘Shoot a Ball not a Gun Basketball’ project (which received £26,000) and the Edmonton Eagles Boxing Club (£16,000).
‘Some mosques accepted the money, others did not,’ recalled Sharmarke. ‘It caused many divisions, and a whole community was stereotyped as freeloaders and fraudsters as well as potential terrorists.’
Now that the Prevent programme had been refocused, and with funding cuts and a change of government, the Home Office spending bonanza had dried up, leaving the Somali community almost back where they had started in 2005. Sharmarke was still bitter about a speech by David Cameron in Munich in February 2011 in which he declared that multiculturalism wasn’t working.
‘He said we Muslims need to take responsibility for our own problems – that “if you don’t integrate, then this is no country for you”. But what we need is greater engagement from the government, not threats.’
It would take time, he thought, to deal with the root causes of radicalization. The key, he said, was ‘early intervention’, by which he meant getting to young people before the radicalizing ‘bad influences’ – ideally, when they were still schoolchildren – with the goal of teaching them to be ‘proper’ Muslims.
‘No suicide bomber has ever had a proper grounding in Islam, which prohibits the killing of innocents,’ he insisted.
It was in Britain’s madrassahs and primary schools, he was convinced, that the war on terror would eventually be won.
But that was mostly a prescription for the future. The reality of the present was that a great many young London Somalis had turned not to Allah for their salvation, but to the gangs.
The violence and tenacity with which the Somalis fought to defend ‘their’ postcode had long been notorious. Like red squirrels chased by grey ones, existing gangs of other ethnicities were frequently driven off their traditional territories. According to a Special Branch officer I later interviewed, two Punjabi gangs in Southall, the Holy Smokes and the Tooti Nungs, had been ‘wiped out’ by the Somalis, a new generation of gangs whose aggression was often explicit even in their names, such as MDP (which stood for Murder Dem Pussies) and GFL (Gunz Fully Loaded). In Bristol, according to a study published in 2008, the Somali newcomers were so feared that two long-established rival gangs, one white and one Afro-Caribbean, formed an unprecedented alliance in order to oppose them.4
The reason for the Somali gangs’ extreme viciousness, according to ‘a number of senior police officers’ spoken to during the same study, was ‘the level of violence experienced in Somalia, coupled with the level of alienation Somali communities experience in Britain’. Were they right to infer that Somali gang violence was partly learned behaviour, copied from the mayhem witnessed in the homeland? If so, then here is another reason for Britain to involve itself in the search for a political settlement in Somalia – because the effect of the gangs is arguably even more pernicious than the threat of exported terrorism.
There is no question that religious extremism, and the implicit threat of terrorism that goes with it, undermines the Western way of life. Britain has been forced to live with the possibility of a spectacular terrorist attack for over a decade. And yet the tally of people actually killed by Muslim extremists on British soil since 9/11 stands at just fifty-six, all of them in the 7/7 bombings of 2005. The danger of terrorism is mostly in the mind, unlike the threat to personal safety posed by street gangs. Between 2009 and 2011, there were ninety-two gang-related murders in London alone.5
The petty crime and violence they trade in are banal compared to 9/11 or the prospect of a nuclear dirty bomb. Yet these things eat away at the urban social fabric on a daily basis, spreading fear and misery (and drugs) in the inner cities, blighting lives, and trashing the country’s reputation internationally. Britain locks up more of its young people than any country in the Western world apart from the US, and its prisons are bursting, yet the gangs are still not under control. The mindless violence and lawlessness they espouse was well expressed by a four-day riot that broke out in several English cities in August 2011. The catalyst for the riots, which cost the taxpayer at least £133m in policing and compensation bills, was the police shooting in Tottenham of ‘Starrish Mark’ Duggan, a founder member of the Star Gang. Analysis of the nearly 2,000 people later brought before the courts revealed that 13 per cent were involved in gangs, a figure that rose to 19 per cent in the capital.6
Gang violence seemed almost glorified by some sectors of the Somali community. Shank, a knife crime drama released in 2010, was the debut film of the London-Somali music video director, Mo Ali. It followed characters with names like Tugz, Kickz, Craze and Rager through a futuristic urban dystopia (but actually filmed in the south London borough of Walworth) when ‘the gangs have taken over’. The film was not well received by the critics. It received a rating of 0 per cent on the cinema review aggregator website, rottentomatoes.com. Empire magazine said it ‘looks like it was informed by a generation raised on Grand Theft Auto for any sort of cinematic aesthetic . . . If this is the future of film then we’re all doomed.’
