This guy discovered that dry cleaning could prevent terrorism in Somalia

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schacter: This week in Afghanistan, a 10-year-old girl was detained after what police described as a botched suicide bombing attempt. The girl said her brother tried to get her to walk to a police station while wearing an explosive vest. Headlines about suicide attacks in various countries around are all too common, sadly. Less frequent are stories about how a person ends up with explosives attached to their body. We're going to speak now to one man who's been telling such stories. Mohammed Ali is a Somali-American activist. He's made it his mission to help young men and women in Somalia avoid that fate. Mohammed Ali, you are an activist talking about what trajectory a young man or woman might take to become a suicide bomber. You've given a TED talk, and in that talk, you speak about something called "wait-hood."

Mohammed Ali: I think it would be better explained with story. A young man, for example, from a village outside of Mogadishu, the capitol of Somalia, decides to leave his village because of draught, because of unemployment, of famine, perhaps, and decides to go to Mogadishu for opportunity, for job opportunities. And, when he gets there, it's often in the outskirts of Mogadishu he gets stuck in. There are no opportunities. You have this huge influx of unemployed young people moving to the city and he finds himself essentially stuck, simply waiting. And this is where the idea of "wait-hood" comes. And so, the way the story normally goes is he's approached by a dynamic group of people. They give him an opportunity. They give him food. They give him clothes. They give him some employment. And so this, I would say, courting of this young man begins. They slowly ensnare him and he's slowly brainwashed into believing an ideology. And a few months later, you'll find him in a car bomb in a suicide vest. It's not really clear-cut when it comes to suicide bombings. It's not because these young people have an ideology. It begins with wait-hood.

Schacter: You know, in many ways, it sounds like similar situations around the world, gangs in America or anywhere else, you know, prey on kids who don't feel they have any other option.

Ali: Right. I mean, kids are at a very vulnerable stage in their life, when they're just waiting for an opportunity.

Schacter: Tell us about some of the people you have worked with.

Ali: Until last year, actually, if you wanted to get a suit dry-cleaned, you would have to take a flight to Nairobi. [laughs] There were no dry-cleaning services in Mogadishu. You often see government officials or businessmen on their flights out of Mogadishu, where they're going to a conference, having this huge bag of dry-cleaning on their way. If you didn't have $500 to pay for a flight to go to Nairobi, you just didn't buy a suit or you didn't do any dry-cleaning. This kid had an idea of starting up this dry-cleaning service. He had a bit of capital. With some mentorship, he started up his own business and within a few months, he was taking in dry-cleaning. I have to tell you this simple service had really an amazing impact. People who would normally not be wearing suits started wearing them. I mean, there's something special about wearing a freshly pressed suit that kind of makes you stand up a bit a taller, and this kid had that impact. He changed the way people viewed themselves and behaved.

Schacter: Tell me a little bit about your own story, Mohammed. You were born in Somalia, right? How did you get out?

Ali: Yes, I was born in Mogadishu and during the Civil War, my family left and we moved to Canada and eventually made our way to the US. I was really one of the lucky ones. I have friends and family members who never left, who passed away during the Civil War, who were involved in these organizations that I spoke about, because there were no other opportunities. And so I came to the US, I went to college here. I went to Ohio State University and I eventually decided to go to law school, where I practiced immigration law. My goal was to use my skills and my experience to help people who've gone through the same journey.

Schacter: Did you say you had family members who were part of al-Shabab?

Ali: Not part of al-Shabab, but effected by al-Shabab. They lived in villages near al-Shabab-controlled territories. I had a family member who, their son was kidnapped by al-Shabab. You'll find in these areas that, for example, al-Shabab would forcefully go into schools and kidnap 30 young kids at gunpoint, some of them as young as 10, and they would take them into these training camps, where they would give them guns and train them on how to be killers. I think the story of that young girl in Afghanistan and the story of young kids in Somalia being involved in terrorism is, unfortunately, not a unique story.

Schacter: Mohammed Ali, Somali-American activist, a real pleasure to speak with you. Thanks for talking to us.

Ali: Thank you.