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Surviving al-Shabab: The Boy Who Escaped the World's Most Ruthless Terror Group

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Ugandan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) 33rd Battalion walk between defensive positions along the frontline in Yaaqshiid District of Mogadishu, where AMISOM forces have pushed Al Shabaab militants beyond the city's northern fringes to the outskirts of the Somali capital. AU/UN Image by Stuart Price. Somalia, 2011. (CC0 1.0).

Ugandan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) 33rd Battalion walk between defensive positions along the frontline in Yaaqshiid District of Mogadishu, where AMISOM forces have pushed Al Shabaab militants beyond the city's northern fringes to the outskirts of the Somali capital. AU/UN Image by Stuart Price. Somalia, 2011. (CC0 1.0).

MOGADISHU, Somalia—By the time Abdi (not his real name) was 9 years old, he had already joined al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist organization in Somalia. He had taken part in several attacks, witnessed an assassination, and left the body of a young friend by the side of a road.

Then he escaped the group. And ever since, against the odds, he’s been trying to rebuild his life.

I interviewed Abdi, now 16, in a small, dreary conference room of a hotel in the Bulo Hubey neighborhood of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Clad in an orange sports jersey, he was energetic, alert and full of stories that he peppered with Arabic phrases and Somali proverbs that belied his age. Language aside, Abdi seemed like any teenager you would encounter anywhere in the world — until he started telling his incredible life story.

“When I joined [al-Shabab] I was 7 years old. I was not forced. I joined willingly,” Abdi told me. He paused for a moment as if hearing the absurdity of what he was saying. “After all these years, I now realize that I was brainwashed,” he added.

Abdi is just one of thousands of Somali children who over the years have fallen into the clutches of al-Shabab. From the very start of the group’s reign of terror across much of Somalia, al-Shabab used Quranic schools to procure young recruits. During al-Shabab’s heyday, when it controlled vast swaths of the country, persuasion was enough to ensure a steady supply of young fighters. However, as the group lost more and more territory, it has turned toward coercion and abduction.

And defectors like Abdi often encounter hostility and suspicion as they try to rebuild their lives.

In the past 10 years, Somali National Armed Forces and African Union troops have degraded the strength of the insurgent Islamist group. And since the election of Donald Trump, U.S. African Command, or Africom, has stepped up its airstrikes and drone attacks against suspected Shabab fighters. Africom has also expanded its presence in the country with a buildup of military bases and personnel.

In the years since former leader Ahmed Abdi Godane was killed in a U.S airstrike in 2014, al-Shabab has continued to lose territory that was once firmly in its control, and suffered several high-profile defections. In 2017, one of the group’s founding members and deputy leader Mukhtar Robow defected to the federal government. Though it’s difficult to gain an accurate picture of Shabab’s current size, security analysts estimate the group to have about 5,000 fighters.

Politically, al-Shabab continues to lose support, especially since the deadly car-bomb attack last October that killed over 500 civilians. But despite those setbacks, the organization maintains an uncanny ability to strike. In the first two weeks of July alone, the group conducted separate attacks in the capital that targeted the ministry of interior and security headquarters and the presidential palace.

Al-Shabab has always maintained a surprisingly sophisticated online and social media presence through which it issues decrees on various moral and social issues, including its recent directive banning the use of plastic bags on the grounds that they are harmful to the environment. The ban was met on social media with derision by many Somalis noting the irony that a group responsible for killing and maiming thousands of innocent civilians suddenly cares about the welfare of the environment.

For lucky minors like Abdi, who manage to defect from the group, suspicion and hostility not just from the government but often from their own communities await them as they try to rebuild their lives.

“We are seeing more and more youths escaping and defecting because it’s dawning on them that they have been lied to,” Abdirashid Ibrahim Mohamed told me when I met him in Mogadishu recently. He is director of the National Programme for the Treatment and Handling of Disengaged Combatants. “Those who were told they were fighting the infidels have realized that is not true. Those who have been promised money have realized they were deceived.” He said that in just the last four months, government centers have taken in 140 underage fighters who have either escaped al-Shabab or who were rescued by the national army.

Abdi was born in 2002 in Wanlaweyn, a farming town about 55 miles northwest of the capital.

At the age of 7, his keen intelligence had distinguished him from other kids at the local dugsi (Quranic school), where he excelled in memorizing the Quran.