Less laughable was the experience of Jane, a tough, no-nonsense teacher I knew, who spoke to me on condition that I neither gave her real name nor identified the secondary state school in south-east London that employed her. As many as a third of her school’s 1,500 pupils were Somali-born, easily the largest ethnic group in a school where only 28 per cent of the pupils were born in the UK. The behaviour of a small minority of these Somalis, Jane said, could be ‘feral’. A fierce rivalry between two local gangs, the Woolwich Boys and the Thamesmead ‘T-Block’, was played out constantly in the school. The former gang ran a cadet organization called the Younger Woolwich Boys, some of whom were as young as seven. Beyond the school gates they were all in the drug-selling business; the seven- and eight-year-olds, according to Jane, were often employed as runners because the police would never think to stop and search someone so young.
‘I’m not racist, but the behaviour of some of the Somalis is so impossible that the system just can’t cope,’ Jane said. ‘I’d have fewer of them in the school if I had a choice.’
One night in October 2009, three former pupils of Jane’s, all Somalis between the ages of seventeen and eighteen, were among a group of five Woolwich Boys who travelled by taxi to Thamesmead, intent on avenging an earlier incident in which one of their number had been chased by a pack of T-Blockers. As they later explained to police, they had ‘gone hunting’. On a footbridge, the gang fell upon 22-year-old Moses Nteyoho, a random pedestrian who had nothing to do with the T-Block, and stabbed and bludgeoned him to death using knives and a hammer. Pathologists later calculated that Nteyoho had taken less than ninety seconds to die. Far from turning them in, the killers’ female relatives then helped the boys to flee to Nairobi, a truly depressing indication of how poorly integrated into British society certain segments of the Somali community still were. Happily for the cause of justice, the killers made the mistake of returning to Britain after two months, when they were caught and jailed, as were the relatives when their role in the Kenyan flit was discovered.
Many of Jane’s older Somali pupils were appalled by the senseless savagery of Nteyoho’s death.
‘Some of my older Somali kids say privately that the situation is worsening for a whole generation of Somalis in the 16-year-old-plus bracket,’ she said. ‘They are worried that the Somali community is increasingly being perceived as a danger to society as a whole.’
It wasn’t fair, because most of Jane’s Somali pupils had nothing to do with the gangs, and many of them were excellent students. She had noticed, however, that the success stories were almost exclusively from what she called ‘the middle-class families’.
‘I’ve got one Somali at the top of Year 11 . . . his dad’s a doctor,’ she said. ‘Education is obviously the key.’
At Jane’s school, clever or studious pupils were known as ‘bods’, who did not mix with the ‘losers’ who were more likely to be gang members or to be in trouble with the law. This division reflected a polarization in the British Somali community generally. Successful, ‘middle-class’ British Somalis tended to be descended from an earlier generation of refugees, often northerners from Somaliland, who had had time to establish themselves in Britain. Assimilated Somalis were sometimes disparaged by their more traditionally oriented countrymen as ‘fish ‘n’ chips Somalis’. They made a stark contrast to the more recent arrivals who had flooded in during the early 1990s following the Siad Barre collapse. The newer refugees tended to be from the south where the civil war had raged most fiercely. Thus it was that the bitter north–south clan divide that had wracked Somali society for so long at home was perpetuated in another form in exile on the streets of London.
For Jane, the number-one problem was that so many of her Somali pupils were chronic underachievers. Some seemed genuinely unable to stop themselves from performing and behaving badly, as though there was something deep in the nomad psyche that responded negatively to the constraints and rules of school. The problem was replicated across London. Sharmarke Yusuf said that between 2009 and 2010 in Ealing, as many as 280 Somali pupils, some of them as young as five, were ‘permanently excluded’ from the state education system: one of the highest expulsion rates in the entire country.
The causes were complex, the explanations varied. The traditional authority figure in a Somali boy’s upbringing, Sharmarke explained, was the father. But this source of discipline was often absent from families living in Britain, either because the father had been killed previously in Somalia, or else because he was ‘out working in factories, or doing a 12-hour shift as a taxi driver’. For whatever reason, the job of disciplining teenage boys tended to be left to the mothers, who were spectacularly failing to fill the gap. Somali families were often large. Broods of five, six or more children were common, and as recent refugees they were often very poor. Depression, anxiety, and other debilitating mental disorders associated with displacement and the trauma of war were also alarmingly widespread, further affecting many families’ ability to cope.
