Somali youth targeted by MI5 in Britain’s war on terror

Mahdi Hashi

Somali youth are at the frontline of Britain’s war on terror, they are a community under siege, writes Roshan Muhammed Salih who has conducted months of research into the subject.

The security services are targeting and infiltrating their community and pressurizing young Somalis to spy on each other.

The government believes that some young Somalis are going to fight for the al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabab group, which hit the international headlines after the recent Westgate Mall attack in Kenya. And they fear they might come back to the British mainland to commit terrorism.

But are the security services casting their net too wide? Are they radicalizing a whole community by their aggressive coercion tactics? And what will be the consequences?

UK Somali community

Hundreds of thousands of Somalis live here in the UK, especially in the big cities like London, Birmingham, London and Manchester. Many of them came here in the 90s to flee the civil war in Somalia, but they haven’t found life easy in the UK.

I visited a Somali youth centre in East London where young Somalis come several evenings a week to socialize with their peers and elders.

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Many have got mixed up with gangs and low-level crime and would be getting into trouble on the streets if it weren’t for this temporary refuge.

British Somalis maintain close links with their homeland
British Somalis maintain close links with their homeland

“If it weren’t for this place we’d probably be on the roads hassling people, or on the public buses doing the same. It gives us something to do,” Yusuf tells me.

These boys and young men are street-wise. Their area is dominated by deprived estates, bad schools, gang culture and knife crime. And they have a fractious relationship with the authorities, especially the police who often stop and search them for knives.

“The police stop us for no reason,” Yusuf continues. “They think we have knives on us. They stop us because we’re all in groups, it happens every two days, I was 13 when it first happened.

“But they don’t find any knives on us when they search us but it makes us paranoid. If there was a group of Somalis and a group of whites they’d come and stop and search us because of the colour of our skin. They even try and get us to spy on each other, I don’t trust no one.”

Back home

Somali youths have split identities. On the one hand many are born and bred British yet they are marginalized from mainstream British society. But they also identify strongly with back home and express a longing to go back there. And back home is a troubled place indeed.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991. Years of fighting between rival warlords and an inability to deal with famine and disease have led to the deaths of up to one million people.

Al Shabab have been listed as a terrorist organisation by the US
Al Shabab have been listed as a terrorist organisation by the US

In 2004 the main warlords and politicians signed a deal to set up a new parliament but the weak administration has faced a formidable task in bringing reconciliation to a country divided into clan fiefdoms.

The western and African union-backed government is struggling to achieve stability in the face of persistent attacks by the Al-Shabab group, which declared allegiance to al-Qaida in 2012.

Meanwhile, war and poverty have led to the mass exodus of Somalis to surrounding countries and to the West, including the UK.

British government

As for the British government, they’ve become very interested in this Horn of Africa nation, on the face of it due to the threat of international terrorism and piracy. But many also believe because the huge energy reserves that lie of the coast of Somalia may have something to do with it.

Britain’s interest in Somalia was on display at a London conference in May 2013, where major nations came together to agree practical measures to support the Somali government’s plans in security, justice and public financial management.

Hundreds of Somalis turned up to protest outside the Somali conference at Lancaster House in London. Some were against British imperialism in the region while others were saying that the president of Somalia – Britain’s ally – was pursuing a clan-based agenda in the country and wasn’t doing enough to advance peace.

What was apparent from the demonstration was that Somalis in the UK are mistrustful of Britain’s intentions and are divided over the political direction of their country. Many wanted to go home to help build the nation but most felt the country was still too unstable.

All, however, emphasized that Somali culture and religion is moderate and that al Shabab’s extreme salafi-jihadi ideology was something alien to their nation.

They also downplayed the number of young British Somalis who were attracted to al Qaeda and who were willing to travel to Somalia to fight for al Shabaab.

Mahdi Hashi

But one British Somali who stands accused of aiding and abetting al Shabab is Mahdi Hashi, a 23 year old who’s now awaiting a terrorism trial in the United States.

Hashi’s family became worried in 2012 when their son, who’d gone to Somalia to get married, disappeared from view. Later it emerged that he’d been detained and allegedly tortured in neighbouring Djibouti by the CIA before being rendered to the United States. In the meantime he was stripped of his British citizenship.

Saghir Hussain is Mahdi Hashi’s lawyer. He says he’s fighting the case with one arm tied behind his back because he doesn’t have access to some of the evidence against his client as it’s being withheld on national security grounds.

He told me: “That deprivation led him to being in secret detention for a number of months in a jail in Djibouti, from there he’s been threatened with torture and witnessed it, and from there he has been kidnapped and sent off to a court in the United States.”

Hashi was a community worker and student who worked with Somali youths in London. Friends describe him as religious but not extremist.

They say that other Somali youth looked up to him and he even played the peacemaker between rival gangs. His lawyers say that because of this influence he was targeted by the security services who wanted him to spy for them, specifically to try and get his peer group to talk about jihad. He said “no.”

