Somali refugees living along Kenya's border with Somalia deny reports their camps have become a recruiting and training ground for Muslim extremists.
Twenty-seven-year-old grammar school teacher Bashir Ali Adan has spent a third of his life at Hagadera camp. Hagadera is one of three refugee camps that make up the sprawling Dadaab facility in northeast Kenya, along the border with Somalia.
Mr. Adan says, although life is difficult in his camp, he feels safe. The 50-square-kilometer facility is home to nearly 140,000 people. Ninety-seven percent of its residents are Somalis, victims of clan violence, which has ravaged most of southern Somalia for more than a decade.
Once crime was rampant in the camp, but Mr. Adan praises the Kenyan government, the United Nations, and non-governmental agencies for improving security at the Dadaab facility.
He says he is confident that no one these days can conduct any illegal activity inside the facility, without being found out. "The government is taking care of whoever is coming in," he says. "So, people who are not authorized are not coming into the country, and people who are refugees, the agencies, the government, everybody is aware of the situation of everybody. They say, in the camps, there are al-Qaida groups, and [that] al-Ittiyad have been training in the camps. I have been here for about nine years and I've never seen such activity."
But a group of international human rights lawyers says its research at the Dadaab facility shows that a Somalia-based militant Muslim group, called al-Ittiyad al-Islamiya, is actively trying to recruit Somali refugees and form terrorist cells throughout East Africa.
According to terrorism experts, al-Ittiyad was founded in the 1980s by radical Somali fundamentalists, who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The movement supports the creation of a Somali state based on strict Islamic law. It also seeks to incorporate Somali-inhabited areas of neighboring Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti into the Islamic state.
Two months ago, the human rights lawyers, part of a New York-based organization called Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, issued a report saying numerous interviews with refugees at Dadaab raised the possibility that al-Ittiyad members had infiltrated the camps, disguised as refugees. The report says some of them are believed to be teaching extremism in religious schools, called madrassas.
There are many madrassas spread throughout the camps at Dadaab. No one knows exactly how many there are, but U.N. workers estimate tens-of-thousands of children and adults attend classes at the madrassas every day.
One imam, a religious teacher, angrily denied that the madrassas were being used to teach violence. The imam says refugees have no concept of terrorism, other than being victims of it themselves. He says, all he tries to do is to teach the correct way to behave, according to the Holy Koran. He insists he has never come across anyone who has tried to teach a militant form of Islam.
But it is difficult to learn more about what is being taught. Most refugees are extremely reluctant to talk to outsiders. Those who do are often labeled by other refugees as informers.
One Somali man did say privately that he and some of his friends had been approached recently by a group of men, who called themselves members of a Muslim brotherhood. He says he did not know the men.
Somalia has long been considered a terrorist haven. It is believed the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, blamed on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization, were at least partially planned in Somalia.
Major General John Sattler, the commanding officer of the newly formed U.S.-led military task force in the Horn of Africa, says upgrading security around the border regions of Somalia is a priority. But he acknowledges the task could take years. "It is a great concern, both the large coastline and the large borders. It is very hard to collect intelligence, and then [be able to state definitely] that that, in fact, is terrorist activity," he says. "It won't be done overnight. It will take time."
Back at Dadaab, a man is chased into the nearby bush by several men carrying sticks. A woman refugee says the fleeing man is accused of being an informer. They will probably kill him, she says, and walks away.