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I Was a Muslim in Trump's White House

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Rumana Ahmed
Saturday February 25, 2017

When President Obama left, I stayed on at the National Security Council in order to serve my country. I lasted eight days.

In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman––I was the only hijabi in the West Wing––and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.

Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America's Muslim citizens.

I lasted eight days.

When Trump issued a ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and all Syrian refugees, I knew I could no longer stay and work for an administration that saw me and people like me not as fellow citizens, but as a threat.

The evening before I left, bidding farewell to some of my colleagues, many of whom have also since left, I notified Trump’s senior NSC communications adviser, Michael Anton, of my departure, since we shared an office. His initial surprise, asking whether I was leaving government entirely, was followed by silence––almost in caution, not asking why. I told him anyway.
I told him I had to leave because it was an insult walking into this country’s most historic building every day under an administration that is working against and vilifying everything I stand for as an American and as a Muslim. I told him that the administration was attacking the basic tenets of democracy. I told him that I hoped that they and those in Congress were prepared to take responsibility for all the consequences that would attend their decisions.

He looked at me and said nothing.

It was only later that I learned he authored an essay under a pseudonym, extolling the virtues of authoritarianism and attacking diversity as a “weakness,” and Islam as “incompatible with the modern West.”

My whole life and everything I have learned proves that facile statement wrong.
My parents immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 1978 and strove to create opportunities for their children born in the states. My mother worked as a cashier, later starting her own daycare business. My father spent late nights working at Bank of America, and was eventually promoted to assistant vice president at one of its headquarters. Living the American dream, we’d have family barbecues, trips to Disney World, impromptu soccer or football games, and community service projects. My father began pursuing his Ph.D., but in 1995 he was killed in a car accident.

I was 12 when I started wearing a hijab. It was encouraged in my family, but it was always my choice. It was a matter of faith, identity, and resilience for me. After 9/11, everything would change. On top of my shock, horror, and heartbreak, I had to deal with the fear some kids suddenly felt towards me. I was glared at, cursed at, and spat at in public and in school. People called me a “terrorist” and told me, “go back to your country.”
My father taught me a Bengali proverb inspired by Islamic scripture: “When a man kicks you down, get back up, extend your hand, and call him brother.” Peace, patience, persistence, respect, forgiveness, and dignity. These were the values I’ve carried through my life and my career.

I never intended to work in government. I was among those who assumed the government was inherently corrupt and ineffective. Working in the Obama White House proved me wrong. You can’t know or understand what you haven’t been a part of.

Still, inspired by President Obama, I joined the White House in 2011, after graduating from the George Washington University. I had interned there during my junior year, reading letters and taking calls from constituents at the Office of Presidential Correspondence. It felt surreal––here I was, a 22-year-old American Muslim woman from Maryland who had been mocked and called names for covering my hair, working for the president of the United States.
In 2012, I moved to the West Wing to join the Office of Public Engagement, where I worked with various communities, including American Muslims, on domestic issues such as health care. In early 2014, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes offered me a position on the National Security Council (NSC). For two and a half years I worked down the hall from the Situation Room, advising President Obama’s engagements with American Muslims, and working on issues ranging from advancing relations with Cuba and Laos to promoting global entrepreneurship among women and youth.

A harsher world began to reemerge in 2015. In February, three young American Muslim students were killed in their Chapel Hill home by an Islamophobe. Both the media and administration were slow to address the attack, as if the dead had to be vetted before they could be mourned. It was emotionally devastating. But when a statement was finally released condemning the attack and mourning their loss, Rhodes took me aside to to tell me how grateful he was to have me there and wished there were more American Muslims working throughout government.  America’s government and decision-making should reflect its people.
Later that month, the evangelist Franklin Graham declared that the government had “been infiltrated by Muslims.” One of my colleagues sought me out with a smile on his face and said, “If only he knew they were in the halls of the West Wing and briefed the president of the United States multiple times!” I thought: Damn right I’m here, exactly where I belong, a proud American dedicated to protecting and serving my country.
Graham’s hateful provocations weren’t new. Over the Obama years, right-wing websites spread  an abundance of absurd conspiracy theories and lies, targeting some American Muslim organizations and individuals––even those of us serving in government. They called us “terrorists,” Sharia-law whisperers, or Muslim Brotherhood operatives. Little did I realize that some of these conspiracy theorists would someday end up in the White House.

Over the course of the campaign, even when I was able to storm through the bad days, I realized the rhetoric was taking a toll on American communities. When Trump first called for a Muslim ban, reports of hate crimes against Muslims spiked. The trend of anti-Muslim hate crimes is ongoing, as mosques are set on fire and individuals attacked––six were killed at a mosque in Canada by a self-identified Trump supporter.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, I watched with disbelief, apprehension, and anxiety, as Trump’s style of campaigning instigated fear and emboldened xenophobes, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes. While cognizant of the possibility of Trump winning, I hoped a majority of the electorate would never condone such a hateful and divisive worldview.
During the campaign last February, Obama visited a Baltimore mosque and reminded the public that “we’re one American family, and when any part of our family starts to feel separate … It’s a challenge to our values.” His words would go unheeded by his successor.

The climate in 2016 felt like it did just after 9/11. What made it worse was that this fear and hatred were being fueled by Americans in positions of power. Fifth-grade students at a local Sunday school where I volunteered shared stories of being bullied by classmates and teachers, feeling like they didn’t belong here anymore, and asked if they might get kicked out of this country if Trump won. I was almost hit by a car by a white man laughing as he drove by in a Costco parking lot, and on another occasion was followed out of the metro by a man screaming profanities: “Fuck you! Fuck Islam! Trump will send you back!”
While cognizant of the possibility of Trump winning, I hoped a majority of the electorate would never condone such a hateful and divisive worldview.
Then, on election night, I was left in shock.

