You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

Al Qaeda lures, transforms young dropouts

Question of the Day

Should Congress make English the official language of the U.S.?

View results

MOMBASA, Kenya -- One chewed khat, a mildly narcotic leaf, and occasionally smoked marijuana. The other, a keen swimmer and soccer enthusiast, played midfield for a team called the Black Panthers.

Both teenage dropouts from large Kenyan families, they became friends and later holy warriors after training together in Afghanistan, returning home deeply religious and dangerous.

The men -- Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam and Sheik Ahmed Salim Swedan -- are among suspected homegrown Islamist terrorists recruited in East Africa and on the FBI's list of 13 most wanted terrorists for reputed involvement in the 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Since al Qaeda put down roots in Kenya a decade ago, Osama bin Laden's terrorist group has recruited young Kenyans and Tanzanians to help with logistics while the foreigners laid low. The recruits tend to have similar backgrounds: They had something missing in their lives and the terrorist cell helped fill the void, a Western intelligence official said.

Both Msalam, 28, and Swedan, in his 30s, were born into large families -- Msalam as one of five children and Swedan as one of nine. Swedan's father, a mason, died in 1985. Msalam's businessman father died in the mid-1990s.

Swedan dropped out after finishing primary school and was known for using khat and pot. Msalam was the athlete, but also dropped out after two years of high school.

The pair grew up in Majengo, a neighborhood of small houses and shops jammed along muddy, potholed streets. They became friends after growing more devout in the mid-1990s. It was around then that they trained together in Afghanistan, FBI reports say.

Msalam's father, Mohammed Ally, was a well-off businessman of Yemeni descent. After Msalam dropped out of school, his father thought it best to send him to Yemen to "become a real man," Ali Mbarak, Msalam's uncle, told the Associated Press. His father died about 1994, shortly before Msalam returned to Kenya, Mr. Mbarak said.

In Yemen -- bin Laden's ancestral home -- Msalam was recruited into the army. Then the family heard he "went to Pakistan for training," Mr. Mbarak said.

When he returned to Kenya, he was a changed man.

"We found him to be very religious. We found him to be a real man ... somebody who was willing to face life head-on," Mr. Mbarak said. "He told his mother he did not want her to work in [her clothing] shop anymore; he was willing to look after them."

Msalam had learned to speak and read Arabic, discouraged his mother from driving and watching television because it wasn't religious, and stopped his sister from going to a secular school.

"He talked that he wanted an Islamic way of life, like bin Laden, he wanted people to be strict," Mr. Mbarak said.

The uncle said Msalam also became "elusive" and spent time with Swedan.

Days before the embassy attacks, Msalam told his family he was leaving for Yemen. They haven't seen him since.

Swedan gave his relatives a similar story.

In 2001, as U.S. warplanes bombarded the Taliban in Afghanistan, Msalam's mother received a call from a man she didn't know who said Msalam had been killed in Afghanistan, Mr. Mbarak said.

Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus