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STOCKHOLM (AP) – Ten subway stops from downtown Stockholm is “little Mogadishu,” a drab suburb of the Swedish capital where radical Islamists are said to be recruiting the sons of Somali immigrants for jihad in the Horn of Africa.
Police and residents say about 20 have joined al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked group waging a bloody insurgency against Somalia’s government, and many of them came from the suburb of Rinkeby – the heart of Sweden’s Somali community. According to SAPO, the Swedish state security police, five of them have been killed and 10 are still at large in Somalia.
The issue has gained notice at a time of worsening fears of Islamic radicalism in the Scandinavian countries, home to more than 40,000 Somalis who have fled their war-ravaged homeland. These fears sharpened with the Jan. 1 attack by a Somali immigrant in Denmark on a cartoonist who caricatured the Prophet Muhammad.
“It’s a small group but they have power,” said Abadirh Abdi Hussein, a 25-year-old hip-hop artist and “110-percent Muslim” who has become the best known Somali in Rinkeby because of his campaign to counter al-Shabab’s influence. “People don’t speak up against them. They don’t dare.”
Al-Shabab, which wants to install strict Islam in Somalia, controls much of the desert nation’s southern region and large parts of the capital. Intelligence officials say it is recruiting foreign fighters, including from the Somali diaspora in Europe and North America. U.S. authorities say as many as 20 recruits have left Minnesota.
In Sweden, police say they can do little to stop them leaving for Somalia unless they can prove that they are conspiring to commit terrorism. Unlike the U.S., Sweden has not put al-Shabab on any terrorism list.
“Legally you can’t prosecute anyone, neither the youth nor those who urged them to go,” said Johnny Lindh, police superintendent in the precinct that includes Rinkeby.
Lindh said police have been in touch with several devastated parents who said their sons secretly joined al-Shabab and traveled to Somalia without telling their families.
A 24-year-old Rinkeby resident, who came to Sweden with his family in 1991, and who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone, said his uncle was with a group that left Rinkeby in mid-2008. According to the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his family’s safety, the uncle said that he was traveling within Sweden and would only be gone a few weeks.
Speaking in Swedish, the man said that he, too, was approached repeatedly by an al-Shabab recruiting agent, but turned him down.
“He used to ask, like, ‘have you ever thought about the way things are in Somalia? Do you want to help?’ You knew what he was getting at: jihad,” he said.
The recruitment was linked to a youth center in Rinkeby that was financed with subsidies from the city, local authorities and residents said.
Per Johansson, of the Stockholm Sports Administration, which gave the center half a million kronor ($70,000) over four years, said the funding was stopped in 2008 when city inspectors sensed there were radical undertones.
They segregated the sexes and “They didn’t let the girls be part of the activities in the same way as boys,” Johansson said, adding that at the time there was no suspicion of any recruitment attempts.
A former representative of the now defunct organization, who declined to give his name, said he would only talk if an AP reporter signed a contract specifying how to use the content of the interview, a condition that AP declined.
Hussein, the hip-hop artist, said youth who were approached by al-Shabab told him they were shown videos of al-Qaida suicide bombings and urged to become jihadists in their ancestral homeland.
As his worries worsened, he started going public to Swedish media on the issue last year. Since then, resistance to the extremists has grown and last month dozens showed up for a rally against al-Shabab in Rinkeby.
The singer’s campaign has also prompted Swedish politicians to talk about the spread of extremism in immigrant suburbs, something that in the past might have drawn charges of being hostile to Muslims.
“He is a real hero,” said Nalin Pekgul, a leading politician for the opposition Social Democrats said of Hussein. Pekgul, a Kurdish immigrant, is an outspoken critic of the radicals.
But Hussein has paid a price. In September he was attacked on the street by a masked man who slashed his forehead with a sharp object – he has an inch-long scar – and warned him in Somali to “leave us alone or we’ll kill you.” Police haven’t found a suspect.
Experts say the Somali community is especially vulnerable to extremist influence because it’s the least integrated immigrant group in Scandinavia. Since the 1990s, more than 25,000 have come to Sweden, 17,000 to Norway and about 10,000 to Denmark.
Denmark’s intelligence service says the ax-wielding man who was shot and wounded by Danish police after breaking into cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s home was an al-Shabab-linked Somali with a Danish residence permit. In December a Danish man of Somali descent killed 24 people in a suicide bombing in Mogadishu.
Somali community leaders in Scandinavia say support for al-Shabab has dropped in recent years as people have become aware of its increasingly violent tactics and extreme fundamentalism.
Still, the Somali National Organization in Sweden, an umbrella group, has invited government leaders to address Somalis about how to steer youth away from the extremists.
Sweden’s center-right government announced last week that it will study how local authorities here and elsewhere in Europe are tackling extremism.
Integration Minister Nyamko Sabuni, herself an immigrant from Burundi, acknowledged the problem has been poorly understood in Sweden. “Local officials and politicians working in these areas don’t always have the knowledge needed,” she told AP.
Associated Press Writers Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Ian MacDougall in Oslo and Jan M. Olsen in Denmark contributed to this report.