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Fighting Stream Of Terrorist Capital, Kenya Cracks Down On Somali Businesses

People walk down a market street in Eastleigh, a predominantly Muslim Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2009. The neighborhood has come under scrutiny as the U.S. cracks down on terrorism financing.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
People walk down a market street in Eastleigh, a predominantly Muslim Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2009. The neighborhood has come under scrutiny as the U.S. cracks down on terrorism financing.

U.S. counterterrorism efforts include choking off the flow of cash to extremists, and urging friendly countries to help. But in Nairobi, Kenya, suspicion of Somali money — and an increase in terrorist attacks — has prompted a country-wide crackdown, with Kenyan police accused of extortion and arbitrary arrests of thousands of Somali refugees.

But how do you tell the difference between tainted money and honest cash?

Take Eastleigh, a neighborhood in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Depending on whom you're talking to, the Eastleigh market is either a tangle of back alleys where Islamist terrorists and pirates go to launder money, or it's one of the brightest spots of African capitalism, a dynamic 24-hour shopping center that's the only place for hundreds of miles where you can buy new jeans and sneakers at 2 in the morning.

Part of the reason Eastleigh attracts such investment, and such suspicion, is that Somalis make up the majority of people doing business there.

"When you come to Eastleigh, you feel that you are in Mogadishu or in other parts of Somalia, so you don't feel that you are an outsider," says Mohammed Shakul. "You feel at home."

Parallel Financial System

Shakul was born in Mogadishu, but he fled the war in his country in the 1990s and managed grocery stores in Nashville, Tenn. Seven years ago, he moved to Kenya and opened a hotel in Eastleigh aimed at other American Somalis and British and Canadian Somalis who like him want to come to the Kenyan capital and invest the money they've saved up in immigrant jobs as taxi drivers and shopkeepers and airline stewards.

A woman shops in an Eastleigh market in 2009.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Getty Images
A woman shops in an Eastleigh market in 2009.

Shakul also manages another hotel, two shopping malls and three housing complexes and is in the process of building four more. How did Shakul raise enough cash to go from running grocery stores in Tennessee to managing a minor Kenyan real estate empire?

He did not walk into a bank and fill out a loan application. Rather, he made a few phone calls: to a second cousin in London, a brother-in-law's uncle in Dubai.

"This money, mostly it came from Somalis in the diaspora and also local here, and it's based on trust," he says. "I know you ... you're related to my mother's uncle or so on."

Known as amanah, it's a system for raising and moving money through clan networks, and it's about as old as the nomadic Somali people. And it's informal: Shakul called up relatives, explained the details, they were in or out. No courts, no contracts.

That's just the beginning of the problem for counterterrorism experts like Juan Zarate, former assistant secretary of the Treasury for terrorist financing and financial crimes under George W. Bush.

"These are networks that run parallel to the formal financial system, based on trust," Zarate says. "The question becomes when those very networks have been used by groups like al-Qaida."

In some instances, that happens without anyone in the trusted circle knowing that terrorists are using their money.

$2 Billion Of Somali Funds

Parselelo Kantai is the East Africa editor for The Africa Report.

"The Kenyan government started to actively question what is the nature of this money," Kantai says. "And part of the questioning was motivated by the American counterterrorism push in East Africa."

He says what a Kenyan audit uncovered was $2 billion being quietly piped into Eastleigh through Somali channels — this in a year when Kenya's total GDP was about $40 billion.

"In this way, the Kenyan government began to understand the size of Somali capital. And one of the reactions, and this is a natural reaction from any government, was absolute panic," Kantai says. "It's like, how is it possible, that there is this kind of money, floating about, and we don't know about it?"

He says Kenya's reaction did not have to be one of fear — it did, after all, discover that its economy was 5 percent bigger than originally thought.

But this was in 2009, when Somali pirates were claiming multimillion-dollar ransoms. And in 2010 the radical Somali group al-Shabab declared jihad on Kenya with terrorist attacks.

Crackdown Begins

It wasn't too long before the Somali business people in Eastleigh began to be seen as a collective national security threat.

Rukia Abdi Hadele used to sell kids' clothes from her kiosk in Eastleigh. Police confiscated her inventory, saying she didn't have the right to sell because she wasn't a Kenyan citizen.

"I was a good-living person," she says. "Now I feel helpless and hopeless."

Hadele's problems really started this December, when the Kenyan government announced that all refugees in Nairobi — at least 50,000 people — would be rounded up and driven to refugee camps or deported. That included refugees who were legally operating shops, paying taxes and employing Kenyans.

Three days earlier, two policemen showed up at Hadele's house.

"I was fearing. I'm a single mother; I didn't know what to do," she recalls.

Hadele says she prepared her documents and opened the door. The police demanded she identify herself.

So she showed the police her ID, a refugee paper stamped by the U.N. The police told her she had to show them Kenyan citizenship or they were taking her to the police station.

What about my children? Hadele asked.

"They said, 'We're not interested in your children. Bring money.' Which I told them I don't have," Hadele says. "Then they said, 'If you don't have money, and you don't have an ID card, then we need you as a woman.' "

Hadele screamed, and a neighbor scared off the cops, who probably knew what they were doing was illegal. A Kenyan court has banned the government from relocating refugees, for now, as a violation of international law.

'Wherever The Money Is, We'll Go'

But ever since the government announced its intention to relocate people — and ever since Eastleigh began to be seen less as an economic boon and more as a terrorist den — Kenyan police have been accused of arbitrary arrests and abuses against the Somalis living in the area.

And the 24-7 shopping mecca is now a lot more quiet. Rents are down. Thousands have fled. Shakul says his hotel used to have a waiting list; now it's half empty.

Although business is down, Shakul is nothing if not an optimist. He thinks Somalis will once again feel at home in Kenya, maybe when tensions ease after the presidential elections in March. But, he says, if it is time for him to pack his bags, that's OK.

"We are a nomadic business culture," Shakul says. "Wherever the money is, we'll go with it. We'll follow the honey just like the bee."

Following the honey, in this case, may lead him back to the place he was born. Mogadishu is experiencing its first real security in two decades. And the real estate market there is booming. Shakul might have occasion to make a few more phone calls.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.