Khat fight: Harmless recreational drug or a recruitment tool for terrorists?

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Howard Swains reports on a very chewy issue.

It is a rainy Sunday afternoon in Peckham, south-east London, and if recent sensational reports are to be believed, I am shortly going to risk my life. Behind a blue door on an otherwise unremarkable residential street is a mafrish – the name given to the houses-cum-social clubs devoted to the chewing of khat. I am about to go inside.

Khat is a green-leaved plant grown predominantly in the Horn of Africa, and consumed in the diaspora by emigrants from the region – Ethiopians, Kenyans, Yemenis and most notably Somalis – who report a mild, amphetamine-like high. Khat is legal in the UK, as are mafrishes, but spirited campaigns to outlaw it on health and social grounds have been galvanised in the past year by claims that terror cells are operating wherever khat is chewed, and that al-Shabaab is focusing its recruitment efforts on disenfranchised Somali youth with khat-addled minds. CNN said that reporters have been attacked while trying to enter mafrishes; the Huffington Post said that it had been advised not even to attempt access. A reporter with Vice magazine said he tried khat, washed it down with beer, and "got all hyper and threw a chair".

My sources were less certain of the dangers. "The most radical thing I've ever seen at a mafrish is a group of old men watching porn on the telly," said one anthropologist. And apprehension dissipates rapidly in Peckham, despite a finger jabbed into my chest on the street outside, accompanied by the question: "What are you?" Hastily abandoning a flimsy cover story, I admit that I am a reporter with this magazine. My interlocutor appears baffled. "But what football team are you?" he says.

I tell him, he rolls his eyes, grabs me by the forearm and hauls me inside. During the next month visiting mafrishes in south London, I will be scorned often for being a Tottenham Hotspur supporter. Issues of my nationality (British), ethnicity (white) and profession (journalist) pass without comment. No one attempts to recruit me to al-Shabaab.

According to most recent figures, there are close to 110,000 Somalis in the UK, around 35 per cent of whom admit to consuming khat on a regular basis. Although some women indulge in the home or with female friends, khat chewing is most commonly regarded as a male pastime, particularly in the mafrishes, which are frequently referred to as "Somali pubs". The analogy is obvious, even though Somalis, as Muslims, tend not to drink. In Africa, khat's stimulant properties make it the product of choice for long-distance lorry drivers, night-watchmen and students cramming for exams. But in the diaspora it has come to be regarded as a cheap luxury, known to be an aid for relaxation and conversation. Men congregate to network, discuss politics and family or work issues. They watch the news or football matches, chew the fat – and chew khat.

A bundle of khat – long, reddish-green stems from the catha edulis plant, which are wrapped in a banana leaf to retain succulence during transportation – costs £3 in the London mafrishes I visited. Chewers typically buy a couple of bundles from the owner, take a chair and begin preparing the product to suit their tastes. They feed the shoots into the side of their mouths, chew, and absorb the juices that contain khat's two active alkaloids, cathine and cathinone. They then either store the mashed-up khat in a wad inside the cheek or more commonly discard the remnants in a bucket, lined with a blue carrier bag.

Sessions stretch to several hours, during which khat's bitter taste is mitigated by soft drinks or sweet tea. Long-term chewers often suffer dental issues as a result of a prodigious sugar intake.

Oral hygiene, however, is the least of many concerns surrounding khat. In January, the government in The Netherlands announced its intention to prohibit khat, which would bring the country in line with 14 other EU member states, as well as both Canada and the USA. The move would leave the UK as the sole country in western Europe with a legal khat market, and although recent upheavals in the Dutch government have cast doubt on these plans, already some British MPs are fearing Britain will be isolated as a hub of illegal export.

"The best approach is not to be out of step with the rest of the western world," said Mark Lancaster MP, who is leading calls for a ban. He said his bid for prohibition began with a plea for action from within the 5,000-strong Somali community in his constituency, Milton Keynes.

Attacks on khat use are nothing new, but have previously focused on its alleged medical and social harms. Although firm evidence is scant, khat chewing has long been associated with various ailments, particularly in its heaviest users. Casual chewers admit to slight hangovers, insomnia and bad dreams, but a minority, usually put at around 10 per cent, also develop some kind of dependence. Some psychotic-like behaviour has also been ascribed to khat use, even though direct causal links are difficult to identify.

Khat chewers are pejoratively portrayed as indolent and work-shy, and it is frequently cited as a factor in the disintegration of family units. The male stays up through the night to chew, sleeps late, returns to the mafrish the following afternoon and neither finds a job nor sees his family, leaving his wife as the sole breadwinner, role model and parent.