Mohammed Hashi with his son
Mohammed Hashi with his son

“This coincided with the way British and Western foreign policy was turning to the horn of Africa” says Saghir Hussain. “It seems that these young lads are caught up in a wider foreign policy issue and for Mahdi that has had tragic consequences.”

Human rights campaigners believe that Mahdi Hashi was rendered to the United States because no European country would’ve convicted him because of a lack of evidence.

However, the conviction rate for Muslims caught up in terrorism cases in the United States is 100%. So the implicit message to Somalis in Britain is: don’t oppose British foreign policy or you might end up like Mahdi Hashi.

Mahdi Hashi’s father says his son is strong and has faith in God that his name will be eventually cleared. But he fears to worst for his son if his trial takes place in the United States.

“Mahdi never got involved in gangs like other boys his age,” Mohammed Hashi tells me. “He was a practicing Muslim but not an extremist. But he had influence over the other boys, he was well-known and respected and I think the security services took advantage of that. That’s why they targeted him.

“When he was asked to be an informer he was shocked. I think at the time there was a lot of trouble in Somali and the Islamic Courts movement were calling on Somalis to fight the foreign invaders so the British government got worried that British Somalis might go over there and fight and be radicalized.

“So they needed informers in the British Somali community. They threatened Mahdi that if he didn’t work for them he would face the consequences. And they followed him all the time and harassed him. Eventually he left the UK for Somalia to find peace and he got married and had a child.

“Britain does have the right to protect its national security and I suppose they will try and recruit spies, but this can’t be forced, it has to be a voluntary thing. They shouldn’t put pressure on people and follow them and threaten them. This is just creating hatred. The youth are losing trust in the authorities because they are being forced to do things they don’t want to do.”

Youth spying

Abukar Awale works with British Somali youth and has his own TV show on the Somali Channel where he tries to keep young people on the straight and narrow.

Awale recognizes that the government has a duty to protect national security but thinks that making an enemy out of a whole community isn’t the way to go about doing that.

“If you’re a Somali at Heathrow Airport you can expect to be taken aside, not only searched but there will be follow-up calls and they ask you to ‘work with us.’ That’s what the young people have to put up with.”

He added: “There are extremists everywhere. Al Shabab is in Somalia but we don’t have al Shabab here. The authorities should work with the community and win hearts and minds, no one wants to see London blown up but if they victimize people then they are pushing then to be terrorists.”


MI5 don’t give public statements so they won’t respond directly to accusations made against them. But just for the record they do say that Al Qaeda inspired terrorism is the main threat to the British mainland. They also deny specifically targeting Muslims and say that they are also the victims of al Qaeda-inspired terrorism.

Seen from the British government’s and the security services point of view, British Muslims are the most susceptible to the kind of ideology which saw 52 people killed on July 7, 2005 in London.

The kind of ideology which thirsts for revenge for Britain’s invasions of two Muslim countries in the last decade, and its support for dictators in the Muslim world as well as for Israel.

MI5 chief Andrew Parker
MI5 chief Andrew Parker

More recently, the killing of a British soldier in south London in May, 2013, posed serious questions about the ideology of British Muslims who try to travel to Somalia, as the chief suspect allegedly did.

But Michael Adebalogo also had contact with the security services indicating that those who attempt travel to Somalia are closely watched and perhaps also recruited.

MI5 clearly believes that Britain faces a growing threat of terrorist attacks from UK residents trained in Somalia, a failed state where al Qaeda-affiliated groups have the space to thrive. They estimate that over 100 British residents are training in al Shabaab camps to fight the western and African Union-backed government.

But MI5 is concerned that it’s only a matter of time before these highly trained fighters come back home to attack British interests. And it wants to act before this happens rather than after an attack takes place.

Paranoia and fear

During the course of my research I found it really difficult to penetrate the Somali community. There seemed to be a fear of the media in particular, and a fear of speaking out because if you do there may be consequences.

For all the Somalis that agreed to talk many more refused because they feared being targeted. Yet – off the record – they all confirmed that the community feels harassed and intimidated and that can only store up problems for the future.

There is also a sense of frustration that the authorities just aren’t listening to the Somali community’s concerns and that is why some members of the community are finally going public. Their reasoning is that the “softly-softly” approach has failed so now it’s time to speak out.

Moreover, my impression of the community couldn’t be further from the al Shabaab extremist stereotype that right-wing commentators would have us believe.

Yes, the community suffers from the same problems that all deprived immigrant, minority communities do – from racism, Islamophobia and low level crime. But they also seem naturally religiously moderate and tolerant and not susceptible to extremist ideology.

That said, with a war raging in their homeland some young Somalis may well consider it their duty to travel from Britain and go and fight there. Some may even end up fighting for al Shabab. But does that justify casting the net so wide that effectively a whole community is under siege in the UK? I don’t think it does.


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