Language, according to Jane, was another ‘huge issue’. The mothers were often unable to speak, let alone read, English, so they depended on their sons to communicate not just with the school but with all representatives of officialdom. The results were predictable – for what wayward teenager would choose to read out a headmaster’s letter of reprimand addressed to their mum? Jane thought that Somali mothers were in any case unusually deaf to criticism of their sons, whom they appeared culturally predisposed to spoil.
‘In our culture, if a boy does something wrong, we discipline him. But if a Somali boy does something wrong, the mother frequently buys him a present – trainers, the latest gadget – as though to control him through bribery. Whatever he has done wrong is forgotten about, and no shame attached . . . It is the opposite for girls, for whom the shame is apparently permanent. This is very weird parenting.’
I asked Jane if Islamic extremism was an issue, either within the school or beyond its gates. As an occasional teacher of Religious Education, with a mandate to instruct her pupils in the basics of all the world’s religions including Islam, she was perhaps in a position to know.
‘Somalis are always being marginalized as potential extremists,’ she replied, ‘yet I’m constantly struck by how little they know about their own religion. Then again, they know amazingly little about anything . . . But the younger ones don’t even know what the main parts of a mosque are called. My impression is that a lot of them go to mosque once or twice a year at most.’
Her answer tended to support Sharmarke Yusuf’s conviction that it was ignorance of Islam rather than a surfeit of it that put young Muslims on the path to violent radicalism. I asked her, rather tactlessly, if she had heard of Gary Smith, the head of Religious Education at the Central Foundation Girls’ School in Bow in east London, and she stopped me, horrified, before I could go any further. Smith had been walking to work one morning in July 2010 when he was attacked and severely injured by four heavily bearded Muslim men armed with a brick, a Stanley knife and a metal bar. One of them, Azad Hussein, 26, had a niece at the school, and disapproved of her being taught by Smith.
‘He’s mocking us and he’s putting thoughts in people’s minds,’ Hussein was heard to say. ‘How can somebody take a job to teach Islam when he’s not even a Muslim himself?’7
Hussein showed how short the distance could be between gang crime and religious extremism. The journey from one to the other was explored in detail in a Channel 4 documentary first aired in 2008, From Jail to Jihad, in which the ex-Reuters Middle East correspondent Amil Khan interviewed a member of a gang called the Soldiers of Allah. This gangman – evidently a recent convert to Islam – saw himself as a kind of Muslim vigilante.
‘We are all soldiers of Islam, all slaves of Allah,’ he mumbled through the mask he wore to preserve his anonymity. ‘We no criminals, you get me? We just people dat fix da environment.’
It was a highly distorted, street version of the faith that could be used to justify violence against other, non-Muslim criminals, or as Khan’s interviewee put it: ‘Kuffars, you can take what they have, cos they don’t worship in the ways of Allah.’ Part of the proceeds of crime could even be paid to charity as zakat, the third pillar of Islam. A track by a long-disbanded gang-cum-rap group called SMS – the South Muslim Soldiers – confirmed that London gangland had effectively come up with its own version of jihad:
For the cause
We kick down doors and break laws
We don’t care about police we live by Allah’s laws
For the cause I clap down niggaz that test me
I’m a Muslim, I can’t let nothing oppress me
For the cause I won’t stop until I reach my garden
I beg your pardon, I ride with bin Laden
Times had changed and bin Laden was dead, but the ‘al-Qaida chic’ which underpinned gangs like SMS was as strong as ever; and as the police realized, it was a very short hop indeed from belonging to a gang like the Soldiers of Allah to signing up with an actual terrorist organization.
‘It’s just another form of belonging,’ said Abid Raja of the Muslim Contact Unit, a part of SO15, the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command. ‘Radicalization is a subtle progression. The kids sometimes don’t notice the massive steps they’re taking. And Somalia is such a cause célèbre now . . . Certainly, some of them aspire to go there.’
Raja and his colleague, Detective Sergeant Paul Birch, worked from a semi-fortified office block in Earl’s Court. They took me for a coffee in their canteen on the thirtieth floor, from where there was a stupendous easterly view across central London to the cranes and offices of the City, rising like a crystal bar-chart through the urban haze. Five minutes after we had sat down, I glanced back through the window to find that the city had vanished, and that the horizon’s centre point was now Windsor Castle, 18 miles to the west. The policemen had neglected to mention that the entire thirtieth floor was slowly revolving – an apt metaphor, no doubt, for those critics who thought the government’s Prevent strategy was also going round in circles.
The Muslim Contact Unit was set up in 2002 by Bob Lambert, a former professor of Islamic Studies at Exeter University, with the aim of forging partnerships with Muslim community groups in order to fight extremist ideologies from the inside. His idea was to recruit the relative moderates among the Islamist community because they were best placed to understand, and thus counter, the twisted Salafist theology deployed by al-Qaida.