It wasn’t long before he was singled out by his teacher, who complimented him on his intellect and told him that he was special. The teacher soon developed a habit of asking his star pupil to stay behind after other children were dismissed for the day. Soon, the teacher was telling him about the glory that awaited him in the afterlife if he devoted himself to protecting his religion and homeland from the infidels who had invaded their country.

Eventually, the teacher persuaded Abdi to join seven other boys, ages 7 to 17, leaving town to join al-Shabab. Abdi was the youngest. It was 2009, the height of al-Shabab’s insurgency against the weak, Western-backed government in the capital, which was supported by African Union troops from neighboring countries.

The day Abdi left home was a Friday. He remembers that detail because he was wearing his special khamis, a pristine white robe that he only wore to Friday prayers. After prayers, his teacher of Quran took him and the seven other boys in a Toyota pickup truck. They traveled for much of the day to a small camp in the bush by a river. This would be his home for the next two years, the place where he would learn to become a soldier for one of the most ruthless terror organizations in the world.

Comprehensive national statistics of child recruitment by al-Shabab, either by force or by indoctrination, are scant, since so many towns and villages where the group operates remain too dangerous to visit. However, according to the United Nations Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, published in May of this year, al-Shabab recruited 1,770 children in 2017 alone. The group “used detention, violence and threats to force family members, teachers and elders to hand over their children, causing families to flee or to send their children, often unaccompanied, out of areas controlled by Al-Shabab, in order to ensure their protection.”

Most of al-Shabab’s abductions and recruitment rarely get coverage in the international news. But every once in a while, the world gets a glimpse of the extent to which al-Shabab exploits children as soldiers.

On March 13, 2016, a convoy of about 400 Shabab militants descended on the semi-autonomous state of Puntland in northern Somalia. Puntland forces engaged them in a long, deadly battle. Hundreds of Shabab forces were killed, while some fled and many more surrendered. Among the latter, according to state officials, were 54 minors, some as young as 13.

On the face of it, recruiting pre-pubescent boys doesn’t seem to make much military sense, since the boys can barely lift a gun. But child soldiers are useful to al-Shabab for two reasons: They make for a disposable and protective frontline on the battlefield, shielding more experienced fighters; and minors who survive become the foundation of a future force of battle-hardened fighters.

“A young child’s brain is like a fresh recording tape. Whatever you put in there will stick. Once they get them that young, it’s hard to erase whatever they learned,” says Hussein, who runs a school for orphans in a farming town 20 miles outside of Mogadishu. Many of his students come to him with views on Islam that have been distorted and warped by al-Shabab’s religious indoctrination. “What we do [at the school] is to introduce other recordings to counteract what they have been taught,” he said, continuing his analogy.

Hussein is a 55-year-old educator with a master’s in biochemistry and a perpetually world-weary expression. In addition to the school for orphans, he also runs a residence where he covertly houses defectors from al-Shabab. He told me that there are currently 120 at the center, but previously had as many 520. The center is located in a village that’s a two-hour drive from the capital. (Hussein told me the name of the village off the record, to protect defectors from al-Shabab operatives as well as government officials who might arrest them.)

The son of a civil servant during the Mohamed Siad Barre dictatorship, Hussein studied math and physics at Lafoole University, the country’s premier teacher’s college. After the civil war destroyed the country’s school system, Hussein says, he felt a deep sense of responsibility to pass down his knowledge to disadvantaged children.

Hussein bemoans rampant government corruption, Somalia’s deeply entrenched clan system, and the mistreatment of marginalized communities. He told me that one of the reasons he opened the center for defectors is that he was enraged by the plight of the countless young men he had met over the years. He said that even long after their defection, youngsters continued to suffer for their earlier mistake of falling for al-Shabab’s deceptive messages and tactics, which include promises of wages in return for defending their land from invaders, and appeals to their religious idealism through martyrdom.

For about two years, from the age of 7 to 9, Abdi lived in a run-down training camp in the bush, populated by about three dozen men, most of them much older than him. Only the leader of the camp, Amir Ali, slept in a tent. Everyone else slept outside at night in the cold and rain.