The morning after the election, we lined up in the West Colonnade as Obama stood in the Rose Garden and called for national unity and a smooth transition. Trump seemed the antithesis of everything we stood for. I felt lost. I could not fully grasp the idea that he would soon be sitting where Obama sat.
I debated whether I should leave my job. Since I was not a political appointee, but a direct hire of the NSC, I had the option to stay. The incoming and now departed national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had said things like “fear of Muslims is rational.” Some colleagues and community leaders encouraged me to stay, while others expressed concern for my safety. Cautiously optimistic, and feeling a responsibility to try to help them continue our work and be heard, I decided that Trump's NSC could benefit from a colored, female, hijab-wearing, American Muslim patriot.

The weeks leading up to the inauguration prepared me and my colleagues for what we thought would come, but not for what actually came. On Monday, January 23, I walked into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, with the new staffers there. Rather than the excitement I encountered when I first came to the White House under Obama, the new staff looked at me with a cold surprise. The diverse White House I had worked in became a monochromatic and male bastion.

The days I spent in the Trump White House were strange, appalling and disturbing. As one staffer serving since the Reagan administration said, “This place has been turned upside down. It’s chaos. I’ve never witnessed anything like it.” This was not typical Republican leadership, or even that of a businessman. It was a chaotic attempt at authoritarianism––legally questionable executive orders, accusations of the press being “fake,” peddling countless lies as “alternative facts,” and assertions by White House surrogates that the president’s national security authority would “not be questioned.”
The entire presidential support structure of nonpartisan national security and legal experts within the White House complex and across federal agencies was being undermined. Decision-making authority was now centralized to a few in the West Wing. Frustration and mistrust developed as some staff felt out of the loop on issues within their purview. There was no structure or clear guidance. Hallways were eerily quiet as key positions and offices responsible for national security or engagement with Americans were left unfilled.

Placing U.S. national security in the hands of people who think America’s diversity is a “weakness” is dangerous.
I might have lasted a little longer. Then came January 30. The executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries caused chaos, without making America any safer. Discrimination that has existed for years at airports was now legitimized, sparking mass protests, while the president railed against the courts for halting his ban. Not only was this discrimination and un-American, the administration’s actions defending the ban threatened the nation’s security and its system of checks and balances.

Alt-right writers, now on the White House staff, have claimed that Islam and the West are at war with each other. Disturbingly, ISIS also makes such claims to justify their attacks, which for the most part target Muslims. The Administration’s plans to revamp the Countering Violent Extremism program to focus solely on Muslims and use terms like “radical Islamic terror,” legitimize ISIS propaganda and allow the dangerous rise of white-supremacist extremism to go unchecked.

Placing U.S. national security in the hands of people who think America’s diversity is a “weakness” is dangerous. It is false.People of every religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and age pouring into the streets and airports to defend the rights of their fellow Americans over the past few weeks proved the opposite is true––American diversity is a strength, and so is the American commitment to ideals of  justice and equality.

American history is not without stumbles, which have proven that the nation is only made more prosperous and resilient through struggle, compassion and inclusiveness. It’s why my parents came here. It’s why I told my former 5th grade students, who wondered if they still belonged here, that this country would not be great without them.

