Norwegian town shocked by Somali resident's link to Nairobi attack

Somali raised in small seaside community probed for involvement in Nairobi mall attack - stunning his relatives and neighbours

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 October, 2013, 7:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 October, 2013, 9:37am

As a boy, the young Somali immigrant sold newspapers door to door in the peaceful seaside Norwegian town of Larvik and told neighbours he was going to be a doctor and help people in Africa.

In high school, he began bringing a prayer rug to school, but in a community with many Somalis - not to mention Muslims from Libya, Chechnya and elsewhere - he hardly stood out.

And he rarely got into even mild trouble.

But with grades that fell short of medical-school requirements, Hassan Abdi Dhuhulow struggled to find a job after high school and began visiting radical jihadist websites. In 2009, he took the first of several trips back to Somalia.

Norwegian investigators now want to know whether the boy who wanted to be a healer grew up to be a killer. They are questioning relatives and friends of Dhuhulow, 23, to try to determine whether he was one of the four attackers caught on surveillance cameras during the rampage at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last month, when more than 60 men, women and children were killed.

Dhuhulow's sister said in Larvik: "It's still hard to believe. I can't bear the thought of this actually being true. It's just too much to come to terms with."

She said officers from the Police Security Service had asked her whether her brother had placed calls from the Westgate mall during the siege. She said he had not and that the family was unaware of any role he might have played.

She said she did not believe her brother could have taken part in the attack on Westgate and could not say that she recognised him from the surveillance video.

"My mother and father and me, we don't even know if he is dead or alive," she said.

The devastating siege of Westgate shocked not just Kenya but the entire region, from Ethiopia to Tanzania, prompting worries of more attacks abroad by al-Shabab or the group's local affiliates.

The ripples of fear and incomprehension have spread all the way to Larvik, an idyllic community of about 43,000 people on Norway's east coast, with its small white wooden houses and a harbour full of bobbing sailing boats. Residents have begun to question how their town could be a cradle of Islamist militancy.

The questions are especially poignant for those who came to Norway as refugees precisely to get away from such violence and to give opportunities to children like Dhuhulow.

"The Somali community in Larvik is in shock," said Mohammed, who like many fearing repercussions for speaking out, gave only his first name.

Dhuhulow grew up in a multiethnic neighbourhood, in a four-storey apartment building with 32 units and families from half a dozen different countries.

Tone Olafsen, 59, vice-president of the building's board, remembered when the family moved in. She said she had spent time with them and always had a positive impression of Dhuhulow. "He was a quiet, polite, good-humoured, pleasant and nice kid," Olafsen said.

Norway has increasingly come into focus in the inquiry into the Westgate attack, as investigators from Kenya, the United States, Norway and elsewhere work to piece together al-Shabab's international network.

Lars Akerhaug, the author of Norwegian Jihad, said the free-speech laws in Norway made it particularly easy for militant recruiters to operate.

"If you want a base in Europe, it makes sense to do it here because there's a smaller chance of being prosecuted here than in a place like Britain or Germany that have stricter terrorism laws," Akerhaug said.

He pointed out that there were al-Shabab representatives in Oslo as well as in Gothenburg, Sweden, and that about 10 Norwegians were known to be fighting for al-Shabab.

Video: Kenya mall shooting suspect thought to be Norwegian citizen