British Somalis: A Community Under Siege

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The UK is host to many different communities with different backgrounds and ethnicities. Among them is the British Somali community. Yet this community does not enjoy the same rights as the rest of the society. The Somali community in the UK suffers from all the worst socio-economic indicators, poverty, unemployment, bad housing etc. Many Somalis are immigrants to the UK fleeing the chaos and war in their homeland. And worst still is that the police and MI5 are specifically targeting this community. They are systematically blackmailing young Somalis by trying to make them work as informants and threatening them with deportation or worse if they decline. This documentary investigates the concerns and complaints of police harassment and persecution by delving into the British Somali community and hearing their side of the story.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

Narration: Somali youth are at the frontline of Britain’s war on terror. The security services are targeting and infiltrating their community and pressurizing young Somalis to spy on each other.

SOUNDBITE [English], Abukar Awale, Somali Youth Worker: “They’re beginning to hate the police and say why are they victimizing us, this continuous harassment and stop and search and follow up calls and trying to meet them and saying we know where you live”

The government believes that some young Somalis are going to fight for the al Qaida-affiliated al Shabaab group. And they fear they might come back to the British mainland to commit terrorism.

SOUNDBITE [English], David Cameron, UK Prime Minister: When young minds are poisoned by radicalism and they go on to export terrorism and extremism the security of the whole world including people here in Britain is at stake.”

Narration: But are the security services casting their net too wide? Are they radicalizing a whole community by their aggressive coercion tactics? And what will be the consequences?

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “The Somali community in the UK numbers in the hundreds of thousands most live in London but there are also major populations in other major British cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield. Many Somalis came to the UK to flee the brutal civil war which has ripped their country apart over the past few decades. But once here many have found life anything but easy.”

Narration: Young Somalis come to this community centre in East London several evenings a week to socialize with their peers and elders. Many have got mixed up with gangs and low-level crime and would be getting into trouble on the streets if it weren’t for this temporary refuge. Here they have something constructive to do, something which fills their time and gives them direction.

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man: This place is a very good place for young people to be coming here every time, like all my friends, all my brothers come here every time to waste time a lot, play games. By the time it finishes, it finishes around ten o’ clock everyone goes home.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “And if this place didn’t exist what would happen?”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man: “Probably be on the road, fighting a lot, and terrorizing people, Probably on the public buses, especially the sixteen and seventeen year olds that are here now.”

Narration: These boys and young men are street-wise. Their area is dominated by deprived estates, bad schools, gang culture and knife crime. And they have a fractious relationship with the authorities, especially the police who often stop and search them for knives. What’s your problem with the police?

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man: “They obviously, we get stopped and searched all the time for no reason. They think we’ve got knives and stuff on us for no reason. That’s it, we just get harassed by them”

SOUND BITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “Why do they do that?”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man:Because we roll in groups, we roll in big large groups.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “Does it happen all the time? How often does it happen?”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man: “Every 2 days, every 2 days.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host:How old were you when it happened to you the first time?”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man: Must’ve been thirteen.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “Are you guys carrying knives or what?”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man: “Well they’re not finding anything when they search us so what does that say?”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “How does that make you feel getting stopped and searched all the time?”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man: “It makes us paranoid, every time we’re looking over our shoulder we think we’re gonna get stop and searched.”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man: “Imagine there’s a group of us over there and there’s a group of white youths over there, they’ll come and stop and search us.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “Cause of the color of your skin?”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man: Yeah the color of our skin.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host:Also I’ve been hearing stories about the police asking Somalis to spy on each other, have you heard those stories or not?”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man: Yeah I think I have, in that area there are quite a lot of Somalis watching what other Somalis do.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “Really? So even in your own community you don’t trust each other.”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Young Man: No, Don’t trust no one.”

Narration: The sense of grievance amongst Somali youth is palpable. Some of these young men feel the obstacles in their way to succeeding in life are huge, others are more optimistic. But all feel that if they do succeed, it’ll be in spite of the authorities rather than because of them.