In 2005, a Home Office report concluded that khat should not be controlled in part because its use does not "appear likely to spread to the wider community", a statement that drew criticism for its apparent reluctance to address an issue that affects only a minority.

However, other commentators say that imposing prohibition on a cultural practice deeply interwoven into a specific community would represent unwarranted interference. Other factors are said to be more crucial to the discussion; khat is both red herring and scapegoat.

"The khat debate is thorny," said Dr Neil Carrier, of the African Studies Centre at Oxford. "Anti-khat sentiment appeals to the left and right. Some want to ban as it is supposedly harming minority communities; others as it is a drug chewed by 'lazy immigrants'."

Other observers say khat prohibition would lead to far more significant problems, including the criminalisation of Somalis who would continue to chew, or else turn to booze or harder drugs with disastrous consequences. Nevertheless the Home Office has commissioned the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs to review the case of khat in the UK once more, and its findings are due by the end of the year.

In the mafrishes I visit, evidence of khat's ability to lubricate conversation accumulates at notebook-scorching pace. Most chewers I met follow the debate about khat closely and say that discourse has been distorted by campaigners who highlight only the most extreme abuses, as if the subject of alcohol was only regarded with reference to chronic alcoholics and wife-beaters. Moderate khat chewers, who partake as part of an otherwise normal western life, consider their cause to be all but ignored.

Abdulkadir Araru, a Kenyan journalist, highlighted a logistical impediment to the chewers' case, which has excluded them from consultation. "We cannot campaign to legalise khat because it is already legal," he said. Another chewer added: "As long as it's legal, there's no way to shout about it".

In my time in the mafrishes, I met at least three bus drivers and a couple of security guards. I met one telecoms engineer, still wearing his high-visibility vest and branded overalls, and one electricity-meter reader. There was a motorway service station manager; students of biochemistry and business studies; a retired Air Force engineer; and a shift manager of a five-star hotel, who said he used to play for Chelsea's youth team before suffering a career-ending knee injury. One man was a former minister in a previous iteration of the Somali government, and at least two others were prominent members of Somali community groups, with agendas promoting their country-folk's causes in the UK. The man who first demanded to know my football allegiance was a former double-glazing salesman.

I also met Ethiopians, Kenyans, one Eritrean and a Norwegian citizen, of Somali extraction, visiting relatives in London. The mafrish in Peckham is essentially a converted, small, one-bedroom flat, where chewing takes place in the kitchen. One mafrish near to Elephant and Castle retains the look of its previous purpose – a café – and now offers free wi-fi (one man was uploading his CV to a recruitment site), food and drink. The khat is kept cool in a former cake display unit, and a sign on the wall instructs visitors: "Once you pay for your khat there will be no refund or exchange". According to patrons, police often visit the premises, in uniform, and buy khat to take away.

The youngest chewer of khat I met was 21, the oldest 76. His white hair, white beard and khaki clothing complemented a life story that began on a farm in Somalia, progressed through two wives, several countries and thousands of bundles of khat. "My life has not been affected, so why should they ban it? Still I am strong," he said.

Notably, however, there were no women – and for many observers it is the delicate gender politics in Somali communities that has inflamed much of the khat debate. Typically, women and children settled in Britain before their husbands after leaving the East African refugee camps during the turmoil of the 1990s. Thus Somali women tend to be better integrated and can often be the principal source of income. An unemployed man's khat habit can be seen as an abandonment of familial responsibility and an inversion of societal norms.

The most prominent anti-khat campaigner in the UK, however, is a man. By his own admission, Abukar Awale was once a problem khat user, who found his life consumed by the routine of his habit. He fell into a life of petty crime and after an altercation left him in Middlesex Hospital with serious stab wounds, he dedicated his life to the outlawing of the substance he blamed for his ills.

"I know a lot of young people are going through the same thing, thinking 'It's legal, it's culturally acceptable, it must be safe'," Awale told me. "I tell people... look for medical harms, social harms. I strongly, strongly believe khat should not be legal in this country."

Awale's fervour has led him to petition and demonstrate outside Downing Street, into liaison meetings with the Metropolitan Police and has made him a familiar face on Somali television channels, of which there are at least six in the UK. He works in a school in Wembley, north London, with one of the largest Somali populations in the country, and he is the commonly-accepted embodiment of an immigrant success story. He cites a Somali Achievement Award in 2010 as evidence of a mandate to talk on behalf of the majority of Somalis in the UK, even though he is a far from popular figure in the mafrishes.

