Somalia terrorist activity in US raises concerns, questions

US law enforcement has arrested several people suspected of helping Al Shabab, a Somalia terrorist group. Do those helping the group see Al Shabab's actions as terrorism, or as part of a nationalist struggle?

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
Al-Shabaab fighters display weapons as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu, Somalia on Oct. 21, 2010.

Over the past year American law enforcement officials have arrested several American citizens and residents on charges of aiding Al Shabab, the rebel group in southern Somalia. At first my impression was that these arrests primarily involved people in the largest Somali-American communities, especially Minneapolis, Minn. But a pattern of arrests elsewhere, especially in California, is convincing me that Al Shabab has supporters – still seemingly few in number – across the US. This poses serious problems for policymakers in Washington as well as for law enforcement.

Here is a partial list of recent arrests (spellings of Al Shabab vary in press reports/releases):

  • June 5, 2010: “Police arrested two New Jersey men at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Saturday as they prepared to travel to Somalia to join a militant group with the aim of killing American soldiers.”
  • August 5, 2010: “The Justice Department announced that four separate indictments were unsealed today in the District of Minnesota, the Southern District of Alabama and the Southern District of California charging 14 individuals with terrorism violations for providing money, personnel and services to the foreign terrorist organization al-Shabaab.”
  • October 22, 2010: “Three California residents were indicted on charges of providing funding and other aid for the Shebab.”
  • November 15, 2010: “A federal grand jury has indicted a California woman on charges of aiding Islamic militants in Somalia.”

The arrested persons total 30, a number I imagine is large enough to worry federal authorities. There is no way for me to know how many supporters of Al Shabab have so far escaped capture, but it seems likely that there will be further arrests.

Media reports – and the charges themselves – typically frame the issue as terrorism, which misses part of the picture. It is worth asking how al Shabab’s supporters in the US see their own activities. My guess is that many of them see terrorism not as goal in and of itself, but as part of war. Al Shabab’s attack in Uganda this summer was unquestionably an act of international terrorism, but the movement’s primary goal seems to be conquering southern Somalia. Some of al Shabab’s supporters in the US probably do not even identify with the goals of transnational terrorist movements like Al Qaeda – and in fact so far Al Shabab’s US supporters have concentrated on helping the movement with its activities in Somalia rather than, say, plotting attacks outside of the Horn.

The biggest danger to American security is if Al Shabab’s US supporters decide, as Al Shabab decided in the case of Uganda, that terrorist strikes outside Somalia will advance the movement’s cause inside Somalia (the Uganda attacks were partly meant to intimidate one of the largest source countries for the AU mission that helps fight al Shabab in Mogadishu). Everything in this situation leads back to the situation in Somalia itself, and that is why this remains a policy problem as well as a law enforcement issue. Federal and state authorities are succeeding at the task of finding and arresting criminals, but Washington must do its part to address the root causes of the situation as well. So long as the war in Somalia goes unresolved, so too will the phenomenon of US residents supporting al Shabab. Washington will have to balance its political desires in Somalia against the imperative of dealing with the problems resulting from the growing anger over the situation in Somalia amongst a small but radicalized group of residents here.

As a last note, and given the politicization of terrorist issues in the US, I feel I should say that nothing I’ve written here should be taken as a comment on the Somali-American community as a whole. The persons arrested represent a tiny fraction of a large group of hardworking, patriotic, law-abiding US citizens and residents, many of whom came here to escape Somalia’s problems and find a better life for their families. And not all of those arrested were of Somali origin.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student of Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and he blogs at Sahel Blog.

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