Kenya mall attack: What reach does Somali terror group have in US?

The Somalia-based Al Shabab has produced slick recruitment videos targeting Somali-Americans. Even before the Kenya mall attack, officials were monitoring the terror group's reach into the US.

Ben Curtis/AP
A Kenyan policeman keeps crowds of onlookers back from the Westgate Mall, in Nairobi, Kenya Monday, Sept. 23, 2013.

Reports that Americans may have helped perpetrate the Kenyan mall terrorist attack that has killed at least 62 people has US officials looking into links between the Somalia-based terrorist group Al Shabab, which has claimed responsibility for the rampage, and gangs in the United States.

It also has some wondering whether the group could pose a similar threat on US soil.

Al Shabab recently attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) for making slickly-produced recruitment videos meant to appeal to Somali-American teenagers in Somali communities throughout the United States.

One recruitment video posted on YouTube in August shows three Minneapolis men of Somali descent discussing the “fun” of traveling to Somalia to fight in Al Shabab.

The video’s “production value is very high. That’s new,” FBI Special Agent Kyle Loven, who is based in Minneapolis, told CNN last month. “Obviously, it’s an attempt to step up recruitment efforts.” 

The video, entitled “The Path to Paradise: From the Twin Cities to the Land of Two Migrations,” chronicles the travels of the three Minneapolis men.

During an interview for the video, one of the men, Al-Amriki – birth name Troy Kastigar – likened his experiences to popping into an amusement park.

“If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here – this is the real Disneyland,” he said in the video. “You need to come here and join us, and take pleasure in this fun.” 

The video also describes the frustration of living in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, nicknamed “Little Mogadishu.”

Terrorist groups like Al Shabab “know how to target the vulnerable,” says Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). 

“You have a few handfuls of young men who may not fit into one culture or another, and who are vulnerable to recruitment by fairly sophisticated techniques.”

These are messages that typically involve an entreaty to “fight against an enduring injustice and a cause larger than yourself.” The payoff is “the ultimate reward” – heaven – “and a sense of adventure,” Ms. Cooke adds.

A report by the National Gang Intelligence Center raised similar concerns, noting that there have been growing numbers of violent Somali street gangs in the northeastern United States. 

At a hearing in March, Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia asked FBI Director Robert Mueller whether “there is a concern that these gangs might contribute to domestic radicalization or send gang members to join with foreign fighters?”

Mr. Mueller conceded that, “There were a number of individuals from the Somali community – particularly in Minneapolis but also elsewhere in the country” who in 2007 or 2008 went to Somalia to join Al Shabab.

“One or two of those individuals may have had some association with gangs,” he added. 

“But I don’t think we have found that that related to radicalization. It was more happenstance that the person had an affiliation with some form of gang as opposed to the gang being a fertile field for recruiting for Al Shabab.” 

In recent months, the Obama administration had cited the deterioration of Al Shabab as a positive development. In his May address at National Defense University on “The Future of Our Fight Against Terrorism,” President Obama noted that in Somalia, “We helped a coalition of African nations push Al Shabab out of its strongholds.”

It is true that, in broad terms, “Al Shabab has been fairly significantly weakened over the last year,” says Cooke of CSIS.

The hardline jihadists are not popular with most Somalis and were not able to hold their territory in the face of battles with African Union troops, who have received support from the US.

So does this latest attack mean Al Shabab is resurgent? Not at all, says Cooke.

“This was an attack against a pretty defenseless mall on a Sunday afternoon,” she points out. “The speculation is that Al Shabab leadership wants to make a big, bold show that Shabab is still relevant and still has the capacity for horrific violence,” she adds. 

But as horrific as it is, it is not a particularly sophisticated attack requiring “the sort of command and control” seen in other terrorist groups.

That could speak to their ability or inclination to carry out attacks in the United States as well. To date, Al Shabab has had relatively parochial ambitions.

Specifically, the motive that the terrorists have used to justify the attack on the Nairobi mall was Kenya’s intervention within Somalia.

“Could they come back and try something similar here in the United States?” Cooke says, citing what is likely to be a new focus of US policymakers in the months to come.

“To date at least, these attacks have been very focused on regional Somali issues, not against a bigger global Western presence.” 

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