Eastleigh: dynamic economic hub - not terror epicentre

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Feb. 24, 2017, 12:30 am
Neil Carrier of Oxford University has written a landmark study of Nairobi’s Eastleigh Estate.
Carrier gets off to a flying start with his Preface, which opens, “This book seeks to understand Nairobi’s remarkable Eastleigh estate and its transformation into a Somali-dominated
commercial hub packed with shopping malls. It tells the story of how Eastleigh became a ‘Little Mogadishu’, offering urban refuge to thousands of refugees, and linking
Kenya to both the worldwide Somali diaspora and to vast global networks of trade.”
This portrait of Eastleigh, an important retail and wholesale centre, is a powerful antidote to the prevailing media myths and Hollywood ballyhoo about the estate being an epicentre
and safe haven for the militant alShabaab. Instead, it brings out Eastleigh’s Eastleigh’s characteristics as a transnational economic hub that has risen from the ashes of the fall in neighbouring Somalia of the Siad Barre regime of 1969-91, a quarter century ago.
Carrier is both an anthropologist and a journalist, and Little Mogadishu, Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub is both scholarly and journalistic. Of the five rave review blurbs on the back cover of the Hurst paperback edition, four are by fellow anthropologists, the exception being Yusuf Hassan’s, MP for Kamukunji constituency (of which Eastleigh is part), Nairobi.
Hassan has this to say, “Carrier’s brilliantly researched and skillfully crafted book challenges the widespread negative perceptions about Somalis in Kenya. He unearths the
deep historic roots of this entrepreneurial community in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood and how, against all odds, they have overcome barriers and transformed this sleepy
place into a dynamic global business hub”.
China's sites of production and Dubai's sites of consumption
Catherine Besteman, Professor of Anthropology, Colby College, and author of Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine, says, “In this compelling and breathtakingly thorough account, Carrier documents the vast reach of Eastleigh’s ‘refugee economy’ throughout Kenya and across the world, from China’s sites of production and Dubai’s sites of consumption, through Somali financial diaspora networks in Europe and North America. The superb review of Eastleigh’s historic dynamism takes the reader
through colonialism in East Africa, Somalia’s collapse, the intersection of diasporic networks and global finance, contemporary security worries, and anticipatory views of the city of the future. A terrific read”.
In his Introduction, under the crosshead ‘Displaced Development?’ Carrier writes: “Eastleigh is a place of much ambivalence and ambiguity. It is a place people want to leave,
yet to which others want to return; a place where the upheaval of war has brought opportunity and development, a place where great wealth is made out of low-end goods; a place
of shiny malls and hotels sprouting from muddy decayed streets; a place of refuge that can be a place of danger; a place where the state is both all too absent and all too present.
This ambiguity and ambivalenceruns through how the Kenyan state and the wider Kenyan society have viewed a l l its recent changes; at times praising Eastleigh’s development and entrepreneurship, at others condemning it as an economy built on dubious goods and capital”.
Little Mogadishu, written as part of a project examining the Somali-dominated Eastleigh estate for the Oxford Diasporas Programme, is divided into seven chapters followed by
14 pages of Notes, a 22-page Bibliography and a 10-page Index. Eastleigh estate and its internal dynamics and international outreach have been the subjects of scholarly study and keen media interest for decades. Perhaps only the Kibera slum area, the biggest in Africa and one of the biggest in the world, has received as much research and media attention in Nairobi as Eastleigh estate.
Eastleigh is more than 'little Mogadishu'
In a paper written before the book was published last year, Carrier said, “However, while nicknamed ‘Little Mogadishu’, Eastleigh is home to a much more varied population than
this name suggests, and among the other ethnicities (and nationalities) who live there are Oromo, a refugee community from Ethiopia. This paper highlights their lives in the estate, from their journeys to reach it, to their incorporation into Eastleigh’s economy and the sense of moral community that aids this incorporation. It also contrasts their relationship to the estate and its economy with that of Somalis: while Eastleigh is a place in which many Somalis in the wider diaspora invest and return, for Oromo, Eastleigh is generally a place they hope to survive before leaving for greener pastures, rarely to return”.
In Chapter 3, entitled ‘More Than Little Mogadishu’, Carrier observes, “… different sections of Eastleigh have different population ratios. … However, within Sections I and II, something of a third diaspora exists, constituted by another group whose roots in the estate were laid before the commercial transformation: the Meru (principally the Tigania and
Igembe sub-groups from the Nyambene Hills district northeast of Mount Kenya), whose cash crop miraa (khat) is hugely in demand in the estate, both for consumption there and
for onward export to Somalia, Europe and elsewhere. Khat has been consumed there since at least the 1930s, and the Meru themselves have come to the estate for decades to establish khat kiosks”. This book is written as a historical and ethnographic portrait of Eastleigh and it sets out to answer two questions. In the author’s own words in the Introduction, How has a once modest residential district of Nairobi transformed into a global commercial hub in the wake of Somali displacement? And why has this development met with such ambivalence,
suspicion and even hostility?
Commercial hub created by global shockwaves
Carrier answers his own two key questions comprehensively in the course of the book, observing at one point in his Conclusion, “… in large part, this is a story of a commercial
hub catalysed by the global shockwaves of the collapse of the Somali state and its social and economic repercussions. In this regard, we explored how in the wake of Somalia’s civil war Somali networks expanded to form a vast, socially tight diaspora that could mobilise capital and connections to some of the world’s most significant trade hubs. These networks coalesced in Eastleigh as thousands of refugees fleeing the war moved to the estate”.
Little Mogadishu is not just about adding significantly to the literature on refugee economies and to the theoretical and empirical knowledge of a complex subject; it is also about
people and communities. Chapter 4, entitled “Living the Eastleigh Dream” is full of them. Heading the cast of real-life characters is Mohaa, proprietor- operator of Nasiib Fashions,
a gentleman’s outfitters. A photo of Mohaa at Nasiib Fashions in 2011 is the first of 26 images of people and places throughout the book. The images include an Eastleighwood concert, Meru in Eastleigh, a number 9 route matatu in a muddy First Avenue and Burhan, Eastleigh entrepreneur and impresario.
There are pen portraits of such people as Mama Fashion, a Reer Hamar woman, and Abdi Warsame, as narratives of the trajectory leading from exile to an Eastleigh shop and a path to relative prosperity.
Media and hollywood myths of a dangerous place
Carrier acknowledges rumours persist in Kenya and around the world that Eastleigh is built on money laundering of ill-gotten gains (including the proceeds of the spate of piracy on
the Indian Ocean a decade ago), and that it harbours terrorists and terrorist sympathisers, including al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab. “This impression of a dangerous place apart has
recently been given the Hollywoodtrea tment in the 2015 film Eye in the Sky, where US drone operatives target a house in an Eastleigh overrun by armed-to-the-teeth militia. For
the people who live and work there, such representations matter: its population, especially its refugees, have suffered over the years at the hands of Kenya’s security forces, including during the infamous Operation Usalama Watch.”
Eye in the Sky was so ridiculous, it portrayed an Eastleigh in which al Shabaab patrolled the estate in ‘technicals’ 4x4 Toyota Land Cruisers with mounted machineguns. Shot in South Africa, it portrayed an Eastleigh and rest of Nairobi with such smooth roads it was unreal, at least in Kenyans’ eyes. It starred Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (in his last role) and the superb American-Somali actor Barkhad Abdi.
That Eastleigh can be so misrepresented in a movie with such accomplished stars underlines Carrier’s description of the estate in this book and in a number of papers as “a place
of much ambivalence and ambiguity”. Al Shabaab is undoubtedly present in Eastleigh but it has nowhere near the power and influence alleged in the media and Hollywood and by
some anti-terror police commanders and some in the spy agency NIS.
Little Mogadishu, Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub should be required reading for reporters, editors, National Counter-Terrorism Centre director Ambassador Martin Kimani
and as many of his counterparts in the war on terror as there are, as well as anyone who enjoys a good, well-researched, informative and eye-opening read.

