A US pipeline for jihad in Somalia?
Somali-American men are returning to their homeland to fight alongside Al Shabab, an insurgent group with ties to Al Qaeda. Some experts think an organized recruiting effort is responsible for luring them back to Somalia.
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Al Shabab’s leaders soon sought an alliance with Al Qaeda, linking its fight to Osama bin Laden’s war against the West. The US designated it a terrorist group in February 2008.Skip to next paragraph
Why It Matters
Foreign-born terrorists can be stopped at US borders, but American residents who have been radicalized can move about freely at home and abroad. Marginalized Somali refugees living here may be susceptible to being recruited; some already have been.
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Al Qaeda, in turn, voiced support for the group as early as 2007, and many non-Somali fighters are reported to be training with Al Shabab to help establish Islamic rule in Somalia. The participation of Somali-Americans and other foreigners gives Al Shabab the cachet of fighting a global jihad. Al Shabab’s chief propagandist is a Muslim convert from Alabama named Omar Hammami. But while its rhetoric is akin to Al Qaeda’s, Al Shabab’s goals lie chiefly in Somalia.
Sophisticated network of recruiters in US
Warsame says Al Shabab’s cause has the sympathy of many Somali religious leaders in the US who, he says, have been complicitous in recruitment efforts. But others refute that notion.
“The mosque is a good place,” says a middle-aged server at a Tukwila cafe. “This is not happening at the mosque. These are crazy, crazy people,” he says of the suicide bombers in Somalia.
However, there is some evidence that Al Shabab is recruiting in mosques in Somali communities. According to court documents in the terrorism case against 14 Somali men in Minneapolis, some of the accused made phone calls to Somalia from a Minneapolis mosque “to discuss the need for Minnesota-based coconspirators to go to Somalia to fight the Ethiopians.”
Little is known about how Al Shabab recruits fighters. But experts say there’s a high level of organization in its efforts – from identifying recruits to transportation to fundraising.
“Not only do you have recruiters, but you have a recruiting network that is sophisticated,” says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of “My Year Inside Radical Islam.” “In most [radicalization] cases, I can’t say that there is a formal recruitment network.... There seems to be more of a formal structure in place to get young people out to Somalia.”
Interrupting the network will require vast improvement in the strained relations between law enforcement and the Somali community. At the March Senate hearing, Osman Ahmed, the uncle of a Minneapolis teenager killed in Somalia, called for the government to help Somalis “escape enemy hands,” suggesting that the young men going to fight in Somalia are more victims than agents of terror.
“We need our US government to forgive these youth to enable us to find ways and means to bring them back to their homes. And this will give confidence to many more families to come out of darkness,” he said.
But the raft of charges the Somali men from Minneapolis are facing – conspiracy to kill, providing material support to terrorist organizations, attending terrorist training camps, to name a few – suggests that federal counterterrorism officials want to send a clear message that crimes committed in Somalia are likely to lead to criminal convictions in America.