‘Lambertism’, as the MCU’s doctrine was known, had many early successes, notably in helping to turn the community of Finsbury Mosque against the country’s most infamous radical preacher, the hook-handed Abu Hamza.
The doctrine had since fallen out of political fashion, however. Critics charged that some of the MCU’s local partners were too close, ideologically speaking, to the very radicalism that SO15 was supposed to be countering. When the Prevent programme was relaunched in 2011, dozens of the MCU’s former partners found themselves reclassified as ‘non-violent extremists’, and their funding was withdrawn on the grounds that they were opposed to ‘fundamental and universal’ British values. Lambert himself remained a right-wing hate figure, even though he retired from the MCU in 2007. One blogger recently called him ‘the last beacon of hope for Islamists in the remnants of Londonistan’.8 These were difficult times, therefore, for the MCU.
‘The political agenda has slid to the right, and the funding cuts are interfering with practical solutions,’ Abid Raja said.
And yet in its quiet way, the MCU remained at the spear-tip of the fight against radicalization. Birch and Raja insisted they still had the support of London’s communities, and had little time for the vicissitudes of Whitehall and its unhelpful ‘labels’. Meaningful community relations depended on trust that took years to build up. Raja, who had been in the Met for seventeen years, explained that the MCU’s ‘street cred’ was crucial. This was partly why six of its eleven most senior officers were Muslim, including the Pakistanborn Abid, who wore a turban and a very substantial beard. ‘To be frank, it’s taken years to get to where I am now,’ he smiled.
He explained how as a younger man he had been a non-practising Muslim, a ‘Jack-the-Lad Londoner into girls and nightclubbing’, but that a personal tragedy, the death of a daughter, had turned him towards Islam. He flirted with fundamentalism, but 9/11 forced him to question the direction of his faith. Eventually, under the tutelage of a religious scholar called Shafi Malik, he evolved his own Muslim modus vivendi based on tolerance of others.
‘It was a very personal, individualized journey, as I think it has to be for all Muslims. But I am convinced that it is possible to live by Sharia and to live in the West.’
It was easy to see how the MCU had been misunderstood in its work. Abid Raja the Pakistani philosopher-copper did not fit the public’s image of counter-terrorism authorities, and nor did his Lambertist prescriptions.
‘Give ’em Islam: conservative Islam,’ he said at one point with a stroke of his beard when I asked what he thought should be done about the Somali gangs. ‘The Daily Mail doesn’t like it, but Sharia is the saviour of law and order. It is the opposite of an attack on Western values.’
The Home Office did in fact try to ‘give Islam’ to Muslim miscreants, notably through its network of prison imams. But these individuals went through such a strict government vetting procedure before they were appointed that, as Amil Khan pointed out, they often lacked vital credibility with the hardliner prisoners that the government most needed to reach – for who among them was going to listen to an imam bearing a stamp marked ‘UK government-approved’?
The MCU’s task, according to Raja, had not changed in ten years: they were on constant lookout for people with religious credibility who enjoyed the respect of their community, and who might work alongside the MCU as ‘local partners’. Such relationships, however, had to be handled ‘incredibly carefully’ if the credibility of the partner was not to be tainted by association. Paul Birch admitted that the MCU was ‘still playing catch-up’ with the Somali community in this regard.
‘There are some Somali imams out there with the right level of credibility, but they are very low profile. The only way they can reach an audience of any size is to use the media, but if they do that, then their credibility is destroyed . . . It’s catch-22.’
The media organization most deeply involved in the Somali community fight against extremism, and which continues to enjoy Home Office funding for their vital hearts and minds work, is the privately owned Universal TV, a Somali television channel that has broadcast from London since 2004. I went to meet one of UTV’s star producer-presenters, Abdi Jama, at the Jump in Jack café near his home in Acton Town. Until recently, he explained, UTV was the only UK-based Somali broadcaster, although these days there were as many as seven. It sounded a lot for one ethnic minority, but UTV’s audience was genuinely global, and its ratings appeared not to have been dented at all: Abdi Jama said that his Saturday night show, Social Issues, was regularly watched by 2.7 million viewers. As the New York Times’s veteran Somalia correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman pointed out, UTV plays a unique role in the wider community, like a guardian of nationhood in exile: ‘If there is any nucleus of the Somali diaspora, any glue holding together a people who have been scattered by war and settled everywhere from Sydney to Minneapolis, it is Universal TV.’9
Jama saw the battle against religious extremism as a ‘moral obligation’, and a lot of UTV’s programming, such as Sunday night’s Young Perspective or YP Show, was overtly organized around this principle and directly aimed at Somali youth.