Somalia's new president asks al Shabaab to surrender

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Feb. 22, 2017, 6:00 pm
Somalia's newly elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo and his wife Zeinab Abdi listen to speeches during his inauguration ceremony in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, February 22, 2017. /REUTERS
Somalia's new president was inaugurated on Wednesday, promising his people that the era of al Shabaab and other Islamist militant groups was over.
Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a dual US-Somali citizen, called on al Shabaab's thousands of fighters to surrender, promising them "a good life" if they did.
"To those who work with al Qaeda, al Shabaab and IS (Islamic State), your time is finished," he said at the inauguration ceremony, attended by the leaders of neighbouring states.
"You have been misled, destroyed property and killed many Somalis. Come and we shall give you good life," he said.
Somalia has been in turmoil since 1991, hit by decades of conflict at the hands of clan militias. Over the past several years it has faced an insurgency by al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, which the government is battling with the help of regional troops.
On Sunday a suicide bomb in a crowded market in the capital Mogadishu killed dozens of people.
As well as the security situation, Mohamed, who was elected by lawmakers on February 8, faces the challenge of cutting corruption.
"Our government will not loot but will help its people. We shall fight insecurity, economic crisis and unemployment," he said.

At least 14 killed in Mogadishu car bombing

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Civilians and soldiers stand amongst scattered objects at the scene of a car bomb attack near the Peace Hotel in Mogadishu on January 2, 2017. A car bomb killed at least 14 people in Mogadishu on February 19, 2017. AFP PHOTO 
At least 14 people were killed on Sunday when a car packed with explosives blew up near a busy intersection in Mogadishu, officials and witnesses said.
"We have counted about 14 people killed and more than 30 others wounded... the area was a busy intersection alongside the road and there were many civilians when the blast occurred," said local security official Mohamed Jilibey.
The explosion is the first big attack in the Somali capital since the election of new President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed — nicknamed Farmajo — although several mortar blasts claimed by Al-Shabaab Islamists marked the official handover of power last week.
"The death toll is very high, more than 10 people were confirmed dead and others are wounded," said Dahir Ahmed, another official.
Witnesses said the bombing targeted an intersection in southern Mogadishu's Madina district where soldiers, civilians and traders were present.
"There were many small scale traders alongside the road and teashops and restaurants. There were also members of the security forces and shoppers and the blast was so huge that it killed nearly 20 people, most of them civilians," said witness Sumayo Moalim.
The attack underlines the challenge facing the new president, who has inherited an administration with limited control over Somali territory due to the presence of Shabaab, and is heavily propped up by the international community.
AU troops drove Shabaab militants out of Mogadishu in August 2011 but the militants continue to control rural areas and launch repeated attacks in the capital.

‘Make Somalia Great Again!’ US ambassador gifts new leader Trump-inspired hat

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Saturday February 18, 2017

Washington wants the newly elected Somalian president, who also happens to be a US national, to “Make Somalia Great Again.” A cap bearing the Trump type rallying call was presented by the US Ambassador to Mohamed Abdullahi "Farmajo" Mohamed.
"Make America Great Again," the four words which helped propel Donald Trump into the White House received a makeover in Somalia, when US Ambassador Stephen Schwartz presented the newly elected Somalian president with a hat that reads, “Make Somalia Great Again.”

The US gift to Mohamed, who assumed office on Thursday, has two differences from the iconic slogan-hat worn by Trump and his supporters in the US. The bright red is replaced with a softer blue and white, and “Somalia” inserted in the place of “America” with the phrase spelt out in black letters.

The hat definitely impressed the Somalian leader who was quick to tweet a picture of the special gift, adding the bilateral meeting focused on “drought response” and “security sector reform.” The US embassy in Mogadishu also posted a picture of the hat on their Twitter account, tweeting the meeting between the US envoy and Mohamed was “fruitful.”

The American version of the hat has reached iconic status in the US and is now available for $25 from the Trump Make America Great Again Committee. “Make Somalia Great Again” however has not been yet added to the inventory.

It remains unclear if Schwartz’s special gift has any hidden meaning behind it. American relations with Somalia have just begun to get back on track after a 25-year break in diplomatic relations. Last August Schwartz became the first ambassador to the country in a quarter of a century after Somalia’s government practically collapsed in 1991.

In 1991, the American embassy in the country closed its doors after the regime of Mohamed Said Barre was overthrown, unleashing unprecedented violence between warring clan militias. The next year, President George H.W. Bush deployed US special forces to Somalia to support a UN aid mission. The US-led Unified Task Force (UNITAF) operated in Somalia between 5 December 1992 – 4 May 1993 but failed to quell the violence.

It was only in 2012, after two decades of war and chaos, that Somalia achieved some measure of stability with the creation of an internationally-backed government.

Security remains a problem however, as the Islamist militant group al-Shabab continues to launch attacks. Campaigning on promises to defeat the Islamic militant movement and to end famine, Mohamed Abdullahi "Farmajo" Mohamed was elected as Somalia’s 9th president on February, 8. He assumed office on Thursday.

Mohamed, 54, has spent much of his adult life in the city of Buffalo, New York, where he raised a family. Being a dual citizen the Somali president previously worked for the New York State Department of Transportation in Buffalo.

