Somali Author Examines Teen Islamist Fighters

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Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: There are also serious problems with the delivery of relief aid in Somalia. But they're problems of a different sort. Militant groups control access to parts of Somalia that have been stricken by famine and the militants are not letting through international food aid. Decades of famine and war have sent thousands of Somalis to seek a better life outside the nation. This diaspora features prominently in the work of Somali author, Nuruddin Farah. In Farah's new novel, called Crossbones, one of the main characters is a Somali-American teenager from Minneapolis. He's called YoungThing. When we first meet YoungThing he's wandering through the back streets of Mogadishu, lugging a massive bag of weapons across the town to a safe house. YoungThing's story is based on the real life tale of Somali-American boys in Minnesota who were recruited by the Islamist group al-Shabab. We asked Farah what might motivate a teenager in the American midwest to join a Somali military group?

Nurudden Farah: When boys reach a certain age between 15 and 20 something goes awry and they like to challenge not only themselves, but their parents and their societies to which they belong. A number of the young people who join al-Shabab were doing well at school and therefore were not failures as such.

Mullins: That's I think what's so mystifying.

Farah: There is a mystery.

Mullins: Yes.

Farah: There is a mystery and you know, people think that we should hold somebody responsible for what they did and we should also hold some of the parents in part because they didn't keep abreast of what their own children were up to.

Mullins: You portray in your book Somali militants in a rather nuanced fashion; I mean, they're not cookie cutter figures, they're not one dimensional. When we in the United States think about militants, I mean it's easy to see people like al-Shabab who are simply stopping humanitarian aid groups from getting food to the starving in Somalia. What do we miss that you think you get in terms of understanding who these militants are?

Farah: Well, they're not cliched figures. They are human beings like us who would like to make changes in the lives of the nation to which they belong and for which they're fighting. I've read a number of novels and short stories written by American authors about militants in Iraq, or Afghanistan or Somalia, and as you say they are one dimensional. And the reason is because the Americans have no access to the contradictions, you know, the choices, the doubts, the self doubt actually that some of these youth have and the trauma they suffer.

Mullins: Can you give me an example of more of the nuances and maybe the self doubt?

Farah: There is in the case of [inaudible 2:53], who is one of the characters, there is that particular self doubt. And the reason is when he is given the job to blow himself up in the town from which his ancestor family comes in Bosaso, he begins to hesitate and the reason is because for once he thinks perhaps I may not get what I'm fighting for. And when he decides he can't get on with it, a distant friend and cousin, his name is Zyfulah[? 3:24], then performs the duty he'd been assigned. So there is last minute doubt. And then once he is presented with the choice of returning to America, again, he begins to doubt whether or not you know, he doesn't want to leave to become the laughing stock of his friends. He doesn't know what the Americans will do to him if he returns. And he feels some form of self degradation because he's a man assigned a higher ideal and who didn't take it.

Mullins: You write about and watch very closely the diaspora from Somalia. People like you who were born there and then have maybe come back from the inside, you don't live there now, but you come to the country...

Farah: I go there quite often and I was there in March of 2011.

Mullins: And you see different things, including what people eat, what they wear, their attitudes, obviously, every time you go and it can be different every time. In Somalia two thirds of the parliament is made up of diaspora, the current administration right now. We watched the saga of the Somali-American who worked in a cubicle at the department of transportation in Buffalo, NY, and then briefly served in Somalia as prime minister. When these people go back to Somalia with the best of intentions and perhaps a beneficial outside view, are they at the same time more vulnerable to being manipulated, clan manipulation, I mean can they appreciate the influence of clan politics? Intellectually, maybe yes, but realistically?

Farah: Well, the majority of these people didn't go to Somalia at the point of gun. They have made the choice to go and do as much good as they can. Against all odds some of them have been able to do a lot of good with the knowledge that they can come away when things are very bad, with the knowledge also that they've made the choice to serve the nation.

Mullins: Every time Americans hear about Somalia it's some kind of catastrophic problem, either a government that is corroding or terrible famine. What is there about the diaspora, considerable diaspora including here in the United States of Somalis that keeps them together and unified and expecting to be able to make a difference?

Farah: For all the problems Somalia has had, Somalis speak the same language, belong to the same faith, Islam, and share very many cultural traits, regardless of whether they are Somalis from Somalia or Somalis from Djibouti, the Republic of Djibouti in the horn of Africa, Somalis from Kenya or Ethiopia. About 12 millions Somalis probably think of themselves as a nation that has been divided by colonial powers that put them and the different administrations, Ethiopian Kenyan, and I think what brings them together is the fact that they can all have the same aim, ambition, the ambition of putting together Somalia so that the country represents the nation.

Mullins: Somali-born novelist, Nuruddin Farah, teaches at the University of Minnesota. His new book, just out, is called Crossbones. Thank you.

Farah: Thank you very much.