The links to al-Shabaab have been an unexpected boon to Awale's campaign and his focus now is to consolidate what are at present unconfirmed, and hotly contested, ties. "This is the tool for me," Awale said. "I will put this on the table and say, 'Now you must act'. And they will act. When this country hears terrorism, they will act."

In May, seven people were arrested in the UK for the attempted smuggling of khat to the United States, and they will appear in court next month on charges of "mis-description of parcels for exportation". Meanwhile, an investigation is ongoing into claims that the profits from the trades are being diverted to al-Shabaab. Many commentators think these links are fanciful, however, and point instead to a long-established problem with tracing the final destination of funds from any commodity in a relatively informal trade arrangement.

The 56 tonnes per week of khat currently imported to the UK generate £2.9m in duty annually, and HMRC is already attempting to render transparent the money trails of the khat market, an ongoing project prompted initially by evidence of under-reporting, according to Dr Neil Carrier. A useful knock-on effect would be that with firm details of legitimate Kenyan exporters' bank accounts, the allegations of links between khat and al-Shabaab could be investigated more thoroughly. Prohibition, though, would bring an abrupt halt to the endeavours and could propagate the kind of black market already known in North America and Scandinavia.

"Once it's banned, the price goes up, the profit opportunity is there and all sorts of shady players will find it interesting to deal in khat," said Axel Klein, of Kent University, who has written about khat trades – both legal and illegal – across the world. "If we have a market here for £20-£30 a bundle, people will say: 'Oh yeah, let's get involved'."

The same fears run through the debate about alleged recruitment in the mafrishes. Many commentators believe that only after prohibition would al-Shabaab be free to exert its influence, justifying in the name of jihad their dealings with a substance forbidden by strict Islamic doctrine. An increase in imprisoned Somalis, or with job prospects hindered by criminal records, would provide a fertile ground for terror cells.

"If the UK government bans khat, I can say absolutely that they are supporting extremism," said a chewer named Abdi Ismail. "Al-Shabaab would be happy. They would finally have a say in the British system."

Ismail is 61, with short grey hair and a greying moustache. When he chews, a deep green residue appears around the corners of his mouth, which he regularly wipes away with a tissue kept close at hand. But for a four-month period, during which he completed the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), Ismail says he has chewed every day for 41 years. He now exerts a paternal air of authority in the mafrishes, and is known across London.

"I would rather the youngsters are here, where I know they are with good Somalis, instead of on the streets where they would be with drug dealers," Ismail said.

I spoke to two of the younger chewers – Zaki, aged 21, and Mohamed, 24 – who tend to sit in a different room in the Peckham mafrish. The television is turned off from the ubiquitous news and sport channels in the main chewing room, and instead they listen to music played from mobile phones. Although they confess that their parents do not like them chewing, both say they do so only about once a week, with a two-bundle maximum, and that they consider it to be much safer habit than drinking or other drugs. They were sitting in a mafrish when they first found out about the London riots last summer, in which many of their peers were involved, and did not join the rush to the streets.

The mention of al-Shabaab is met with genuine confusion. "I've heard about it but I've never seen it," said Zaki. "I don't understand how they can do it. To recruit, this is the last place they'll come."

To many of the academics who have been drawn into discussions over khat use, there is an obvious solution to all of the vexing issues: regulation within a legal framework. Both Carrier and Klein are joined by many chewers – as well as councillors in Brent, who conducted a review into khat in their north-west London borough this year – in suggesting a licensing system for mafrishes and closer control on sales of khat.

"If you are determined to do something that will be socially beneficial, it probably is going to be the hard work option of some form of regulation," Carrier said. "It's the hardest thing to do but – ironically for people campaigning for a ban – I think that would be taking it as seriously as possible."

Licensing would almost certainly mean a price increase on khat, and the closure of many of the smaller mafrishes for whom profit margins are already slim. But the regulated utopia described by some observers includes improved chewing conditions as outlets conform to health and safety statutes; prohibited sale to vulnerable minors; better product, cleansed of residual pesticides; and proven, clean money trails to legitimate farmers, who are not robbed of their livelihoods by the collapse of their most lucrative market.

The bus stop closest to the Peckham mafrish is outside one of England's proud licensed institutions. Sunday night is karaoke night and two patrons come tumbling out from behind windows shrouded in St George's crosses, and a clumsy rendition of a 1970s soul classic. Perhaps it is a delayed reaction to the khat, but only now do I begin to feel paranoid and nervous, and hopeful that there are no more questions about football. The beleaguered "Somali pub" seems a much more welcoming place.

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