‘We can’t afford another 7/7,’ he said. ‘It could have been my own kids on that bus.’
His speciality was the phone-in programme. He employed a roster of seven imams who answered questions from young viewers seeking guidance on how to live as good Muslims in the West. The resultant discussions covered everything from the reporting of crime to female circumcision and the age of consent.
‘The imams get a lot of abuse from people accusing them of working for MI5 and stuff, and we don’t pay them, but they still do it.’
Jama recalled a debate on wearing the jilbab, where an imam patiently explained to a young female viewer that wearing the veil was not, in fact, an obligation under the Koran.
‘And this girl says, “Oooh! So you’re with the kuffars!” It was an outrageous way to speak to a sheikh. But that is what we are up against.’
Jama’s method of dealing with al-Shabaab was not to demonize them, as the West tended to do, but to engage with their arguments, including through textual exegesis if necessary. He had recently hosted a debate in which not one but two imams agreed that nowhere in the Koran did it say that suicide bombing was ever justified. The viewer phone lines rang hot after that, followed by an al-Shabaab declaration of a fatwa on all things UTV, forcing the temporary closure of the channel’s Mogadishu office for the safety of its staff.
The danger from extremists was not confined to Somalia. On Ealing Common in 2010, where an estimated 50,000 Somalis gathered to celebrate Eid, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, Jama was threatened by a group of young Somalis simply for filming.
‘They had this attitude that television was an infidel thing; one of them accused me of working for the CIA, and said it was haram even to watch TV. I was shocked.’
The source of this antediluvian thinking, he discovered, was a well-known maverick called Mohamed Mahmoud, a self-styled sheikh unaffiliated to any mosque but who preached regularly anyway, mainly in the Southall area.
‘This guy has fifteen young Somalis among his followers, they’ve all failed their GCSEs, yet he tells them that university is haram because British students have to pay interest on their loans . . . It’s a disgrace! And I think Tony Blair was right when he said the government’s three top priorities should be education, education and education.’
He told the story of Mohamed, a 24-year-old Somali he had interviewed on his show recently, who had been brought up in a care home, began drinking at twelve, had been in prison twice by the age of fifteen, and had grown up with no qualifications at all. He had straightened himself out by attaching himself to a mosque in Shepherd’s Bush. There was, however, a problem with this mosque, which propagated a potent ideological blend of Salafism and Wahhabism.
‘The people there won’t even say salaam to me because I don’t have short trousers and a beard. And now Mohamed thinks everyone else is a “bad” Muslim, including me. He says it’s haram to look at women, but really that’s just an excuse for not looking for work. Western society is not segregated. It is not possible to function as a citizen here without mingling with the opposite sex.’
In Whitehall-speak, Mohamed’s group at the Shepherd’s Bush mosque were ‘non-violent extremists’ whose faith was already far beyond the reach of UTV’s voice of moderation. As Detective Sergeant Birch understood, the fact that the channel’s counter-radicalization programming was funded by the British government automatically made its message suspect in the eyes of many conservative Muslims, and damaged its credibility on the street. He was convinced that the better way to influence people like Mohamed – perhaps the only way – was through his ideological peers.
For jihadist street cred, it was hard to beat the founder of the Active Change Foundation, a youth outreach programme in the north-east London borough of Waltham Forest. Hanif Qadir, a middle-aged Pakistani born in the North Yorkshire town of Thornaby, had not just sympathized with the jihad as a younger man. In 2002, after the American invasion of Afghanistan, he had actually travelled there and volunteered to fight for the Taliban. What happened next turned him into one of the most valuable assets that the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command has ever had.
‘My perceptions of jihad were shattered the moment I arrived,’ he explained in his bluff Teesside accent. ‘I went there with this vision of standing shoulder to shoulder against the infidel with my brother Muslims, but I quickly discovered that if you weren’t Arab or Afghan, you were nobody. What I saw was a lot of poor, humble people being manipulated. It was made quite clear that we had no hope for the future except martyrdom. We were cannon fodder. The volunteers had noble Islamic motives, but the Talibs had no respect for that. They wouldn’t give me the time of day when I challenged them on this, and when I insisted they became aggressive.’
By the time he had travelled through the Khyber Pass and reached the Afghan border town of Torkham, he was so thoroughly disillusioned that he turned round and came straight back to Britain. He set up the Active Change Foundation soon afterwards, and had spent most of the last decade warning young Muslims that the path to paradise in Afghanistan was a dud.