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

Narration: Ibrahim Sincere’s parents are from Mogadishu. He’s a student and spoken word artist who writes poetry about the issues facing black and Muslim communities in the UK. He feels that Somali youth face a double discrimination in Britain.

SOUNDBITE [English], Ibrahim Sincere, Spoken Word Artist: “Somalis are black and Muslim. There are a lot of policies that target the black community and a lot of policies, policing policies that target the Muslim community. And Somalis are black and Muslim.”

Narration: Ibrahim, like every other Somali I met during the course of this documentary, is also concerned about the confrontational relationship between Somali youth and the police.

SOUNDBITE [English], Ibrahim Sincere, Spoken Word Artist: “It’s a psychological war and I think a lot of non-white people feel much discriminated against and own worth or their value is being attacked a lot as well. I think psychologically when someone’s value is being attacked a lot or someone’s self-worth is being put under scrutiny, that person may look for someone else that he can transfer the weight onto.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: Somali youths have split identities. On the one hand many are born and bred in Britain and they’re marginalized from mainstream British society. On the other hand many identify very strongly with back home and express a longing to go back there. But back home is a very troubled place indeed.”

Narration: Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991. Years of fighting between rival warlords and an inability to deal with famine and disease have led to the deaths of up to one million people. In 2004 the main warlords and politicians signed a deal to set up a new parliament but the weak administration has faced a formidable task in bringing reconciliation to a country divided into clan fiefdoms. The western and African union-backed government is struggling to achieve stability in the face of persistent attacks by the Al-Shabab group, which declared allegiance to al-Qaida in 2012. Meanwhile, war and poverty have led to the mass exodus of Somalis to surrounding countries and to the West, including the UK. As for the British government, they’ve become very interested in this Horn of Africa nation, on the face of it due to the threat of international terrorism and piracy. But many also believe because the huge energy reserves that lie of the coast of Somalia may have something to do with it. Britain’s interest in Somalia was on display at this London conference in May 2013, where major nations came together to agree practical measures to support the Somali government’s plans in security, justice and public financial management.

SOUNDBITE [English], David Cameron, UK Prime Minster:Today I think we are seeing the beginnings of a new future for Somalia. Extremism is in retreat. AMISOM together with Somali and Ethiopian forces have driven Al Shabaab out of town after town. Piracy attacks are down by 80% with no vessel attacked so far this year.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somali President: “We need support, we need assistance and investment. And we need protection from those who try to knock us over.”

SOUNDBITE [English], David Cameron, UK Prime Minster: Government is moving ahead under the guidance of the UN and the African Union and IGAD the transitional government that lasted eight years has ended and now there is a proper, legitimate and federal government in its place.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: But outside the conference not everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet. Hundreds of Somalis living here in the UK Hundreds of Somalis living here in the UK have turned up to protest about the Somalia Conference that’s taking place here at Lancaster House in London. Some are warning about British imperialism in the region while others are saying that the president of Somalia – Britain’s major ally – is pursuing a clan-based agenda in the country.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Musa Fahiya, United Somali Party: The reason I’m here today is to show my feeling to talk about the unity of Somalia, that’s the main message, we want it to be united. We don’t want our country to be divided into two or three or four.”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Man, Protester: “Somali community they want to go back to Somalia, everybody’s had enough. The people back home killing. Nobody wants to stay here, it’s a very wet country, the cultures different the religion’s different, everything here is different. Everybody wants peace in Somalia so we can go back home.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “Do you trust Britain’s intentions in Somalia?”