Working in the US, Mohamed managed to maintain contact with Somali politics and served eight months as Somali prime minister during 2010 and 2011, at the height of the al-Shabab insurgency.

Interestingly enough, Schwartz was born in Buffalo where "Farmajo" spent a large part of his life. Both also apparently share a passion for the NFL team – the Buffalo Bills.

"The Ambassador and the President shared their Buffalo, New York, history with a Buffalo Bills football team mug," the US embassy said in a picture description of the two leaders posted last week on Facebook.



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When adequate skills are instilled among the youth, employment is generated. Eastleighwood employment programme for youths aims at reducing the high unemployment rate among the youths in Eastleigh community, which if not curbed may lead the youth to engage in all kinds of nefarious acts such as idleness, drugs, promiscuity, robbery, gang involvement among others. The Empowering youth for self employment -2017 programme is aimed at Instilling the youths with the necessary skills needed to compete with their counterparts across the globe in the field of neo-media.

Courses to be offered are:
 Art of Photo journalism 3months
 Cinematography /video coverage 3months
 Video editing 3months
 Music programming 3months
 Graphic design 3months
This and more are some of the initiative Eastleighwood is undertaking in order to make Eastleigh a better place.
We encourage our youths to engage in this programme and build their skills in their area of interest.
Expected Outcomes:
By the end of the project in 2017:
 100 young people will have gained appropriate training that responds to the needs of selected high-growth industries such as design, music, entertainment, and arts and culture.
At least 40% of youth will be placed in quality jobs or in their own business start-ups.
 50% of participants, who have not completed secondary school at baseline, will be enrolled in an education training program or will have gained additional schooling credentials at the time of follow up.
 Partners will have strengthened their organizational capacity.
 A sustainable network of stakeholders from private, public sectors and also the community will be created.
 Average level of unemployment will be reduced.
 Menaces usually visible due to youth unemployment and restiveness will be highly reduced as well as other criminal vices associated with unemployment.