‘Looking back, I’m glad God guided me in the way he did,’ he said. ‘He helped me escape death, or Guantanamo . . . who knows.’
He had set up his headquarters in a youth centre on the Lea Bridge Road next door to the Jamia Masjid Ghosia, the largest mosque in Waltham Forest. His chosen area was one of the most multicultural in the city, with a populace very different from the Victorian and Edwardian office workers for whom it was first built. The mock-Tudor gables above the shops around the mosque recalled Olde Englande, but the goods and services on offer were all about travel and escape: the Grill ‘n’ Spice takeaway, a travel agency specializing in Hajj and Umrah package tours, a hairdressing salon called Paradise. It was hard to avoid a feeling that the Lea Bridge Road, with its chip shops and betting shops and buses whizzing too fast along the route between Clapton and Whipp’s Cross, was a neighbourhood tolerated rather than loved by its inhabitants.
Stocky and avuncular, Hanif exuded a kind of calm wisdom that reminded me immediately of the beard-stroking SO15 officer Abid Raja. They were two British Pakistanis of the same sort of age, who had embarked on very similar journeys of Islamic self-discovery as young men. The routes they had taken were certainly different, but they had arrived at the same destination in the end. Hanif explained how he had been brought up a moderate Barelvi Muslim, as the majority of British Pakistanis were, but had been drawn to the more conservative Deobandis when he moved to London. The untimely death of a sister deepened his interest in Islam, just as the loss of a daughter had for Abid Raja. He experimented with Sufi mysticism, Wahhabism and Salafism, but eventually rejected all of these in favour of a bespoke faith rooted, as the SO15 man’s was, in tolerance of others.
‘My nephew became a Salafist. All of a sudden it was “their way” or “no way”. I banned him from my house,’ he said, with a faint smile that acknowledged the paradox. ‘I understand kids who go from Barelvism to Salafism because I did the same journey; I understand how that misinterpretation works.’
The purpose of his foundation, he said, was to show young Muslims a shortcut to enlightenment, although he insisted that religious guidance was only a part of the solution.
‘A lot of them have legitimate grievances, which we try to address. Everyone is different. Engagement is the key. You have to look at the person and try to get where they are coming from.’
This was in sharp contrast to the approach usually taken by government which, he said, was driven by ‘performance indicators . . . They are not interested in the emotional stuff, and that neglect just plays into the narrative of oppression that radicalization begins with.’
He was a believer in the ‘hug a hoodie’ philosophy once embraced by David Cameron in his bid to rebrand his Conservative Party, a controversial approach to youth crime that the Tories had quietly dropped once they returned to government. It was intriguing to meet someone who both practised the technique and swore that it worked.
Hanif had had a great deal to do with young Somalis over the years. He had seen several would-be Somali jihadis in Islamabad and Rawalpindi on his way to Afghanistan in 2002, and saw a strong similarity between the Taliban and al-Shabaab in the way that the latter manipulated the idealism of its young foreign recruits. He had coaxed several Somalis away from the path that led to terrorism, and offered the example of ‘Blade’, an ex-street gangster whom he had met during a four-day Outward Bound course in the Surrey countryside near Guildford in 2010. Instead of scolding Blade when he was caught skiving off smoking a joint in the woods, Hanif had made a point of befriending him. He was clearly a natural mentor with a knack for winning the trust of a certain type of confused young person. Blade, he learned, had joined an Afro-Caribbean gang ‘for the authority’, and had slid into a life of ‘severe violence’ from which he was struggling to escape.
‘We drilled down,’ said Hanif. ‘His mother was devout and she had thrown him out for smelling of weed, so all he had was the gangs. There was no father or father-figure in his life.’
Amil Khan, the documentary maker, had described to me ‘a particular poor UK urban shittiness that the middle-class world hardly ever sees’, and Blade’s story sounded a good example of that. Khan thought that the poverty, although real enough, was almost incidental to the main problem, which he identified as ‘a lack of opportunity, or a perception of not having opportunities . . . At the same time there’s a youth culture that quickly coalesces around social problems to make dysfunction a badge of pride.’
Back in Waltham Forest, Hanif persuaded Blade to attend one of his ‘gang workshops’ that were designed to give people like him a chance to vent their grievances. It was in the course of one of these sessions that he revealed he had recently downloaded some bomb-making instructions from the internet.
‘His life was a mess and he blamed “the West” for that,’ shrugged Hanif, ‘and so he wanted to bomb some non-Muslims.’