VOXPOP [English], Unknown Man, Protester: Err I do trust them but at the same time the UK Government doesn’t know anything about Somalia. So that’s why we’re telling the Somali president to bring all of the clans to the table”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

Narration: What was apparent from this demonstration was that Somalis in the UK are mistrustful of Britain’s intentions and are divided over the political direction of their country. Many wanted to go home to help build the nation but most felt the country was still too unstable. All, however, emphasized that Somali culture and religion is moderate and that al Shabaab’s extreme Salafi-Takfiri ideology was something alien to their nation. They also downplayed the number of young Somalis who were attracted to al Qaeda and who were willing to travel to Somalia to fight for al Shabaab.But one British Somali who stands accused of aiding and abetting al Shabaab is Mahdi Hashi, a 23 year old who’s now awaiting a terrorism trial in the United States. Hashi’s family became worried in 2012 when their son, who’d gone to Somalia to get married, disappeared from view. Later it emerged that he’d been detained and allegedly tortured in neighboring Djibouti by the CIA before being rendered to the United States. In the meantime he was stripped of his British citizenship.

SOUNDBITE [English], Mohamed Hashi, Mohamed Hashi’s Father:Mahdi was a very polite boy from his childhood; he was someone who always helps the community. He used to go for his studies and he never had any problems from his childhood. I remember some of his school mates used to say he was a comedian; he was someone who was always happy who makes friends easily.”

Narration: Saghir Hussain is Mahdi Hashi’s lawyer. He says he’s fighting the case with one arm tied behind his back because he doesn’t have access to some of the evidence against his client as its being withheld on national security grounds.

SOUNDBITE [English], Saghir Hussain, Mahdi Hashi’s Lawyer: “We’ve got to remember, that deprivation has led him to be in secret detention for a number of months in a jail in Djibouti. From there he’s been threatened with torture, witnessed torture, and then without any due process whatsoever he’s been rendition or say kidnapped and sent off to the United States for some bizarre reason facing a trial in New York court.”

Narration: Hashi was a community worker and student who worked with Somali youths in London. Friends describe him as religious but not extremist. They say that other Somali youth looked up him and he even played the peacemaker between rival gangs. His lawyers say that because of this influence he was targeted by the security services who wanted him to spy for them, specifically to try and get his peer group to talk about jihad. He said “no”

SOUNDBITE [English], Saghir Hussain, Mahdi Hashi’s Lawyer “I think this coincided, a lot of it, with the way the foreign policy of Britain and America was turning towards the Horn of Africa. So it seems these young lads are inadvertently caught up in something that is a much wider foreign policy issue and for Mahdi certainly its tragic consequences for him.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Mohamed Hashi, Mohamed Hashi’s Father: All I can say is that Mahdi was someone who was a practicing Muslim and usually children at his age, from that age they usually drop out of school, they join gangs, they smoke on the streets but Mahdi was different from them. So maybe they thought of taking advantage of that.”

Narration: Human rights campaigners believe that Mahdi Hashi was rendered to the United States because no European country would’ve convicted him because of a lack of evidence. However, the conviction rate for Muslims caught up in terrorism cases in the United States is 100%. So the implicit message to Somalis in Britain is: don’t oppose British foreign policy or you might end up like Mahdi Hashi.

SOUNDBITE [English], Mohamed Hashi, Mohamed Hashi’s Father: “He was captured in an African state and he is a British citizen, why was he transported all that way to the United States, there must be something else.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host:Despite the fact that Mahdi Hashi was born in the UK, the British Government seems to have completely washed their hands of him. On the face of it they do seem to have to answer a few embarrassing questions.”

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00

Narration: My interest in making this documentary stemmed from this public meeting in central London in early 2013. The majority of people here were Somalis and the issues raised were all to do with MI5 blackmail and the targeting of the community. The aim was to empower British Somalis to come up with a cohesive strategy to counter the harassment. The message was don’t be afraid to speak out, don’t be victims. And this is also Abukar Awale’s message. He works with British Somali youth and has his own TV show on the Somali Channel where he tries to keep young people on the straight and narrow.

SOUNDBITE [English], Abukar Awale, Somali Youth Worker: “If you are Somali and you go, doesn’t matter where you go as long as you land at Heathrow airport you are expected to be taken to one side. Not only searched through your bags and who you are but they will have your details and there will be follow up calls. They want you maybe to have a tea, what is the tea for? And before you know it they will try and push you, to say we want you to work with us and that’s what the young people have been complaining about.”

Narration: Awale recognizes that the government has a duty to protect national security but thinks that making an enemy out of a whole community isn’t the way to go about doing that.

SOUNDBITE [English], Abukar Awale, Somali Youth Worker: “There are, yes there are extremists everywhere obviously you cannot deny the fact that al Shabaab is in Somalia and they are using similar approaches but what security services are concerned about is al Shabaab coming here. We don’t have al Shabaab here; we have boys who are more Arsenal fans than al Shabaab fans.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “What would you have the government do?”

SOUNDBITE [English], Abukar Awale, Somali Youth Worker: “Work with the community, winning hearts and minds of young people and encouraging them to report crime, encouraging them to work with the police, to trust the police. I don’t think no young, single, whether young or old Somalis want to see London being blown away by terrorists but if the police and the security services are victimizing me and making me feel that I am a terrorist which I am not then they are pushing to become a terrorist.”

Narration: But amid all the doom and gloom there are signs that the Somali community is trying to channel itself in a positive way. This youth event in the Small Heath area of Birmingham is a bit of light relief for these young Somalis who might otherwise be on the streets getting up to no good. This sometimes raucous night of singing, rap and comedy is designed to remind them of their roots and their culture.

SOUNDBITE [English], Siham Ahmed, Somali Youth Worker: There’s nothing better than being backed home where you belong because even I living here for over 10 years right now, I’m still an outcast. This is not my country, this is not my world. My country right now is Somalia but it needs to be fixed and until then I’m a foreigner here.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Najib Bosameh, Somali Youth Worker: When I was young the police used to pick us up, I’ve even got put into a bully van myself which is a police car and I’ve got battered because I was a Somalian. The only thing he was saying you offing Somalian, offing Somalian and he was punching me in my face. When we tell the police this they’re not going to believe us cause it’s their word against our word and they’re not going to believe us and there’s no one we can really turn to and say “look, we need this help.”

Narration: The organizers of this event say that more funding is needed for community initiatives such as this, to make young Somalis feel wanted and to give them some direction in life.

SOUNDBITE [English], Siham Ahmed, Somali Youth Worker: I think the only way to break that cycle is to communicate better both from the Somali community and obviously the law. They need to find a way to meet halfway. Obviously I can’t say every Somali person is clean and has no record and is good, but same as I can’t say every Somali person is bad either. They need to find that common ground where they’re able to understand each other.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Sharmake Adee, Somali Youth Worker: I’m a Somalian at the end of the day, I’m Somalian, I’ll always be a Somalian but by my papers I might be something else. So what I’m trying to say is that at the end of the day, whatever, I know that I’m going to be going back home. If I don’t I know my kids will be. So that’s what we’re trying to tell them don’t forget what you are.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host:And that’s your ultimate goal is it to go back home?”

SOUNDBITE [English], Sharmake Adee, Somali Youth Worker: Yes, I would do anything to go back home, especially when there’s peace.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host:MI5 don’t give public statements so they won’t respond directly to the accusations leveled against them in this program .However they do say that Al Qaida inspired terrorism is the main threat to British national security. They also specifically deny targeting Muslims arguing that Muslims themselves are victims of al Qaida-inspired terrorism.”

TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00

Narration: Seen from the British government and the security services point of view, British Muslims are the most susceptible to the kind of ideology which saw 52 people killed on July 7, 2005 in London. The kind of ideology which thirsts for revenge for Britain’s invasions of two Muslim countries in the last decade, and its support for dictators in the Muslim world as well as for Israel. More recently, the killing of a British soldier in south London in May, 2013, posed serious questions about the ideology of British Muslims who try to travel to Somalia, as the chief suspect allegedly did. But Michael Adebolajo also had contact with the security services indicating that those who attempt travel to Somalia are closely watched and perhaps also recruited.