Abdi’s days at the camp were heavily regimented, with four hours of sleep a night, limited food, and many hours of physical exercise, such as running and jumping over obstacles, followed by shooting lessons in the afternoons. Abdi told me that by the time he was 8, he knew how to use a gun and drive a car.

Life in the camp would have been bearable had it not been for “Amir” (Prince) Ali, an ill-tempered leader whom Abdi described as a “khumay,” a Somali word that loosely translates to “malevolent.” “I rarely saw his face except for his eyes, which were big and often red,” Abdi said.

Ali, a heavyset man with a long beard, covered his face with a black-and-white scarf, a garment al-Shabab had appropriated as a signature element of its uniform. “He was always yelling, always demanding us do things for him, even simple things he could do for himself,” Abdi said.

Talking back often resulted in a blow from one of Ali’s underlings. But every so often, the amir did his own dirty work, like the time he hit Abdi hard with the butt of his gun after he ran a car into a tree during one of his driving lessons. Abdi showed me a small round scar just above his cheekbone. “I was bleeding a lot so I took some sand and held it against the wound to stop the bleeding,” he said.

In the two years he spent with al-Shabab, Abdi was taken on two fighting missions. The first was to the nearby village of Darussalam Mubarak. The mission: to abduct locals accused of ‘un-Islamic’ activities. Abdi recalled that one of the men tried to escape. The second in command, who was leading that mission, shot the man dead with three bullets to the back. “It sent a message to all of us,” Abdi said.

Have you ever killed anyone? I asked him. “No.” Abdi said emphatically. “I fired shots but I never hit anyone.” Abdi told me that one of the older guys at the camp carried out a suicide attack in the town of Leego. He drove a car full of explosives and rammed it into a building. He was 25 when he died. “He was very good at making explosives,” Abdi added.

I asked Abdi if he ever made explosives. “Not everyone got to do that,” he said. That special task was reserved for only a couple of well-chosen older boys. “They had to be trained for a long time and they had to be good at it,” Abdi explained.

I asked him if he missed his family in those two years. “Every day,” he replied. “Every once in a while, when we got access to a cellphone, I would call home and my mother would cry, telling me to come back.”

It was on one of those rare phone calls to home that he found out that his father, who had mental health problems, had been hit and killed by a car. On another call Abdi learned that his 23-year-old brother, who chewed khat (a mild narcotic) and smoked cigarettes, had been killed by al-Shabab officers after he refused to comply with their morality edicts. Finding out that his own brother had been killed by the same group he was fighting for planted the idea of escape in Abdi’s mind.

One night about three months after his brother’s murder, Abdi made his daring escape from the camp. On that night, he was on the second guard shift, which ran from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. Shortly after 1 a.m., Abdi did what he had thought about for weeks. Wearing only a T-shirt and a dirty pair of pants, he placed the pistol he was given for guard duty on the ground and quietly slipped into the bushes near the camp.

For three days, Abdi trudged through brush and farmland to avoid being seen on roads, often getting lost. He didn’t eat for three days and relied on drinking water that he was lucky to find along the way. On the third day of his walk home, he met Adulqadir Jeele, another boy at the camp who had also escaped. Abdi said Abdulqadir was sick and severely dehydrated. The boy died later that day. He was 13.

“I tried to carry his body but he was too heavy for me,” Abdi said, his eyes distant, his face expressionless. He said he dragged Abdulqadir’s body as far as he could to a nearby dirt road hoping someone would find him. “That’s where I left the body.”

After Abdi managed to get back to his hometown, he went straight home and had an emotional reunion with his mother and siblings. However, he was too afraid to stay there, fearing that al-Shabab members might come looking for him. His uncle suggested he stay at his aunt’s house for several days until they could figure something out more permanent.

After defecting from al-Shabab, most boys continue to live in political and legal limbo, sometimes for years. Feared and mistrusted by the communities from which they were recruited, they often face the danger of being recaptured by al-Shabab, or they take the chance of potential prosecution if they turn themselves over to the government. Sometimes even their own families don’t want them back.

As if to illustrate the dilemma many defectors face, Hussein let me listen in on a phone call from a Mr. Hassan, a father whose 18-year-old son Ibrahim recently escaped the group and wanted to come back home. The father was not convinced that his son had really changed and feared he would indoctrinate his other sons. I could hear Mr. Hassan on the phone repeating that he doesn’t want to lose his other sons to al-Shabab.

