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“Christian American B*stard — go home!”

Children at an Al-Shabab training camp in the Afgooye Corridor, west of Mogadishu, southern Somalia, in February 2011 (Source: Human Rights Watch)

Children at an Al-Shabab training camp in the Afgooye Corridor, west of Mogadishu, southern Somalia, in February 2011 (Source: Human Rights Watch)

How to Keep Somalia’s “Lost Boys” Problem From Becoming Our Own 

“Christian American B*stard, go home!” was the insult hurled at me by a sandal-wearing, skinny and feisty 14-year-old Somali boy on a sultry day in Somalia in 1993. The boy’s name was Maxamed, and I was a 22-year-old U.S. Marine on the first of two deployments to Somalia in support of U.N. operations providing humanitarian aid to starving Somalis across that war-torn country. Maxamed’s hatred for me was shocking and left me speechless. As he walked away briskly with his little sister Natifa, I recall struggling to understand how a half-naked and starved orphan could perceive a person who journeyed thousands of miles across the world for his sake as an “enemy.”  What was his problem?

Upon hearing that Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab militants stormed a shopping center in Nairobi a week ago, killing at least 68 people, memories of that chance encounter with the angry, curly-haired boy who had a “problem” flooded my mind. I wondered if Maxamed could have been among that band of killers in Nairobi. Farfetched? Perhaps. But street orphans growing up in Mogadishu—boys like Maxamed—are ripe for recruitment by Al-Shabaab, coastline pirates, or any number of the bad-boy criminal enterprises that thrive across the Wild Wild West of East Africa. Without shelter, a steady source of food, clean water and, most importantly, affiliation with a protective brotherhood, Somali boys run a daily gauntlet of risks that even Seal Team Six would find daunting. Indeed, in fragile states like Somalia, boys like Maxamed do have a very serious “problem.”

The Few, The Proud, Al-Shabaab

Somalia is the poster child for the world’s 20 or so fragile states. It is a vast land with large swaths of ungoverned space, whose inhabitants continue to be the victims of a vexing, trans-generational armed conflict that has wounded this once-proud nation in painfully deep and long-lasting ways. Thankfully, Somalia has won some victories in recent years. One of the most significant has been the establishment of an internationally-supported federal government that relies heavily upon African Union troops to provide security and stability in the most contested areas. It is the Kenyan government’s robust contribution to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM)—specifically, their combat operations against Al-Shabaab—that earned them a payback strike on their home turf  last week. Although Somalia appears to be slowly getting its act together, its new government is still too young and limited in reach to even begin to solve its biggest problem – its generation of lost boys.

Maxamed, and the tens of thousand of other marginalized youth across Somalia, are ripe vegetables waiting to be picked, peeled, chopped up and tossed into the toxic global Jihadi stew. Capitalizing on unmet emotional and physical needs, “The Youth” (Al-Shabaab’s English name) recruits frustrated and marginalized kids and transforms them into foot soldiers hell-bent on waging  jihad against the “enemies of Islam.”

Boys like Maxamed across the globe, find in radical groups, a physical, emotional and spiritual home that enhances their self-worth, confidence and status. These groups fill the same emotional gap that I aimed to fill when I signed enlistment paperwork some 20 years ago at a Miami military recruiting office. For me, the U.S. Marines filled a yearning to belong to something special – sadly, for many young men in Somalia, that “something special” is Al-Shabaab. 

The President of Somalia, Dr. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, recognizes the dynamic that results in lamentable outcomes not too far removed from the plight of American inner city youth who often end up in gangs or in jail. He discussed Somalia’s “lost boys” last Sunday on CNN’s flagship international program GPS 360:

“A boy that was five years old in the 1990s, today is 28 years old. And most probably, he has a wife and kids. He’s one of those lost generations who do not have the tools of life. He becomes frustrated, realizing he cannot offer even a cup of milk to his kids. So he is very vulnerable to be recruited by Al-Shabaab. The bulk of the forces that are fighting for Al-Shabaab are desperate boys — it’s not ideological .”

Troubled Boy near the Mogadishu Port

Troubled Boy near the Mogadishu Port


Shifting Lost Boys Away From Evil and Towards Hope  

Angry, hungry and hopeless young men living in low or no governance spaces throughout countries like Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan are the weapons of choice for violent extremist organizations as they pursue both national and global political objectives. Solving the at-risk youth problem in fragile states is complex, but it must be done to make any real gains in the fight against terrorism. Doing it right will require the application of individual-centered approaches rather than the traditional grab bag of “kill-our-enemies” expressions of hard power that persists as the central axis of the U.S. global counter-terrorism fight. This is the realm of soft power, whose victories are harder to quantify, often harder to achieve, but more humane, more effective and longer lasting.

Bringing ungoverned spaces that serve as hotbeds of violent extremism under the effective rule of law requires putting human security factors at the forefront of the global security conversation. Improving the lives of people in fragile states must have as its central focus communicating hope – in words and deeds  – to the Maxameds of the world.

Don’t Hit ‘em hard – Hit ‘em smart 

A likely U.S.-backed hard power response to the Kenyan massacre is inevitable. But it will only scratch the itch of retaliation and not cure the intractable disease that afflicts the Somali socio-political body. Hard power is warranted in this instance, and has its place in conflict resolution in general; however, it should be the minor partner in the hard and soft power partnership. Currently, the U.S. spends approximately fourteen times as much on defense spending as it does on diplomacy and foreign aid combined. If U.S. policy makers are serious about reducing the threat posed by volatile states like Somalia and company then this spending ratio must be brought into better balance. Indeed, an inconvenient truth for many making the big decisions in the global counter-terrorism fight, is that what is needed is far more soft power (i.e. diplomacy and developmental aid) and far less hard power. Sadly, events like the recent attack in Nairobi make it harder for advocates of non-violent and development approaches to be given a big boy seat at the counter-terrorism table. I hope this will change—it can, and it must.

Some 20 years ago on the jagged cliffs of the Mogadishu coastline, a representative of the world’s biggest looming “problem,” with nothing to lose, looked me square in the eye and launched a series of grotesque insults my way. I only hope that the developed world will work more intensely with the Somali president (and the leaders of other “states on the brink”) to help the Maxameds of the world to realize that they are more than just a “problem” and a hard power target.




Oliver Barrett

Oliver Leighton-Barrett is a multi-lingual researcher and a decorated retired military officer specializing in the inter-play between fragile states and national security matters. A former U.S. Marine, and Naval aviator, Oliver is a veteran of several notable U.S. military operations, to include: Operation Restore Hope (Somalia); and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan and Philippines). His functional areas of focus include: U.S. Diplomacy; U.S. Defense; and Climate Change. His geographic areas of focus include: Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).