SOUNDBITE [English], David Cameron, UK Prime Minister: “There is absolutely no justification for these acts and the fault for them lies solely and purely with the Sickening Individuals Who Carried out This Appalling Attack.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Nigel West, Counter-Terrorism Expert: “Well let’s be clear what the responsibilities of the security service are. They are to counter terrorism with several other responsibilities. Their task is to identify potential suspects and then when there is sufficient evidence to place them under surveillance and ultimately to save lives. It’s not justice saving lives in the United Kingdom in elsewhere; it’s saving Muslim lives as well”.

Narration: MI5 clearly believes that Britain faces a growing threat of terrorist attacks from UK residents trained in Somalia, a failed state where al Qaeda-affiliated groups have the space to thrive. They estimate that over 100 British residents are training in al Shabaab camps to fight the western and African Union-backed government. But MI5 is concerned that it's only a matter of time before these highly trained fighters come back home to attack British interests, and it wants to act before this happens rather than after an attack takes place.

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “During the course of this documentary I’ve had quite a few problems penetrating the Somali community despite the fact that I am a Muslim myself and I’ve got a track record of making sympathetic films about Muslim communities in the UK. There seems to quite a lot of concern and distrust about the way Somalis are portrayed in the media and there also seems to be a lot of fear of speaking out because if you do that you might be targeted.”

Narration: For all the Somalis that agreed to appear on camera for this documentary many more refused because they feared being targeted. Yet – off the record – they all confirmed that the community feels harassed and intimidated and that can only store up problems for the future.

SOUNDBITE [English], Abukar Awale, Somali Youth Worker: Once you come with a camera and you say I am going to talk about terrorism they will say “no, if this can get me into trouble, if I say anything the police will come to my house and say we know what you say.” I don’t think that’s a good idea for the Somali community I think they should come forward and speak up but I can understand their concerns, I can understand how afraid they are.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Saghir Hussain, Mahdi Hashi’s Lawyer: “The feedback you receive from people who have been victims or who have had interactions with the police or the security services it’s certainly what we can say is that this is not helping the social cohesion agenda at all.”

Narration:There is also a sense of frustration that the authorities just aren’t listening to the Somali community’s concerns and that is why some members of the community are finally going public. Their reasoning is that the “softly-softly” approach has failed so now it’s time to speak out.

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host:Do you think there’s anything wrong with them trying to get spies in the community?”

SOUNDBITE [English], Mohamed Hashi, Mahdi Hashi’s Father: “In fact that has to come within the person, it has to be your own will whether you want to work with them or not. That’s not the way to approach a group of people.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host:If a young Somali was approached by the security services and didn’t want to talk to them what advice would you give to that young Somali?”

SOUNDBITE [English], Saghir Hussain, Somali Youth Worker: “I’d say look contact a lawyer, there are many lawyers in this field who will give advice. There’s an organization that I advise called Cage Prisoners, we deal with these situations but certainly do not deal with them on your own and also if you feel constantly harassed there are avenues of complaint available.”

SOUNDBITE [English], Roshan Salih, Host: “I’ve spent the last few months with the Somali community in the UK and I’ve been researching their relationship with the British state. My impression is that it’s a long way from the al Shabaab stereotype that some commentators like to portray. Yes, they do suffer from the same kind of problems that deprived immigrant communities in Britain suffer from such as low level crime, deprivation, Islamophobia and racism. They also seem naturally religiously moderate and therefore not susceptible to extremist Al Qaida type ideology. That said, there is a war raging in their homeland and some young Somalis may feel that it’s their duty to go back and fight, some of them might end up fighting for al Shabaab. But does that justify the British state casting the net so wide that effectively they’re targeting a whole community? I don’t think it does.”


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