It was possible, or even likely, that Blade would never have acted on his bomb-making impulse. Terrorism – or as Hanif described it, ‘disastrous action’ – was no more than a form of desperate self-expression born of frustration and anger, with only the very loosest connection to political Islam, let alone to al-Qaida or al-Shabaab. The same could not be said, though, of the Active Change Foundation’s most celebrated deradicalized Somali, Kader Ahmed, who had specifically wanted to be associated with the cause of al-Shabaab.
Kader had been so close to the London suicide bombers of July 2005 that he phoned each of the 21/7 gang, one by one, to wish them luck on their mission shortly before they set off. He was also among the group of Muslims photographed, notoriously, on a terrorist training weekend at Baysbrown Farm in the Lake District in 2004 run by Mohammed Hamid, an East African Indian Muslim preacher and reformed crack addict known as Osama bin London. Kader was only seventeen in 2004 when he first came under the spell of Hamid, at a rally at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. He was sent to Belmarsh Prison’s high security unit for his involvement in the terror cell, but had come under Hanif’s influence on his release, and was now on the same deradicalizing mission. He was famous for touring the worst housing estates on his bike, and stopping to tell his cautionary tale to any youths he found hanging about there.
The story of Kader’s progression from confused refugee street kid to Islamist terrorist was like a version of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, updated for the twenty-first century. His parents had fled the civil war in the 1990s in the usual way, and begun a new life in a council flat in Plaistow, a short bus-ride south of the Lea Bridge Road. But his father left when Kader was twelve, and his devout mother took him out of secondary school at fourteen, apparently intent on educating him at home. Hanif described Kader as an ‘emotional, compassionate person’ and a natural ‘seeker’. He was also young and lonely; and so when he fell in with Mohammed Hamid’s group of fellow seekers, his mother, disastrously, encouraged him. Kader quickly rose up the ranks of the group, becoming the favoured protégé of its leader, and growing close, too, to its number two, a ‘very aggressive Turkish Cypriot’ called Atilla Ahmet.*
‘It was just the wrong crowd,’ said Hanif. ‘All his desires and grievances were massaged. He was taught to hate, and all his cultural norms were stripped away . . . I would call it abuse, brainwashing.’
It took the grim reality of the London Transport attacks, and then a spell in Belmarsh, to make Kader see the mistake he had made.
Despite his successes, Hanif was far from sanguine about London’s young Somalis. He, too, thought that the violence and lawlessness of a section of that community were getting worse, and he agreed that there was a Somali crime ‘time-bomb’ in Britain, waiting to go off.
‘Somalis are harder to engage with than any of the others,’ he said. ‘They never change, no matter what you do for them. They are much harder to crack than the Algerians, the Afghans . . . you can be six months into a programme with one of them, and you think you’re making some progress, and then, boom! Something happens, and it’s back to square one. It takes a lot of money and patience, and, to be honest with you, I’ve used a lot of my patience up now.’
Somalis, he had concluded, were often ‘special’ in their disrespect for authority, the ease with which they could be manipulated, and the speed with which they resorted to extreme violence.
‘Life is cheaper to them even than it is to the Afghans,’ he said, ‘and they seem to have no code of conduct, even among themselves.’
A lot of Somalis he worked with, furthermore, could be ‘very thick’, with an inability to think for themselves that was uniquely self-destructive. For instance, the foundation’s bike shed had been vandalized recently by one of Hanif’s regulars, a Somali whose street name was Fester; his crime had been caught on one of the centre’s four CCTV security cameras. Hanif confronted Fester, who apologized with a cheery ‘Sorry, Uncle!’. But a few days later he returned, and was filmed trying – and failing – to destroy the cameras that had betrayed him the first time. A month or two later came the Tottenham riots, which showed that Fester had still not learned his lesson. Hanif recalled watching the television news one night and immediately spotting Fester, the only youth in a huge crowd of law-breakers not wearing a mask or hood.
The danger was that young men like Fester seemed capable of almost any atrocity, any imbecility – including, no doubt, going back to Somalia to be trained by or to fight for al-Shabaab. You didn’t need many brains to do that, as was proved by a bizarre episode at Mogadishu airport in March 2012, when a black Briton arriving from London via Nairobi was stopped with hundreds of CDs and a quantity of mysterious powder in his luggage. When questioned he said he was trying to get to Kismayo ‘to help the Muslims’ – at which point, AMISOM security personnel arrested him. The hapless would-be jihadi, later identified as Jamaican-born Clive Everton Dennis, had conspicuously failed to do his homework about who controlled the Somali capital.