Big Game: U.S. Soldiers’ Secret Hunt for Jihadists in a Kenyan Forest

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The United States is waging secret warfare around the world. The operations in and around Kenya’s Boni National Reserve on the Somali border are some of the most mysterious.
Margot Kiser
02.08.17 6:03 AM ET
A short, bloody raid by U.S. Special Operations Forces on an al Qaeda base in Yemen in the second week of Donald Trump’s presidency was a fleeting reminder to the world that Americans are engaged in secret and not-so-secret wars around the globe. But most of the action is not as dramatic as the Yemen attack in which a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed, an 8-year-old girl died, and a $70 million aircraft crash landed and had to be destroyed. All that took place in the space of a couple of hours. But most of these wars are long grinds fought far from prying eyes in close cooperation with local forces that often are notorious for torture and other human rights abuses. And nowhere have those fights gone on so long, or in such obscurity, as in Africa. This is the first of an occasional series that will shine some light into those shadows.
LAMU, Kenya—Tucked into the northeast end of the country’s coast, the Boni National Reserve is a fairy-tale paradise, a resplendent ecosystem packed with elephantine baobab trees and hydra-headed doum palms. This mix of riverine forest and swampy grassland is home to some of the country’s largest herds of game, and to rare species like the wild dog, Somali lion, and reticulated giraffe.
There are no rhinoceros left here, but Doza Diza, 66, talks about seeing kifaru often. The safari word for rhino has been re-purposed by the locals as a name for the armor-plated Humvees whose machine-gun mounts recall the animal’s distinctive horn. 
Tall, gaunt, and with a bad eye, Doza Diza wears a traditional Somali sarong and a Muslim skullcap. He describes himself as a former county councilor and crab fisherman.
These motorized rhino can be distinguished by color, he says. The dark green ones are vehicles operated by the Kenya Defense Forces, KDF, he tells me. Those painted the color of sand belong to the Americans.
Doza is an elder of his tribe, the Awer (also spelled Aweer). They are hunter-gatherers who seek out honey by following birds, talk to crocodiles and hippos in tongues the beasts are said to understand, and generally stick to their ancient way of life. The Awer are also Muslims, which is highly unusual among the world’s few remaining stone-age peoples.
They’ve long inhabited the Boni forest region, but slowly and surely their way of life is being stripped from them. Subsistence hunting was banned in Kenya in the 1970s, so any meat the Awer procure is illegal. Poverty further marginalizes them. And now the tribe is caught in the crossfire of the global war on terror.
How will the new administration in Washington deal with this and other semi-clandestine wars being waged by the United States around the world? Donald Trump has a penchant for former generals, with Michael Flynn, a longtime U.S. Army intelligence officer as his national security adviser, and retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, a veteran of counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, who is now secretary of defense. Trump’s close advisor Steve Bannon also fancies himself a brilliant armchair general. But Washington is a long way from the Boni forest and the very special sort of battlefield it represents.
As The New York Times reported in October and November the United States has been escalating the “shadow war” inside Somalia with “the potential for the United States to be drawn ever more deeply into a trouble country that so far has stymied all efforts to fix it.”
The Times, quoting unnamed “senior American military officials,” estimated that “about 200 to 300 American Special Operations troops work with soldiers from Somalia and other African nations like Kenya and Uganda to carry out more than a half-dozen raids per month.” And it outlined a program in which private contractors employed by the U.S. also play a significant role.
But the shadow war inside the failed-state borders of Somalia is almost transparent compared to the activities here on the ill-defined edge of that war. There is a long history of countries on the fringes of conflict being sucked into war themselves, the most notable example being Cambodia during the Vietnam debacle. Whether Washington will help prevent such an outcome—or provoke it—is an open question.
The area in and around the Boni National Reserve is one of many places in Africa where American personnel are deployed with little fanfare and, indeed, as secretly as Washington’s representatives and proxies can manage.
Repeated and detailed queries to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) for clarification of the American role here on the frontier between Kenya and Somalia were answered this month with a brief response explaining why not even a background briefing was possible: “As these operations are currently ongoing, and have elements of U.S. special forces assisting, we cannot comment at this time due to operational security reasons.”
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A major part of the mission those U.S. special forces are “assisting” in this part of the continent is, in fact, to hunt down and kill members of the Somali group known as al-Shabaab who threaten Kenya’s security and, through the group’s close relationship with al Qaeda, are believed to threaten America’s as well.
The counterterror and counterinsurgency forces operating in the region would like the Awer to help them track the Somali guerrillas and terrorists. But that project is not going well in an operation reminiscent of many sorry histories around the world where local tribes and minorities have been instrumentalized, abused, and very often abandoned.
U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets), other Special Operations Forces of various stripes, State Department officials, the inevitable slews of American contractors, and spooks and commandos from countries with close ties to the United States, including the Brits, Israelis, and Jordanians, have all deployed here in an undeclared if not unmentioned U.S.-backed war.
Kenya’s government and its international partners—the heavyweights being the U.S. and the U.K.—are desperate to make this region safe for engineers, imported skilled workers, and, yes, tourists. But the current intense counterterror focus has been a slow build, and not hugely effective. For the moment, anyone who ventures into the Boni forest risks getting blown up by an IED.
Indeed, as if mocking attempts by the Kenyan government to establish the forest and its coast as a destination resort, al-Shabaab released a recruitment video in 2015 boasting about the bountiful game in the forest provided by Allah to sustain jihadi fighters.
One ranch with a tourist concession that had been a haunt of jet-setters and celebrities (Kristin Davis, one of the stars of Sex in the City, had been a guest) found itself converted into a haven for al-Shabaab sympathizers in 2014. They stole food and medicine then torched the facility’s guest huts.
There is a long and bloody history behind such incidents, which we’ll look at in a subsequent installment of this series. But the short history has been the stuff of fleeting headlines for more than five years.
In October 2011, Kenya sent troops into Somalia. Since then al-Shabaab has carried out massive retaliatory hits on targets in Kenya resulting in more than 300 deaths.
Kenyan officials believe that after the spectacular 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that killed at least 70 people, al-Shabaab retreated from Kenya’s urban areas and melted into the dense Boni forest—which sits on the coast, right on the country’s north-south border with Somalia and adjacent to what was once a Somali national park.
Officials say another massacre, the 2014 Mpeketoni attack, which left 48 dead, was staged from within the forest, and that the Garissa University attack of 2015, which left at least 148 dead, was organized within the enormous Dadaab refugee camp nearby (which the Kenyan government plans to shut down, further displacing more than 300,000 people).
Jaysh Aman, the al-Shabaab cell in the forest, reportedly was comprised of some 300 fighters in 2015, but its numbers certainly vary.
