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In Somalia, a Boot Camp for Islam

The `rehabilitation' sites aim to wean former warlord militiamen off drugs, instill religious values and train them to join Muslim forces.

September 22, 2006|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Beginning as a teenager, militiaman Abduallahi Mohammed Nur rarely ventured into the Mogadishu streets without an AK-47, which he often used to harass civilians and extort money at checkpoints.

But the 27-year-old hasn't held his weapon since June, when it was pointed at invading fighters with the Islamic Courts Union. The militia, now known as the Conservative Council of Islamic Courts, drove away the warlord he worked for and confiscated his gun.

Now Nur calls himself a reformed man. Under the watchful eye of Islamist commanders, Nur says he prays five times a day, studies the Koran and is learning to defend Somalia against foreign threats.

"Most of all," he said, "they are teaching me how to be good to other people."

Nur is one of about 3,000 former warlord militiamen sent to Islamist-run "rehabilitation camps" on the outskirts of the nation's capital. It's an ambitious resocialization program designed to wean the young fighters off drugs, instill religious values and, eventually, reverse loyalties so they can be integrated into the Muslim fundamentalist forces.

"It's a difficult job," said Mohammed Ibrahim Bilal, chairman of one of the new Islamic courts in Mogadishu. "We want to welcome them back. But they have been living with violence for 16 years."

In Washington, there is concern that increasingly Islamist Somalia could end up with a Taliban-style government and serve as a terrorist training area.

Amid allegations that Islamists are using military advisors from Pakistan and Afghanistan to train soldiers, officials recently began permitting journalists to visit the camps. But they denied access to weapons stockpiles and insisted on selecting the militiamen to be interviewed, and carefully monitored what they said.

About 12 miles north of the capital is the largest of the camps, called Hilwayne, which was a national army base before the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's regime in 1991. After that, rival warlords carved up the Horn of Africa country and largely held sway until an alliance of local religious courts seized control of Mogadishu in June.

The Islamist forces that took the barren compound have cleared the trash, built tin barracks and a makeshift mosque, and use the facility to stockpile weapons and retrain about 700 defeated militiamen.

On a recent afternoon, the mood was largely casual and relaxed, with former fighters milling around in the shade. Security and the atmosphere appeared more reminiscent of that of a drug rehab facility or a tough-love teen reform school rather than a Soviet- or Cambodian-style reeducation camp.

Guarded by a few armed Islamist soldiers, the men start their day with prayers at 4:30 a.m. Attendance is voluntary, camp leaders say, but they take note of those who don't show up. Smoking cigarettes or chewing khat leaves, a stimulant, are banned, a challenge considering most fighters were addicted to khat.

The rest of the day is filled with military exercises, religious lectures and self-defense classes, though the fighters don't practice with real weapons.

"Our goal is to upgrade their morals," said Abudulkhadir Yusuf Osman, a frequent guest lecturer at the camp and an Islamic studies professor at a Mogadishu university.

This week, during a lecture to several hundred former militiamen under the shade of a thorny tree, Osman preached that the young men could be rich in morals even if their pockets were empty. He also urged the fighters to think about their "next life," and promised paradise to those who lived a life of piety.

Religion permeates the program. Guards kneel and pray with rifles slung over their shoulders. Trainees chant Islamic verse to keep time while marching in unison across dusty plains.

"Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar," the men shouted during a recent military exercise. The phrase, which means "God is great," is a foundation of Islamic prayer.

Islamist leaders, however, insisted that religious indoctrination was not their goal.

"We are rehabilitating their behavior, not their religion," said Sheik Mukhtar Robow Ali, the deputy security chief for the courts. "Most of them were already religious, but they weren't using their faith. Religion doesn't permit you to oppress other people, and that's what these people were doing."

Camp leaders say participation is voluntary and the men are free to leave. But they acknowledge that the camps provide a good opportunity to keep an eye on the former enemy fighters.

After Islamists chased out nearly a dozen warlords who had carved up control of Mogadishu, fighters left behind were given the option of handing in their weapons and returning home, or moving to the camps to be retrained.

In the face of pressure to prove they are "reformed," about half of the fighters agreed to go to the camps. Most were young, unemployed men who had been acting as mercenaries. Few had any education or job training that would enable them to find work.

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