British Somalis fear backlash after Kenya attack

LONDON (AFP) - The bloody events at Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall unfolded thousands of miles away - but in Britain, Europe's biggest Somali community fears there could be repercussions much closer to home.

Britain's 100,000 Somalis reacted with horror when Somalia's Shebab Islamists claimed responsibility for the carnage - and dismay that, once again, their homeland is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

In the run-down northwest London suburb of Harlesden, a hub for the city's large Somali community, men spoke with bitter contempt for the Al-Qaeda-linked militants as they milled around the shabby Somali-owned cafes, grocers and Internet cafes on Wednesday.

"We hate the Shabaab," said Ali Ali as he leaned against a battered car.

"They are not Somali, and they are not Muslim either," the 27-year-old told AFP.

"There's nothing in Islam that justifies the killing of innocent people. We feel so much anger about what has happened in Kenya."

Like many of the men who stood chatting on this street, Ali arrived in Britain in the 1990s in a huge wave of refugees fleeing the chaos of Somalia's civil war.

But the Somali community has roots going back to the 19th century, when Somali merchant seamen first made Britain their home. Census figures suggest there are some 100,000 Somalis in Britain, although by some estimates the real figure is at least twice that.

Ali and his friends fear their British neighbours will assume there is strong support for the Shabaab in his community following the attack - which has left at least 67 people dead including five Britons - when nothing could be further from the truth.

Many British Somalis have seen their own families devastated by the Islamist group's domestic campaign of violence, he pointed out.

"We want to make it clear that Al-Shebab is not so much the enemy of Kenya, but the enemy of all of us," said Adam Matan, director of the Anti-Tribalism Movement, a charity with offices in London and Mogadishu.

"Somalis in Somalia are the greatest victims of al-Shabaab and their criminality. Look at how many explosions take place in Mogadishu.

"Whether you're a Muslim or a non-Muslim, as long as you don't agree with their beliefs you are treated as an infidel."

But British Somalis feel their reputation is not helped by tales of Britons travelling to Somalia to join the Shabaab fighters, which have caught the headlines in recent years.

Britons are believed to make up one of the largest foreign contingents in Shabaab ranks. The Royal United Services Institute think-tank estimates that around 50 Britons have joined the militants in Somalia.

Prime Minister David Cameron stressed the danger of poverty-stricken Somalia as a terrorist breeding ground when he addressed a conference last year, saying "these problems in Somalia don't just affect Somalia. They affect us all." Britain was one of the first EU countries to re-open its embassy in Mogadishu, in April.

But Matan said there was zero tolerance for extremism amongst most British Somalis.

"If there was anyone sympathetic to Al-Shabaab here in the UK, I think the Somali community would be the first to report them," he told AFP.

Hussein Hersi, who runs another Somali community group, agreed. "You can't rule out someone living here, going back to Somalia and becoming brainwashed.

"But I haven't heard anything about that from the Somali community," he said.

He told AFP that many British Somalis felt there was ill-will towards them since a Somali-born suspect was arrested after attempting a copycat attack two week after the July 7, 2005 suicide bombings in London.

"It happened before with 7/7, this feeling that all Somalis were involved," said the former civil engineer.

"There are fears that people will think, 'You've seen one, you've seen them all.' "But a lot of Somalis are very proud to be British, and they don't want to be associated with anything like that."

The US embassy in London has also identified the risk of radicalisation within the Somali community. It reportedly works closely with Elays, an organisation whose name means "light" in Somalia, which encourages young Somalis to make films about fighting stereotypes.

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