More and more young Britons are travelling to war-torn Somalia for “jihad training,” prompting British intelligence chiefs to warn that the country is becoming a more popular “holy war” training ground, a local newspaper reported Sunday.
The heads of the U.K.’s top spy agency MI5 warned that at least 100 British citizens have gone to fight or train in Somalia since 2004, according to the left-leaning Independent newspaper, citing unnamed sources.
"We would have started at below 20 five years ago, when Somalia was not significant enough to be put under close surveillance," a senior Home Office source told the paper Saturday, adding that the number increased each year.
”You have to remember that Somalia is not a place you would go for a holiday. It is particularly striking when people with no Somali family are going there; it looks as if some people are being attracted by the lawlessness."
A moderate Muslim leader from outside London told the paper he had heard of young men travelling to Somalia to join extremist groups.
"I'm hearing it from parents," Sheikh Ahmed Aabi said. "They say they [their children] are joining the jihad. This is a big problem facing our community."
The officials are particularly concerned about the number of people with no direct family connection to Somalia who are travelling there, noting that it has become an alternative base for Islamic radical groups like al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab.
Although Afghanistan and Pakistan remain the main destination for British would-be jihadists, the paper said officials see Somalia as the next major challenge to combating terrorism under the guise of Islam.
"I have seen figures that are not in the public domain that suggest there is an increasing flow of young Britons into Somalia," the paper quoted opposition conservative parliamentarian Patrick Mercer, chairman of the counter-terrorism subcommittee, as saying.
"There is now a mixture of British people, from numerous backgrounds, who are heading out there and that is causing great concern."
A 21-year-old British Somali who blew himself up at a checkpoint in southern Somalia in 2007 was believed to have entered the country overland from Kenya.
The Shabaab, an al-Qaeda inspired movement designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., is at the forefront of a three-month-old offensive to topple Somalia's President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and has imposed strict Sharia law in areas under its control.
The paper said a confidential report in 2002 identified 16 terrorism training camps in Somalia and that the U.S. claimed the network had expanded, reaching beyond the war-torn country’s own borders into American’s Midwest and Australia.