Author of book on Dadaab says Shabaab has no base in refugee camps


Al-Shabaab has at most a “transient” presence in the Dadaab camps, the author of a new book on the Somali refugee complex said last week.

“The idea that Shabaab is planning attacks from the camps is complete nonsense,” declared Ben Rawlence, a former researcher in the Horn for Human Rights Watch who lived in Dadaab for seven months.

The Somalia militant group is unable to establish a base in the camps in northeast Kenya in part because “the residents all know one another” and the complex is “easily policed,” Mr Rawlence said in a talk at a foundation in New York.

The Islamist insurgency has “small influence” in Dadaab, he added.

The British author recounted a briefing he gave in 2014 to US national security staffers at the White House in which he argued that poverty does not necessarily breed political extremism.

The officials grew noticeably less concerned about conditions in Dadaab after he told them it was “not a hotbed of extremists,” Mr Rawlence recalled.

The Kenyan government, on the other hand, has “demonised” Somalis living in the camp and elsewhere in the country, the advocacy journalist writes in City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp.

Kenyan authorities’ ability to maintain the political and geographic status quo in the area around Dadaab “is dependent on not recognising the refugees as human,” Mr Rawlence writes.


That corner of today’s Kenya is actually “ancestral Somali land,” he suggests. And acknowledging that Somalis have a right to live there would mean the existing border has no validity, which in turn “would tear the very state [of Kenya] apart,” Mr Rawlence observes.

His criticisms of Kenya’s policy toward Somalia are expanded upon in the recent Journalists for Justice report on sugar and charcoal smuggling.

That account, which Mr Rawlence researched and wrote, alleges collusion between the Kenya Defence Force and Al-Shabaab in exporting charcoal from Somalia and importing sugar into Kenya.

The illicit trade is said to be worth $50 million a year for corrupt Kenyan military officers with connections to powerful politicians.

The Kenyan government and KDF have denied the accusations levelled by Mr Rawlence in the Journalists for Justice report.

In the course of the two years he spent researching “City of Thorns,” Mr Rawlence interviewed more than 50 Dadaab residents, and ultimately chose to focus his book on the experiences of nine Somalis living in the camps.

His work on the book, which is being favourably reviewed in the United States, was funded through a fellowship from the New York-based Open Society Foundations.

The Dadaab camps encircling the Kenyan town of the same name are said by the United Nations refugee agency to hold some 400,000 refugees.

The actual population is likely close to 600,000, Mr Rawlence said in his presentation at the foundation’s headquarters.

The UN-administered facility was established 25 years ago when 90,000 Somalis fled to Kenya amidst the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship that had been in place in Somalia for more than two decades.

Subsequent waves of refugees have transformed the camps into “a city that functions in a dysfunctional sort of way,” Mr Rawlence said.

The Dadaab complex includes hospitals, schools, hotels, shops and football leagues, he noted. And a “grey economy” flourishes with sales of alcohol, drugs, ammunition and sex, Mr Rawlence added.


A few Somalis in the camps have become millionaires, he said.

“Dadaab is there to stay,” Mr Rawlence predicted. It should be seen as an African counterpart to the Palestinian refugee camps that have remained in place for more than 60 years, he said. Dadaab may eventually come to resemble Gaza, Mr Rawlence suggested.

Three generations of Somalis live side-by-side in the camps, with the original inhabitants now constituting something of “an aristocracy,” the author noted.

Many Dadaab residents have no memory of Somalia and appear to have little inclination to go there, he added.

Others, however, see themselves as middle-class exiles who intend to return to Somalia and help reconstruct their homeland.

But Dadaab residents, regardless of their plans, are susceptible to “buufis,” a Somali word that refers, Mr Rawlence said, to a state of psychological depression but which in the context of the camps denotes a longing to be living somewhere else.

But Al-Shabaab’s continuing military strength inside Somalia produces insecurity that prevents a mass return home by refugees, Mr Rawlence noted.

Only about 1000 Somalis a year are allowed to resettle in Europe or North America. And Kenya does not permit the camps’ inhabitants to leave.

Increasingly, Mr Rawlence related, Dadaab residents are striving to raise the $10,000 that smugglers charge for a chance to reach Europe.

It costs about $25,000 to make an unauthorised journey to North America via South Africa, Brazil and Mexico, he added.


Despite Mr Rawlence’s contention that Shabaab has no significant presence in Dadaab, he depicted the refugee complex as a dangerous place.

On the day he arrived there in 2011 to begin researching for Human Rights Watch, two Spanish aid workers were kidnapped in one of the camps.

Shabaab denied responsibility, but the hostages were released after nearly two years’ captivity by a Shabaab unit in Mogadishu, Mr Rawlence notes in “City of Thorns.”

He told his audience at the Open Society Foundations that UN overseers initially did not permit him to spend more than two hours in any one place in Dadaab.

The time limit was subsequently reduced to one hour and then to 30 minutes, Mr Rawlence added.

On each of his forays outside the UN compound in Dadaab he was accompanied by a vehicle filled with armed guards.