Dennis was deported, but Britain’s security services knew that many British Muslims like him had made it through, and that others were continuing to try. The more usual way to reach al-Shabaab territory was simply to walk over the poorly guarded Kenyan border. Two 18-year-olds from Cardiff, Mohamed Abdulrahman Mohamed, a Somali, and his Pakistani friend Iqbal Shahzad, were arrested trying to do just that in October 2011.
‘He was brainwashed and taken away from us and he was told that he was going to fight a holy war in Somalia,’ said Mohamed’s father, Abdirahman Haji Abdallah, who flew to Kenya to raise the alarm.
Mohamed and Shahzad were classic examples of the misguided teenager recruit identified by SO15’s Abid Raja. After questioning back in London, counter-terrorist police released the pair back to their relieved families in Cardiff. The threat posed by other British Muslims was much graver, however. In May 2012, for instance, Kenyan police were reportedly still searching for Samantha Lewthwaite, a Muslim convert and the widow of the 7/7 London bomber Germaine Lindsay, whom they suspected of organizing the finances of the Jermaine Grant bomb plot in Mombasa.
A report by the Royal United Services Institute in February 2012 said that as many as a quarter of the estimated two hundred hardcore foreign fighters in al-Shabaab’s ranks were British. Many of them were of non-Somali origin. Bilal al-Berjawi from west London, for example, who was killed near Mogadishu in January 2012 by an American drone strike, was Lebanese. With perhaps 2.8 million Muslims resident in the UK – as well as a British expatriate community of around 30,000 living in Kenya – it was no wonder that British security services were worried. Somalia, according to one unnamed intelligence official, was ‘regarded as a dog which has barked but not yet bitten . . . These people are no mugs. Somalia is awash with weapons and there are some very tasty fighters out there.’ Al-Shabaab, this official thought, had the potential to become a ‘very accomplished’ international terrorist organization.10
‘Those who survive tend to return [to Britain] in a matter of months or perhaps a year,’ said RUSI’s director general, Professor Michael Clarke, adding: ‘It is only a question of time before their commitment to the cause, and their newly acquired expertise, are likely to be seen on British streets.’11
Clarke’s assertion was based in part on what had happened in recent years in the US, where as many as forty-eight Somali-Americans were known to have travelled back in secret to Somalia in order to receive terrorist ‘training’ from Islamist extremists. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the American Congressman Peter King, the chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, came to London to warn British MPs that there was ‘increasing evidence’ of terrorist-trained Somali-Americans attempting to come back to the US, where the danger of radicalization had grown ‘much worse’.
Tightened security in the West, King argued, meant that it was now ‘very difficult [for al-Qaida] to attack on a large scale from the outside’. As a consequence, al-Qaida – and the congressman made little distinction between that organization and al-Shabaab – had changed tactics. Even President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Denis McDonough, agreed that al-Qaida was now ‘definitely recruiting within the Muslim American community’.12
The enemy within: it was the West’s greatest nightmare, as the success of the 2012 TV drama series Homeland perhaps demonstrated. Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic were gripped by the series’ atmosphere of moody paranoia, and its plot revolving around a CIA agent’s pursuit of a US marine who, rescued after years in al-Qaida captivity, had been ‘turned’ by his former captors and was now plotting against the Washington government. It seemed to say something about the closeness of Britain and America in the War on Terror that Damian Lewis, the actor chosen to play the US marine, was British.
The SO15 detective Paul Birch thought that Britain ought to be paying more attention to the American experience, if only on the grounds that ‘what happens over there always happens over here eventually’. I was particularly intrigued by the Upper Midwest’s ‘Twin Cities’, Minneapolis and St Paul, the home of the largest Somali community in the US, from where at least twenty young Somali men had vanished since 2007, only to reappear soon afterwards in Somalia as fighters for al-Shabaab. In some cases, they had become suicide bombers. Most of the twenty had been in their mid-twenties, but at least two of them were still at high school when they left, aged just seventeen. In proportion to its size, the Twin Cities had exported far more Somali jihadis than London, or anywhere else in the Western world. How had that happened? And what could be done to stop the same from happening in Britain? In the autumn of 2011 I went to America to try to find out.
* Ahmet, according to Hanif, was the model for Barry, the crazed white extremist character in Chris Morris’s 2010 movie Four Lions, a ‘jihad satire’ that British counter-terrorism officials referred to almost constantly in the course of my research. Barry’s plan to bomb a local mosque in order to ‘radicalize the moderates’ provides one of the film’s best black-comedy moments.