Following the Westgate attack (which was later the subject of an extraordinary HBO documentary) national and Western forces were in an all-out scramble to protect Kenya from further cross-border terrorism. After the Garissa attack, Kenya asked the U.S. and other Western nations for more and better assistance.
According to human rights groups, the counterinsurgency tactics that accompanied the build-up of U.S. assistance have featured mass police sweeps, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and summary executions targeting not only al-Shabaab suspects, but alleged sympathizers and Muslim communities generally.
In October 2015 the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights (KNCHR) released a report documenting disappearances and killings of residents and suspects along the Somalia border and the Kenya coast. Worshippers were grabbed as they left mosques and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers allegedly shot dead cattle herders, most of whom are Muslim, in east Kenya (PDF). 
During President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya in July of 2015, he stepped into the fray, allocating $100 million for the Kenya Defense Forces for weapons, materiel, and vehicles. The allowance was a 163 percent increase in counterterrorism assistance over the previous year. Among Kenya’s purchases: a Boeing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle—a drone—at a price of $9.8 million. Each year since 2012 the Kenyan government has asked for security assistance from the West.
The most recent installment—approved by the State Department days after Trump’s inauguration, but still not through Congress—is a $418 million package that includes crop dusters converted for low, slow, high impact attacks targeting people on the ground.
The extent to which the Trump administration will continue or cut back economic assistance in Africa is unclear, with some reports suggesting those funds will be reduced. In one of several pointed queries the Trump White House sent to the State Department it said bluntly, “We’ve been fighting al-Shabaab for a decade, why haven’t we won?” But such questions offer little hint of a new strategy, apart from efforts to shore up Fortress America at its frontiers. Somalia was one of the seven Muslim majority countries whose citizens were banned temporarily by Trump’s controversial executive order.
Obama’s theme was known as “the 3-D approach” to the region’s conflicts—defense, diplomacy, and development. And in the two months following his historic visit to the land of his father, Kenya’s government announced that a “multi-agency” security force had been assembled to carry out counterterror measures against al-Shabaab.
The force consisted of paramilitary units within Kenya’s police, Kenya Defense Forces special forces, and various state agencies, including the National Intelligence Service, Military Intelligence, the Kenya Wildlife Service and Forest Service—all trained by Western police units and special forces.  
On Sept. 11 of 2015, Kenya formally launched “Operation Linda Boni” (Linda Boni being Swahili for “protect the Boni”). The goal set a two-month timetable to drive the insurgents from the forest. It is still going on.
The first stage of this effort was cordoning off the Boni forest as a collection of “no-go zones,” and evacuation of all residents. Those who remained would be regarded as al-Shabaab sympathizers.
This branded the Awer, Kenyan citizens, as the enemy.
Security officials contend that Somali fighters have taken up residence, with their wives and children, deep inside the Boni forest.
Doza Diza and other Awer leaders say that is true.
They say al-Shabaab has coerced them into providing shelter in mosques and schools, logistical support, chiefly in the form of food and medicine, and have forced tribespeople to track game for them.
But the Awer also are quick to say that violence and threats against them come from both sides in this conflict.
Kenyan officials claim that Somali attackers burned the huts of the Awer, while the Awer say that Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) burned those shelters in an effort to force them to comply with the evacuation.
Doza reports that guerrillas took his people’s food and issued warnings not to reveal their whereabouts to Kenya security, “Otherwise, we’ll deal with you.” Aside from this, he notes, the insurgents are polite. “Al-Shabaab rob from us, but they don’t beat us or grab our land—the way Kenya forces do.” 
Linda Boni has not only run long beyond its planned two-month timetable, it has extended far beyond the forest and its region into much of northeast Kenya.
In the process it has become apparent that the KDF’s counterterror tactics involve more than eradicating the al-Shabaab presence in the forest.
By the end of 2015, the KDF announced it was expanding its area of deployment into neighboring counties along the Somali border and south some 200 miles, to the Tana River, constructing additional police stations and military camps. The Baragoni camp on the southern fringe of the Boni-Dodori National Reserve expanded its area to 800 acres of ostensibly public land.
Kenya is building a 435-mile Western-funded security wall at the nation’s eastern border. On a visit to Kenya last year, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a big fan of walls in the Holy Land and in the U.S. as well, committed funds to the project. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta reportedly has suggested building a terrorist-only prison facility within the Boni forest.
Land grabs in northeastern Kenya are nothing new. In the ’80s the Kenyan government seized land during a counterinsurgency operations against ethnic Somalis inhabiting the area. Now locals—ethnic Somalis and Muslim communities generally—suspect that military expansion is an excuse to take more land in and around an area where the Kenya government, the Chinese, and several multinational companies have plans for an oil-related infrastructure mega-development.
The KDF concedes that the forest is a national reserve but insists it is gazetted as government land, not communal land.
Doza suggests that the only power able to help his people stop the abuses is the U.S. government—the people behind the people in the “rhinoceros” Hummers.
Since the Westgate attack, the KDF base at Baragoni has grown from a temporary camp to a permanent one, and by 2015 Kenya had deployed enough of its troops there with sufficient transport to foil a Shabaab attack aimed at destroying the Baure camp, which is 36 miles north of the Baragoni base.
(In that action a year and a half ago the KDF killed 11 militants, including an British man named Thomas Evans who’d been dubbed “the White Beast” in U.K. tabloids. The KDF paraded his corpse—along with others—in nearby Mpeketoni, where counterterror operations are headquartered. The British press subsequently posted video that appears to show the nighttime engagement filmed the day he died.)
But the reach of the Baragoni base stretches far beyond a few satellite camps.
Swaleh Msellem, a Swahili resident of Lamu Island, manages a petrol station at the Mokowe jetty a few kilometers across a channel on the mainland. Msellem, now 30, told me how one morning he’d docked his boat at the jetty where at least a dozen non-uniformed men, whom he claims were with the paramilitary wing of Kenya’s National Police Service, had been waiting for him.
Someone pulled a hood over his head and tossed him into a vehicle. Familiar with the area and its roads, he said he could tell he was driven some 40 kilometers away to the Baragoni military base, where he was detained in a shipping container and tortured.
Some of the techniques used on him were repeated mock drownings (a variation on waterboarding) and crushing of testicles. These were done, he said, to extract a confession that he planned a deadly attack in the nearby village of Hindi, soon after the Mpekatoni massacre. He denied this. The interrogators asked where the weapons were that were used for the attacks. “Which weapons?” he answered.
The KDF continued to grill him, insisting he had information. He told me that during that detention he was driven from Baragoni to an area nearby where he witnessed the execution of two al-Shabaab fighters by a firing squad. One afternoon he complained of feeling ill. Guards took him outside to a pond where he vomited. Through his loosened blindfold he was able to glimpse crocodiles on the berm of the pond.
