MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — While visiting a Somali refugee camp in Kenya, Mohamed Farah was struck by a young man who spends each day just waiting for it to end.
The roughly 20-year-old man told Farah he has nothing to fill his time. No sense of identity. No future. No hope. So, like hundreds of other young people in the camp, he waits — while members of the terrorist group al-Shabab lurk nearby, ready to entice new recruits.
“We used to say ‘Why would anyone join al-Shabab?'” Farah said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s sad for me to say, but if I were in their shoes I would do anything to get out of that situation … Now that I understand, that shows me what I am fighting against.”
Farah and other members of the Somali-American group Ka Joog have been working since 2007 to combat radicalism among Somali youth in Minnesota by providing positive alternatives through education, the arts and mentorship.
But now, the group is thinking bigger. Five members recently took their message of youth empowerment to Kenya, in hopes of intercepting al-Shabab’s radical message there. They said they were astonished at what they learned, and they are presenting a report and recommendations to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington on Wednesday.
The group also is establishing an office in Nairobi, Kenya — the first of what members hope will be several in Africa — so they can provide positive opportunities for young people at risk and empower them to stand up against radicalization.
“The youth are just looking for a leadership spark, somebody to just guide them, and so that guidance is going to have to come from Ka Joog,” said Farah, the group’s 30-year-old executive director. “It has to come from the young people themselves, which we are.”
The trip to Kenya was 18 months in the making, but plans for it became more urgent after the Sept. 21 mall attack in Kenya that killed about 70 people.
Ka Joog members met with dozens of Somali youth around Kenya and listened to their concerns. One Ka Joog member also went to Mogadishu, Somalia, where similar themes surfaced.
Many youth said they have no access to sports, the arts or economic opportunity. They struggle with identity issues and long for a sense of belonging. Some young people are already radicalized and just waiting for a phone call from al-Shabab, Farah said.
“Our goal was to basically change the path of young Somali men who might have been recruited,” said Abdimalik Mohamed, 31, Ka Joog’s director of international affairs. “We just realized how susceptible the kids are.”
Ka Joog members received a sharp awakening soon into their trip when they turned on the news in their Kenya hotel room to see that more than 100 people were being arrested at a conference on radicalism and jihadist teachings in Mombasa. They were shocked to see such ideologies being preached openly.
“Our conclusion is … we have a long way to go,” Farah said. “We’re taking this very seriously.”
The group’s name, Ka Joog, is a Somali word meaning “stay away” and is symbolic of its message: Stay away from negative influences of drugs, violence and radicalism and keep your life on a positive track through higher education and serving your community.
In Minneosta, the group’s young leaders advance that message by mixing fun events like barbeques with serious forums. They also engage kids in casual conversations and praise them for making good choices.
In 2012, the FBI honored the group with the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award.
Minnesota’s Somali community has been in the spotlight in recent years amid a federal investigation into terror recruiting. At least 22 young men have left the state since 2007 to join the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab in Somalia, authorities have said.
Minneapolis FBI spokesman Kyle Loven said the investigation into recruiting in Minnesota continues, along with the threat of radicalization.
And that is something Ka Joog members want to stop. They hope intercepting al-Shabab’s message where it is strongest — in Somalia and Kenya — will be a start in eliminating it for good.
“We’re fighting ideology against ideology,” Farah said. “We’re a threat to them as well, to al-Shabab.”
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