UK Somalis uncomfortable after Kenya attack
London, United Kingdom – More than two weeks have passed since a siege on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall led by Somali rebel group al-Shabab ended in the deaths of at least 67 people. For some members of the UK’s Somali community, however, the Westgate attack is still at the top of their discussions, especially among younger Somalis.
Every attack in the Horn of Africa registers closely with the community here, a continent thousands of kilometres away. On a chilly Sunday evening, a group of young Somalis gathered at Savannah Restaurant in West London, to discuss how their lives have changed since late 2006.
That year al-Shabab, a rebel group linked to al-Qaeda that takes a hardline interpretation of Islam, was established, following Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia.
Since its inception, it is estimated that up to 50 young Somali men have left the UK for Somalia to join the group and wage war against the weak Western-backed government in Mogadishu, the capital.
Many young Somalis living overseas have been adversely affected as governments across the world try to gather intelligence and stop young men, especially those living in the West, from going to Somalia to fight and then return to wage war in the West.
‘Treated like a criminal’
After al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the bloody four-day siege in Nairobi, Somalis here are feeling under more pressure than ever before.
“You are treated like a criminal,” said 25-year-old university student Abdikarim Muse. “Those who are supposed to protect you [security agencies] treat you like you are a suspect.”
In May, while returning from a political conference in Amsterdam attended by senior Somali politicians and government officials, Muse was taken aside and interrogated for more than an hour at Heathrow Airport without anyone explaining why, he said.
When he asked the plainclothes officers who interrogated him why he was the only one chosen from more than 70 people queuing at the airport’s passport control, he was told it was a “routine” and “random” check. All the questions, he said, were about al-Shabab.
The experience left him shaken. “I haven’t left the UK since May. I cancelled my summer travel plans. I don’t want that experience again,” he said in a barely audible voice, making sure patrons at the eatery didn’t hear him.
Less than two kilometres away from the restaurant, on a third-floor music studio, sits British-Somali musician Aar Maanta.
Maanta, who sings about issues affecting Somalis in the diaspora and has written a song about the treatment of Somalis at airports by immigration and security officials, is preparing for the first UK-wide tour by a Somali musician. He said things were tough before for the community but now, with the attack in Nairobi, it will only get worse.
“Some people have a fear of flying, others have fears of missing flights … us young Somali men, we have fears of security officials. I have lost count of the number of times I have been stopped at UK ports of entry,” he said while clutching a kaban – a pear-shaped stringed instrument used in Somali music – in his left hand.
“One time I was interrogated alone in a room and released after eight hours. No one has ever told me why it keeps on happening to me and not to the non-Somali members of my band,” he added.
Like Muse, Aar said all the questions he is asked have to do with al-Shabab and terrorism. “I’m a musician. Terrorists don’t like music or musicians. I’m the last person they should ask these questions,” he said.
With fragile peace returning to Mogadishu after the Islamist group withdrew from the war-weary city, many UK citizens of Somali origin are travelling back to visit family members who did not flee the war, and to assess potential business opportunities in Somalia.
‘Too much risk’
But, afraid of being labelled as members of al-Shabab, many Somali youth are in no rush to board a flight and return to Somalia.
“Too much risk. Anything can happen to you. Your passport doesn’t mean anything. We now know that,” said Abdi Rashid, sitting opposite Muse at the restaurant.
In June last year, 23-year-old Mahdi Hashi from London disappeared while in Mogadishu, only to surface in a New York courtroom to face alleged terrorism charges. Before his disappearance and surfacing in New York, the British Home Secretary revoked his citizenship. Many Somalis believe this was done to pave way for his rendition to the US.
Awale Olad, a Somali-born local London councillor representing an area with a sizeable Somali population, says the community has a lot to fear – and rightly so. “Even when these youth have British citizenship it can be revoked. When that happens, they can easily be extradited to another country or targeted by a drone strike,” said Olad.
Parents are beginning to take note and make decisions they never thought they would.
Mohamed Nuur, a taxi driver from West London, returned from Somalia last month where he had gone to visit his frail mother. He said he left his two teenage sons behind while he took his two daughters to visit their bedridden grandmother.
“I’m a father, and will never want problem for my sons. Visiting Somalia can bring them a lot of problems and unnecessary harassment,” he said, flanked by fellow Somali taxi drivers on their lunch break. “We have heard of sons disappearing and appearing in cuffs in strange countries. Not taking that chance with my sons.”
Last week the UK’s security minister, James Brokenshire, met the Somali community to assuage their fears and reassure them they are not being unfairly targeted.
A home office spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “Our security arrangements are designed to keep all British citizens safe and do not target a particular group or community in any way.”
Aar Maanta says he wants to see the government do more in the Somali community. “They need to work with us on an everyday basis, not just when there are terror alerts or explosions. More importantly, they need to stop the ‘random’ checks that only pick on Somalis at airports.”
Follow Hamza on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa