Three terrorists stand before me. This title given to them by a world beyond their control, but a title, which nonetheless could legitimise their murder. One of them is leaning on a crutch, his right leg raised limply off the ground. They are young, no more than 18. Absent are the checkered scarves and black robes, traded instead for winter jackets, dark jeans and spotless white runners. Their eyes blink wearily. Though they are pose no threat to me. It’s a bizarre situation to be standing on a quaint Austrian street talking to members of Al-Shabaab, the feared Islamic extremists who have been locked in battle in Somali for decades. People walk by as we discuss life in Somalia, as I gently probe about the activities they were involved in. In hushed whispers the term ‘suicide bomber’ is passed back and forth.
Winter in Vienna is a lot like Dublin, damp and grey with an occasional icy wind that rips through endless layers of clothing. It was on a cold day in December that I ventured out to the outskirts of the city, to the town of Traiskirchen. On first looks, Traiskirchen appears to be one of dozens of generic towns dotting the countryside that emerge swiftly around the Austrian capital. The centre of the town is dominated by a fortified church (Kirchen), my interest however, lies on the outskirts, at a former Cadet school. It was here that young Austrians began their army officer training, living and working on the grounds. The dominating school, four stories high,is surrounded by a pointed fence. Guards are positioned at the main entrance. To the left of the guards is a little village of white tents, their sides flapping with each gust. This is Austria’s oldest and largest refugee camp and this is where I met three terrorists.
Former terrorists would be the correct term possibly, but this is, perhaps unsurprisingly a rare definition. Rather, the media and international community prefer to label ordinary people with labels; radical, islamist, extremist, terrorist. These boys are open about their work with Al-Shabaab back in Mogadishu and don’t really notice my surprise as they tell me about their past. Yet under the international system with which we fight terrorism, these three boys are legitimate military targets. Their deaths would go down as a success in Somalia, or anywhere else as part of the ‘War On Terror’.
As with all labels, deeming these teens ‘terrorists’ generalises to the point of distortion. Doing so would be to ignore the most important facts of their particular case. These boys revile the organisation they worked for, and always have. Had they been born in a different country, in a different city but in similar circumstances, they would had tread a path earning them the moniker “gang member” or something equivalent. In Somalia however, they were in the ranks of Al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab is a Somali terrorist organisation currently locked in battle with the African Union and UN supported Somali government. Formed in 2006, Al-Shabaab translates as ‘The Youth’ in Arabic. Its aim is to impose a strict interpretation of Sharia law in Somalia as well as destroying what they see as a foreign imposed Federal Government of Somalia in Mogadishu. In that regard, they have launched attacks in nearby Kenya, which provide troops to the 22,000 strong AU mission supporting government forces. Though Al-Shabaab have been weakened more recently in the capital, a recent US drone strike which killed 150 just 120 miles north of the capital highlights the imminent threat they continue to pose to AU and government forces there.
To understand how these teenagers ended up in Austria after working for one of the most violent terrorist groups in the world, one needs to go back to 2013. In 2013, the map of Somalia looked a lot different to todays, the AU supported government only controlled a tiny region around the capital and most of the hinterland lay in the hands of Al-Shabaab. Hirsi, Muhammad and Niman all came from the same neighbourhood on the outskirts of Mogadishu. They grew up together, playing on the streets when they could, in the lulls between the fighting which Somalia has continually experienced since the early 1990s. As they grew up, their neighbourhood remained an Al-Shabaab stronghold even as the AU and government forces began to retake the capital. As they got closer to their teens, local commanders from Al-Shabaab began to approach their friends one by one, enlisting them to the ranks. There wasn’t much of a choice. In the same way that gang culture runs wild in poor suburban areas, the choice was one of resist or join. Each one of the boys was approached individually and each was assigned a different role.
Hirsi, who hobbles on one foot since he tripped down the stairs a week previously, was a cook. He spits this statement with venom, a feeling of hatred being conveyed despite his broken english. In what seems a bizarrely mundane job for a ‘terrorist’, Hirsi worked in the kitchens washing vegetables and preparing the food to be distributed to the fighters. This was a paid position and he saved as much of his wages as he could. He was constantly in fear that he would be called upon to join the fight, or worse, be informed that he was to become a suicide bomber. Hirsi got out quickly, after four months of work he took what he could and fled the city.
Muhammad managed to evade the ranks of Al-Shabaab for quite a while, his slight frame hiding his age. When they did eventually approach him he was put to work as a cleaner, which he was relieved to accept rather than been forced onto the frontline against the AU and Somali government forces. Like Hirsi, Muhammad saw many of his friends compelled directly into the conflict and colleagues coerced into suicide attacks. It was a volatile environment. He didn’t trust any of the fighters and his fear of their increasingly irrational behaviour made the decision for him: He had to run.
Niman was a bag man. He was part of the team which extorted money from the local businesses. The reluctance with which he spoke suggested that he may have taken part in more than just empty threats. Despite his role, Niman hated it as much as his friends, and bore no allegiance to Al-Shabaab. Rather, he was terrified of what his unstable colleagues could or eventually would to do him. Niman lasted just six months. Terrified for his future, he took to the road in the middle of the night, preferring to face uncertainty in the world alone.
