British intelligence chiefs have targeted war-torn Somalia as the next major challenge to their efforts to repel Islamic terrorism, after scores of youths left the UK for “jihad training” in the failed African state.
MI5 bosses have warned ministers that the number of young Britons travelling to Somalia to fight in a “holy war”, or train in terror training camps, has soared in recent years as the country has emerged as an alternative base for radical Islamic groups including al-Qa’ida.
The Independent on Sunday understands that the number of young Britons following the trail every year has more than quadrupled to at least 100 since 2004 – and analysts warn that the true figure (which would include those who enter the country overland) will be much higher.
However, the British authorities are particularly concerned about the number of people with no direct family connection to Somalia who are travelling to fight and train there. The diversity suggests Somalia is flourishing as a training ground for radical British Muslims, who could join the local terrorist militia al-Shabaab (“the youth”), go on to join conflicts including the Afghan campaign, or return home to pose a security threat to the UK.
Although Afghanistan and Pakistan remain the main destination for British would-be jihadists, the IoS has established that British intelligence chiefs have multiplied the time and resources dedicated to monitoring the trail between Britain and Somalia.
The Somali connection has been played down in recent years, as security services have concentrated on more traditional terror hot spots such as Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
A number of the “liquid bomb” plot terrorists convicted last week had Pakistani connections and the bomb makers are believed to have received training at an al-Qa’ida camp in Pakistan.
The British Somali community has grown rapidly in recent years, with thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting in their homeland. But the hardship they have experienced has raised fears that many younger British Somalis have become detached from wider society – and ripe for radicalisation. The Home Office is funding a “Prevent” strategy to tackle radicalisation in UK Muslim communities.