16 Dec 2013

Exclusive: inside an al-Shabaab training camp

Africa Correspondent

Among the most feared of al-Qaeda’s affiliates, al-Shabaab was behind the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya. Jamal Osman attended one of its training camps in the Somali bush.

They chant: “We are al-Shabaab! We are al-Qaeda! We are terrorists!” In a secret location, deep in the Somali bush, I met al-Shabaab, one of the most feared al-Qaeda-affiliated organisations in the world. Around 300 newly trained fighters, who have completed a six-month course, parade in the training camp.

Al-Shabaab is the jihadist group behind the attack at the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya two months ago that left 67 people dead. The terrifying images from that attack showed al-Shabaab fighters casually walking through the mall as they shot civilians. But for al-Shabaab, the Westgate operation was a victory and is now being used to inspire new soldiers.

The latest recruits had the same military training as the Westgate attackers. At their graduation ceremony, they were rewarded with a visit from al-Shabaab’s spokesman, Sheikh Ali Dhere.

Speaking to the new recruits, Sheikh Ali Dhere said: “See what the Kenyans are facing today. Men were like you, had the same training as you, gave up their lives for God’s cause and brought huge victory for Muslims.”

‘Stop fighting us’

The men comprise young Muslims from all over the world: Arabs, Kenyans and even, I was told, some from Britain. They chanted in several languages, but I wasn’t allowed to speak to them.

The group was one of two fully armed battalions I saw during my stay. They are determined men who want to crush the western-backed Somali government in Mogadishu. The weak government is propped up by African Union troops, including Kenyan forces who invaded southern Somalia two years ago. That is why al-Shabaab regard the Westgate attack as revenge.

We have said to Kenya many times: stay away from us. They refused. So we decided to spill blood to send the message. Sheikh Ali Dhere

Sheikh Ali Dhere, the public face of the group, told me: “We have said to Kenya many times: stay away from us, leave our land, our people and stop fighting us. We warned them again and again. They refused all of that. So we decided to spill blood to send the message.

“Their women are not better than ours. Their sons are not better than ours. Their children are not better than ours. When they kill our people we kill theirs.”
Some of the new soldiers at the graduation ceremony showed off their gymnastic skills to impress Sheik Ali Dhere.

Read more: hero's life awaits al-Shabaab's Westgate suspects

Suicide waiting list

Highly organised, these latest additions will soon decide which unit within al-Shabaab to join. They can remain regular fighters, become bomb-makers or work for the Amniyat, al-Shabaab’s security network.

But the most popular unit is the Istishhadyin unit, the suicide brigade. And believe it or not, there’s a long waiting list of several years. With months of training, only the best recruits will be accepted.

Sheikh Ali Dhere had a message for those wanting to join.

“When we fight and are martyred, we hope to be with God in paradise. What are the infidels hoping for? Nothing.”

Alternative government

Al-Shabaab has been designated as a terrorist organisation by several western nations. And after losing control of four major cities, the Islamists were thought to have been defeated. But they still control large parts of the country and see themselves as an alternative government.

I visited Bulo Burte, a key strategic crossing point on the Shabelle river. It’s an al-Shabaab stronghold.

When we fight and are martyred, we hope to be with God in paradise. What are the infidels hoping for? Nothing. Sheikh Ali Dhere

It also happens to be the town where one of the Westgate attackers came from. The number and identities of the Westgate attackers still remains a mystery. Kenyans claim they were only four. But locals in the al-Shabaab areas suggest there were more and some are even believed to have returned to Somalia.

The spokesman said Westagte was “something that happened at the heart of their country, and they still don’t know whether the men have escaped or not and how many they were. That shows their weakness.”

‘Victory is close’

Unlike other parts of southern and central Somalia, there’s peace under al-Shabaab’s strict sharia law. Women do go to school and are allowed to run their own businesses.

I followed the Hizbat, the al-Shabaab police, on their beat. The first stop was a restaurant, where they told the female owner to remove the rubbish from outside. They then made their way to the local hospital, where they checked the pharmacy and the cleanliness of the rooms. They seem satisfied. Our final stop was a mini supermarket where they checked product expiry dates.

But as soon as they heard the call to prayer, everything stopped. People headed to the mosque for midday prayer, whether they liked it or not. The al-Shabaab police made sure that everyone went to the mosque. Passing vehicles are pulled over.

The mosque quickly fills up, with some having to pray outside in the heat. It’s a good opportunity for Sheikh Ali Dhere – this time in civilian clothes – to drum up more support.

“It’s you who are meant to deal with the infidels,” he tells the congregation. “It’s you who should defend Islam. God willing, we’ll be victorious. Victory is close. The infidels haven’t got much left. They are in the eleventh hour.”