A heated debate has erupted among Somali refugees in the U.S. over the slaughter of civilians in the Kenyan shopping mall, highlighting what U.S. intelligence officials fear is fertile recruiting ground for Islamic jihadists.
As the bloody showdown played out in Nairobi's Westgate Mall, it was at the center of a card game behind the Portland Halal Market Sunday night.
By day, the store sells camel and goat meat to East Africans, who now number roughly 6,000 in Maine, settling in cities like Portland, Lewiston and Auburn. After hours, a dusty room behind the store becomes a community social club.
When the conversation turned to Kenya, the room erupted in debate in a smattering of broken English and Arabic dialects between the men playing cards and sipping tea on ramshackle furniture.
Ahmed Hasaan, 49, slapped his hand on the table, sending cards flying, and glowered at his opponent.
"It is shameful to Somalia! Shameful!" Hasaan, 49, said. "Innocents. We should offer condolence and prayers. No support to the Shabaab.''
Across the table, Abdiaziziz Abtieon, 27, disagreed.
"Somali is fighting back. Because of Kenya, Somali is a lawless place now. Killing innocents…that is the action of animals,'' Abtieon said. "But remember innocents have been killed in Somalia for a long time because of the Kenyans."
Shabaab, a militant Islamic force that has been trying to impose strict Muslim rule on Somalia, claims it has targeted Kenya for its role in driving Shabaab from power.
The Kenyan Interior Ministry said at least 62 people were killed in the mall attack. The Red Cross said nearly 50 other hostages remain unaccounted for.
U.S. officials are concerned that al-Shabaab has been recruiting Somali refugees living the United States, including Maine. Somalis interviewed by ABC News at the Portland halal market also said they were aware that al-Shabaab is trying to persuade young men to join jihad.
"Al-Shabaab is not just recruiting young Somalis in the U.S. Also around the world,'' Abtieon said in an interview outside the din of his arguing countrymen in the market's back room.
He quickly added that while he supports a Somali-led pushback against Kenya forces, he does not support the slaughter of civilians that al-Shabaab has orchestrated there.
"If I knew any al-Shabaab here in Maine I would call law enforcement,'' Abtieon said. "Somalia is struggling to fight al-Shabaab. People are frustrated, so it is easy for them to recruit young Somalis all over the world."
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