Hussein explained to me that some of the boys who currently live at his center have never been educated because their parents were either too poor or al-Shabab closed their local schools. Many of the illiterate boys who come to the center opt to learn trade skills instead. But the center doesn’t have the resources to teach them much, so Hussein has to visit farms or tailor shops and make a pitch to the owners, asking them to take the boys as apprentices.

It’s time-consuming work that requires a great deal of networking and trust, especially since many business owners are leery of taking in former al-Shabab members without a known and trusted elder vouching for them. Hussein said that in the last year or so he has taken 10 young men to coastal towns to learn how to become fishermen; he placed six boys with auto shops, three boys in furniture stores and 18 boys in tailor shops.

One aspect I found puzzling about Hussein’s work was how he’s able to trust these boys himself — and vouch for them — when so many others are suspicious. He explained that the center takes many precautions. For instance, no young man ever comes directly to the center, since few know that it even exists. He relies on a trusted network of 23 men scattered around the country who refer youngsters to him. These men never bring anyone to the center who has not been carefully vetted. But Hussein told me that, ultimately, he just made a choice to trust these boys.

What about those who have committed serious crimes while they were with al-Shabab? I was expecting Hussein to hedge and equivocate. Instead, he gave me a surprising answer: “Our mandate is to change minds, to take all the bad things they learned and replace it with something good,” he said. “We believe that all human beings can change, can improve, so we don’t give up on them. … I believe in forgiveness.”

In this way and others, what Hussein is doing wildly diverges from a similar rehabilitation program, called the National Programme for the Treatment and Handling of Disengaged Combatants, run by the federal government with the help of UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, and select Somali NGOs. That program uses a strict screening process, and only takes in what it calls “low-risk defectors.”

If a defector is deemed to be of high intelligence value or high risk, he is given over to the government and potentially put on trial. The screening is conducted by the National Intelligence and Security Agency, or NISA, as it’s commonly known in Somalia. This is the part that scares off many would-be defectors.

And for good reason. For years, NISA has been accused of committing abuses against al-Shabab suspects and defectors. In February 2018, Human Rights Watch published a report titled “‘It’s Like We’re Always in a Prison’: Abuses Against Boys Accused of National Security Offenses in Somalia.”

The report alleges many abuses, including due process violations, forced confessions, long periods of detention without charge, and, in some instances, torture. Perhaps most worrying is the regular use of military courts, where multiple defendants are often tried together in speedy proceedings that are shielded from the scrutiny of local journalists and international human rights advocates.

After his daring but successful escape from the al-Shabab camp, Abdi hid in his aunt’s house for almost a week. Through a friend of the family who vouched for him, he was eventually brought to Hussein’s center. He then started taking some classes and learning practical skills on a large farm next to the camp, where the boys grew corn and other grains to supplement the limited food they had at the center.

Abdi is now back in his hometown of Wanlaweyn. Despite occasional attacks by al-Shabab, the town is firmly in the control of the government and African Union forces. Abdi credits Hussein with being a trusted mentor when he needed it most, and for giving him a second chance at life.

In Mogadishu, I also interviewed several other boys who credit Hussein with transforming their lives. Yusuf, now 20, joined al-Shabab in 2015, when fighters came to his neighborhood in Janaale, a small farming village by the Shabelle River. They took him and 10 other boys by force. A few months later, he escaped in the middle of the night, and was eventually taken to Hussein’s center. Yusuf now lives in Mogadishu, where he just finished high school. He hopes to be the first in his family to go to university to study public heath.

Mohamud, 19, joined al-Shabab in 2013 when he was 14. Five years ago, he sought refuge in Hussein’s center after defecting from the group. He now lives in Afgoye, where works as a teacher in a religious school. He told me he wants to make it his mission to warn other young Somali boys about the lies and deceptions of al-Shabab so they never join the group.

Before our interview ended, I asked Abdi how he felt, now that the al-Shabab chapter of his life is behind him. He was quiet for a moment, then said it never feels like it’s behind him. He told me he still has nightmares, but not as often as he did in the first year after he escaped. Back then, he used to have nightmares about Amir Ali almost every night.

Abdi told me he thinks more about the future these days than about the past. And when he does think about those awful days, he feels grateful to have survived it all. He knows he is one of the lucky ones.