At 16, each one of these teenagers fled the only city they had known. It was a journey in which they would risk their lives. Once they left the city, as so many of their friends had, they never expected to see one another again. Their meeting in Austria was a shock, a pleasant surprise in the wake of a two year ordeal. As Niman said, a common greeting for meeting people you knew from Mogadishu elsewhere now is “Oh you’re alive!”
The route out of Somalia is a well-trodden one. Those fleeing usually head north from Mogadishu, entering Ethiopia. While northern Somalia – made up of the effectively independent states of the Somaliland and Puntland – is relatively stable, most fleeing from the capital set their eyes further afield: to Europe or North Africa. The boys set out individually, but all headed in the same direction. After Ethiopia, each crossed into Sudan. In an almost straight diagonal line, refugees move through the harsh desert state before arriving at its northwestern border with Libya. For Hirsi, these weeks in the Sudanese and Libyan desert were the hardest. He remembers running out of food, and people falling behind unable to keep up with the group. The matter of fact way in which he tells this made it difficult to comprehend that the young man really experienced it.
In the past Gaddafi had made agreements with European governments to stem the flow of migrants to the mediterranean from Libya. With the outbreak of the Libyan civil war however, attention was focussed elsewhere, and the number of sub-saharan refugees and migrants passing through the country skyrocketed. Though it is easier to get a boat in Tripoli and along the coast, crossing the country was incredibly dangerous at the time for the young Somalis, with fighting still ongoing. At just 16 years old, Muhammad was caught crossing the Libyan border from Sudan and thrown in jail. He languished there for six months, in a tiny cell with other Somali refugees. Eventually they were released. They then made their way to the port of Tripoli. For many, Libya becomes a type of purgatory, where thousands of refugees and migrants run out of money on their journey. The cities and towns along the coast are home to thousands of refugees and migrants seeking work to fund more attempts to cross the Mediterranean. Niman spent six months in Libya like this, living with other Somalis, working in whatever employment he could find.
The next step is probably the most dangerous and certainly the most expensive – crossing the Mediterranean. Hirsi experienced this danger firsthand when his overfilled boats’ engine cut out during their voyage across the sea. For ten days he was drifting at sea, with no food and little water. By the last two days, he blankly recalls that people began ‘to look at each other like pieces of meat’. Hirsi was one of the fortunate ones, on the tenth day the Italian Navy picked them up and brought them to an island. Many aboard were not so lucky and perished before the Navy reached them. The story was the same for the other two boys. After months of travel, each with their own tales of horror they reached Europe.
When I met these young men in Traiskirchen last year, they had only recently arrived in Austria. After hearing of their incredible odyssey from Somalia to Europe I asked how they had crossed the Italian-Austrian border. They looked at me and shrugged. They had taken a train. In Milan and other northern cities, each one took an individual train, they paid a small fare and sat down. When the ticket inspector came, he did nothing and so they continued. They continued until they had crossed into Austria and police boarded the train. For Hirsi he had heard that things were good in Germany and that’s where he was heading, but by this stage, the borders were tightening and restrictions of movement were coming into play. These boys, all underage at the time were taken into custody before being transferred to Bundesbetreuungsstelle für Asylwerber, a federal support center for asylum at Traiskirchen.
As they grew from boyhood to manhood, Hirsi, Muhammad and Niman were becoming legitimate targets. Their age, along with the the neighbourhood they grew up in meant that they were destined to be exploited by Al-Shabaab. They would have been treated as the enemy by the government struggling to control its own capital. The international community would have treated them as terrorists. But context is key and a poor grasp of it can often be unjust. Here they stood outside the former Cadet school in a quaint town in the Vienna basin, cold and injured. The route they took across the Mediterranean to Italy is once again booming as tighter controls come into play in Greece.
There are hundreds of people like them, ‘terrorists’ who have escaped their respective organisations and groups. Labels are readily attached and often reductive or inaccurate, especially when people feel fear and a need to identify ‘an enemy’. Often, such labels ought not to stick however, when a richer narrative of lives and circumstances is uncovered. A cook, a bag man and a cleaner hardly warrant the term. When faced with the decisions at the age they were, few could fault them.
I don’t mean to instil sympathy for terrorist combatants, especially those who take innocent lives. In fact, my own anger and disdain for Al-Shabaab galvanised after this interaction, the distance afforded by solely reading around this issue in print or online was instantly lost. What has stayed with me however, is an evolving belief. Issues of global terror won’t be solved by drones hovering above, airstrikes raining down or cyber counterterrorism efforts. Only by offering real alternatives to kids like Hirsi, Muhammad and Niman, can they break this cycle – a cycle which provides no options other than joining a terrorist organisation. Now, when I read about US drone strikes killing 150 terrorists, I will question how many were like Niman, Hirsi and Muhummad. How many of these terrorists had no other option? How many were biding their time before they made their escape, risking their lives to seek a better option in Europe?
Illustration: Sarah Moloney