Why were crocodiles being kept inside a military base, he wondered.
Msellem said soldiers later threatened that he’d be fed to the crocodiles like others had been if he didn’t cooperate. After two weeks he was transferred to the port town of Mombasa, to the south, and held several months at the infamous Shimo La Tewa prison in a wing reserved for terrorists. Msellem eventually was taken into court, where he was acquitted of all murder and terror-related charges for lack of evidence.
When I interviewed Msellem, he was grimly philosophical. Although he did not see or talk to any U.S. personnel, as far as he knew, he had no doubt they played some role behind the scenes. “The Americans are very complicated, aren't they? On the one hand they are helping us by building roads, dispensaries, schools, but they also seem to want to kill us.”
In that one observation Msellem summed up the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the “3-D approach to U.S. Foreign Policy”: defense, diplomacy, and development.
A human rights report from the government-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights documents the abuse of Msellem (PDF), but does not cite it as having taken place in part (or at all) at Baragoni.
I spoke with Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, about the possibility of suspects being thrown to the crocodiles. He said he'd interviewed a local who was one survivor among four al-Shabaab suspects thrown in the Tana River behind a military camp. But as it was a single source he couldn't report it. “This is Kenya—anything can happen,” he said.
For information from inside the Baragoni base, I spoke with a man who identified himself as a Western-trained Kenyan Special Forces soldier serving with one of the SF battalions. (Photos of him clad in fatigues and standing with fellow soldiers in a garrison in Somalia would seem to confirm his identity.)
This soldier described to me the process of “enhanced interrogation”—torture—used at Baragoni military base. He confirmed that people were detained in shipping containers, but said he hadn’t heard anything about suspects being thrown to the crocodiles.
He said that sometimes the National Intelligence Service detains and interrogates suspects at the nearby Manda Bay navy base. “But they [NIS] don’t force you to say anything,” he told me. “When you're brought to Baragoni you're forced to talk.”
According to a map I was shown and was able to examine at length, the Baragoni base is operated by Kenya’s Directorate of Military Intelligence.
It would seem prisoners taken in action have little hope of survival. “If there’s been direct engagement [with al-Shabaab] we capture them and they're taken to Baragoni,” said the same soldier. “If they don't have any useful information then they are being killed. Those that give information or say where the weapons will be are shot dead.”
By the time the soldier’s deployment ended, he said, several dozen detainees remained in the shipping containers with partitions. Former detainees and a law enforcement official said that as recently as July 2016 there were as many as 16 containers, each housing at least six prisoners.
The soldiers said some suspects were ferried by helicopter to an especially inaccessible area inside the Boni forest, where they were shot dead. Hunters from the Awer report finding human remains where they collect honey.
In November 2015, a Lamu resident I see often told me that Lamu County’s government was organizing a baraza—a meeting—between Awer elders and government representatives from Nairobi, to enable the tribespeople to voice complaints about the KDF’s actions. The baraza was to take place at a restaurant on the mainland. I decided to crash the event.
When I arrived near the entrance of the restaurant there was quite a crowd milling around. At least three dozen Kenyan soldiers and police stood guard, blocking the road to the venue. At the cordon, I observed uniformed military personnel, mostly white, driving sand-colored armor-plated Humvees, those that Doza Diza had called “kifaru.”
Officers on the ground were armed with what KDF personnel identified as U.S.-manufactured FN SCAR automatic assault rifles, a very high-tech killing machine capable of firing 625 rounds a minute. Indeed, they are the U.S. Special Operations Command’s newest service rifle. German, Belgian, and Japanese special forces also reportedly used this gun. Kenya reportedly is the only African nation where the U.S. has issued this type of weapon.
In addition, representatives of the Red Cross and Safari Doctors were on hand for the Mokowe meeting but had until recently been barred from the Boni forest altogether.
Also on hand were personnel with U.S. Civil Military Affairs, the guys who handle the hearts-and-minds component of counterinsurgency, building on experiences in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Central America. CMA is a key part of the Linda Boni effort focusing on wildlife and indigenous peoples. It sees to the building of the latrines, the roads, the schools, and medical dispensaries while “denying sanctuary” to insurgents.
Through USAID Civil Military Affairs has partnered with the Kenya Wildlife Service and rangers with wildlife conservation NGOs. KWS training is funded by USAID, and, after the 2013 Westgate attack, its rangers have been trained by Maisha Consult.
The only people present at the meeting who were up front about their identities were KDF officers, whom I spoke to on arrival. One guarding the perimeter identified himself as a GSU officer, referring to the paramilitary wing in the Kenya National Police Service. I asked him whether I could attend the meeting, shortly after which a blonde-haired blue-eyed uniformed soldier returned.
I explained I was a writer researching the Awer’s predicament.
“Are you an American?” he asked. I handed him my tattered U.S. passport. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said with an engaging smile, and left promising to return to let me know whether I could attend the baraza.
Others present, also heavily armed, wore civilian clothing—Dockers, polo shirts, and wraparound sunglasses. The locals refer to such armed Western personnel in casual wear as "sport sports.”
One source, within the U.S. government, preferring to remain anonymous, identified these figures as a U.S. Diplomatic Security Service contingent protecting American diplomats at the baraza.
I never did gain access. (Media outlets associated with the Kenyan government had been invited; international press had not.) Awer leaders who spoke at the meeting, including Doza Diza, said they were eager to tell the U.S. representatives they no longer wanted to deal directly with the KDF or Kenya government because those entities had failed to make good on promises of land compensation.
Locals told me that the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, had given each tribal elder 4,000 Kenyan shillings (about $40) to attend, and provided meals and transport.
As part of counterinsurgency strategy, such meetings are supposed to help build local security forces, legitimize local government, and ultimately delegitimize the insurgents. But as long as the locals believe the government is stealing their land, meetings are unlikely to have much of a legitimizing effect. And meanwhile the fighting continues.
A former U.S. Army colonel with long experience in civil affairs, who did not want to be named, added another layer.
“Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is a relatively lean organization and continues to rely on contracted support for administration, logistics, operations, intelligence, and physical security,” he told The Daily Beast. “Think the old Blackwater and Executive Outcomes.”
It’s not uncommon to hear about U.S. Special Forces on the ground in fragile states like Somalia and Iraq, but seeing them in a sovereign democratic state—Kenya—seemed unusual.
U.S. military presence in Kenya had been sparse until the 9/11 attacks. “Boots on the ground” in Kenya was practically unheard of. In Somalia it also was virtually nonexistent for more than 20 years after the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993.
But clearly all that has changed.
—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey
follow the author on Twitter @margotkiser1