NAIROBI - The Somali militant group al-Shabab has long relied on an extensive funding and recruitment network funneled through a community-based organization in Kenya called the Muslim Youth Center. Kenyans say there has been a devastating impact on the community resulting from hundreds of young men leaving their families to join the Islamist movement.
Thirty-one-year-old Maryam Gulam, a mother of three, saw her husband recruited to fight for al-Shabab in 2009 when she was three months pregnant.
Maryam Gulam says her husband converted to Islam in 2006 and went to an Islamic school to study his new religion. She assumes that is where her husband was taught about jihad, or holy war, instead of basic Muslim religious teachings.
Gulam says she learned her husband left for Somalia to join al-Shabab through another family.
"My husband left me when I was pregnant," she says, "and to this day I don’t know if he is alive or dead." She says she came to know that her husband went to Somalia through other families whose sons were recruited. The other families knew about their sons’ journey to Somalia, but Ghulam says, "I was the only one that wasn’t aware. ... I am facing so many challenges because my in-laws are accusing me of taking their son away from them and [saying that] I am also the one who made him join Islam," Gulam said.
According to Gulam, her husband instructed the other families to wait for one month before telling tell her where he had gone.
"The message he left," Gulam says, "was that I should forgive him, and he loves me so much, and I should take care of the children according to the Islamic teachings, and if we won’t meet now, we will meet in heaven," Gulam said.
Gulam is not alone. Hundreds of families' sons, brothers and husbands have been recruited to fight for al-Shabab.
Another woman, 29-year-old Hidaya Said, says her son was recruited in 2010 at the age of 14. That same year he was supposed to sit for his final primary education exam.
Said says she looked for her son for three months. She had given up when she unexpectedly came upon a letter from him.
She says: "He left the letter at home and placed it in a place where he knew one day I would find it, and that was inside the cupboard. I read the letter, which says that he was gone and he didn’t know if they will ever meet again. I should not look for him. I should not worry about him, that he was gone and he wasn’t going to come back," Said said.
Last July, a United Nations Monitoring Group report found al-Shabab created extensive funding and recruiting networks in Nairobi through the Muslim Youth Center. For the American government, at least, the report confirmed years of anxious concern that al-Shabab has been expanding its influence in East Africa.
The Muslim Youth Center sparked a wave of much-needed development in Nairobi's Majengo slum during 2008 and 2009.
According to Mahfoodh Awadhi, a Majengo youth leader who also is chairman of the Kenya National Muslim Advocacy Council, the center worked with the community to spur development but also was recruiting jihadists for al-Shabab and sending them to Somalia for training.
“They had a hidden agenda. They were helping the community in one way or the other but they [also] had a hidden agenda. Later on we came to learn that they were taking our youths - many youths - to fight alongside al-Shabab. We complained a lot. There was no help coming from the government,” Awadhi said.
The government stopped the center from openly recruiting for al-Shabab, but the activity has continued in secret.
Multiple sources familiar with how the recruitment is done told VOA how four youths from Majengo crossed into Somalia this month to fight for al-Shabab. Two others were arrested at the Kenyan-Somali border during the past week as they tried to enter Somalia.
For now, both Gulam and Said say they don’t have control of what will happen to their loved ones, since Kenyan military forces and Somali government fighters are preparing an offensive to take control of al-Shabab's coastal stronghold of Kismayo by August.
Before then, the women say they hope their men will find ways to return home and restart their lives.