Nearly two decades after their parents fled war and famine for the safety and abundance of Minnesota, Ohio, and the wet suburbs of Seattle, a steady stream of young Somali-American men are headed back into the fight.
They are going to wage jihad in a homeland they barely know, driven by a heady brew of nationalist and religious fervor and lured by what experts say is a sophisticated recruitment network exploiting vulnerabilities in the Somali diaspora.
As many as six Somali-Americans are believed to have died after taking up arms with Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants battling the transitional government in Somalia. Shirwa Ahmed, who traveled from Minneapolis to help execute an attack on Oct. 29, 2008, that killed 20 people, is believed to be the first American suicide bomber.
Somali refugees in North America and Europe began returning to their homeland to fight after Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, routing the Islamist coalition then governing much of the country. The incursion provoked a declaration of holy war by Somalia’s Muslim hard-liners against their neighboring Christian nation, and, more broadly, the United States for its perceived support of the invasion.
Since then at least 20 young Somali-Americans have gone to join the insurgency. Their path to radicalization, and perhaps eventually to the ranks of militant Islam, represents a pressing concern for US counterterrorism officials today. Many of the young men who traveled to the battlefields in the Horn of Africa have died, but a handful have returned.
There’s no evidence yet that these Al Shabab (the Youth) fighters have targets outside their homeland, federal officials say, but radicalized US citizens or legal residents present a unique challenge – they can come and go with relative ease.
“That is the single most significant issue,” says David Gomez, assistant special agent-in-charge of the Seattle field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Once someone has been radicalized and trained by militants, he says, “he is then a viable recruitment target for any terrorist group.”
A string of recent counterterrorism cases adds new weight to this concern. In December, five young Americans from the Washington, D.C., area were arrested in Pakistan for reportedly trying to join a militant training camp connected to Al Qaeda. In Chicago, David Headley has been charged with traveling to India to help orchestrate the 2008 Mumbai (Bombay) attacks that killed about 170 people.
“The question remains: How do we protect ourselves from threats that emanate from overseas? We cannot close our borders or cut off the Internet. We must start at the source,” FBI Director Robert Mueller said earlier this year in a talk to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Radicalization in the US is a complex riddle for law enforcement because it occurs in myriad ways – behind closed doors, via the Internet, through friends, in prisons, even at mosques. Many experts say the Somali diaspora presents a particularly fertile ground for terrorist recruitment.
“Among Somali-Americans, the refugee experience of fleeing a war-torn country, combined with perceived discrimination, marginalization, and frustrated expectations, as well as local criminal, familial, and clan dynamics may heighten the susceptibility of some members of these communities to criminal or extremist influences,” said Andrew Liepman, deputy director of intelligence for the National Counterterrorism Center, at a March Senate hearing on Al Shabab recruitment in the US.
A community struggling to assimilate
In the Seattle area, the Somali community is clustered in Tukwila, a bedroom community next door to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where many work as vendors and baggage handlers. Many others drive cabs and trucks.
The Somali community here and elsewhere in the US – estimated at 70,000 to 200,000 – is largely poor and working-class, and struggling to integrate into American society. They are suspicious of the police and distrustful of the government – fears that were heightened when Somali brokers who handle remittances and groceries came under federal scrutiny following 9/11.
In Somali grocery stores and cafes in Tukwila, talk over cups of cardamom tea often centers on the politics of their homeland. The community’s deep Muslim faith is evident in the decorated prayer rugs in the back of restaurants that serve traditional goat and spaghetti and the mosque donation boxes at markets. It’s a closed community still getting comfortable with America.
“They live here, but they don’t live here physically. You won’t see them at Seahawks games,” says Abdirahman Warsame, who came to the US in 1996 and now works as a building security manager just outside Seattle.
Two years ago, Mr. Warsame began blogging about the increased terrorist attacks in Somalia. Recently he republished an article reporting that a Somali man from the Seattle area died in a Sept. 17 suicide attack on African Union peacekeepers that killed 21 people. The FBI would not confirm the perpetrator’s identity but did not dispute local reports that a Seattle resident may have been the latest American to die for Al Shabab’s cause.
Al Shabab emerged from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of hard-line and moderate Muslim leaders that wrested control of much of Somalia from brutal warlords in 2006. Shortly afterward, longtime enemy Ethiopia invaded. The ICU fled Mogadishu without a fight, but the violent insurgency that followed was taken over by the ICU’s military wing – the newly powerful Al Shabab. The insurgency continues today against the Ethiopian-backed transitional government.
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.
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.