In recent months, an increasing number of American Muslims have left the United States to join the Shabaab, an active jihadist group in Somalia closely aligned with al-Qaeda. Aspiring American jihadists have left, or attempted to leave, for Somalia from Muslim communities across the country.
Americans now appear to be participating at all levels of the Shabaab organization in Somalia, as military leaders, spokesmen, ideologues, fighters, and suicide bombers.
On October 22, 2008, Shirwa Ahmed, a former resident of Minneapolis, reportedly carried out a suicide bombing in northern Somalia. The bombing occurred only weeks after the Shabaab issued a message eulogizing another American, Rubin Shumpert, a former resident of Seattle who converted to Islam in prison, as one of its fallen fighters. As of December 2008, the FBI was investigating similar cases in or around Boston, Massachusetts, Portland, Maine and Columbus, Ohio. And since 2007, an American-accented fighter has appeared in a video as a “field commander” in Somalia and, most recently, as an ideologue with the Shabaab, preaching the virtues of al-Qaeda and praising its leadership.
While most among the recent surge in American emigration to Somalia appear to be men of Somali origin, many white or Hispanic converts to Islam, women, or other Muslims – individuals with diverse backgrounds – have left the US to carry out jihad in Somalia.
The Shabaab, the harsher, more lethal successor to the Islamic Courts Union, has repeatedly called on Muslims in the West to support al-Qaeda’s global jihad by traveling to join the group in Somalia. Coupled with the group’s strident military gains over the last year, it is this resounding recruitment campaign, delivered in slick, English-language multimedia targeting Americans and other Westerners, that has contributed to the Shabaab’s recent rise in status among al-Qaeda supporters.
[Top from left: Hasan Bursaan and Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis, Minnesota; Ruben Luis Shumpert, Seattle, Washington; “Abu Mansour the American,” an American-accented fighter with Shabaab in Somalia; Bottom from left:·Daniel Maldonado, Methuen, Massachusetts; Amir Mohamed Meshal, Tinton Falls, New Jersey; Abdi Nuradin, Columbus, Ohio]
American Muslims Join Jihad in Somalia
"Mom, I'm in Somalia! Don't worry about me; I'm OK,” a 17-year-old University of Minnesota student, Burhan Hassan, reportedly told his mother in a phone call shortly after he disappeared from their home in Minneapolis. Other Minneapolis mothers received similar phone calls from their missing sons to tell them “that they were in Somalia, in Mogadishu city, saying that they cannot talk and that they will see them in heaven,” according to a local community leader.
But the phenomenon is not limited to the United States’ Somali communities; converts to Islam, women, and non-Somali Muslims have all departed the US with the intent to join jihadist groups in Somalia. The following are two recent case studies.
During the latter half of 2008, the sprawling Somali community around Minneapolis, Minnesota has witnessed a particularly high number of young men leaving for Somalia, whom community leaders now refer to as the “missing boys.” Before he left the US to join the Shabaab in Somalia, Shirwa Ahmed, a Somali-American, was reportedly working as a recruiter in the Minneapolis area. In his wake, a group of young Somali men have disappeared from the community, several of whom were students at the University of Minnesota and a local high school.
While it is unclear how many among the “missing boys” of Minneapolis arrived successfully in Somalia, the FBI recently announced it had DNA evidence that Shirwa Ahmed carried out a suicide bombing in northern Somalia in October 2008. His body was later returned to Minnesota and family members attended the burial. Ahmed’s suicide bombing was one of five during a coordinated attack in Hargeisa and Bosaso on October 29. 2008. According to a woman who identified herself as Shirwa Ahmed’s sister, he arrived in Somalia via Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
[Site of October 29, 2008 suicide bombings in northern Somalia (left) and the funeral for one of the bombers, Shirwa Ahmed, in Burnsville, Minnesota (right)]
When asked to explain the phenomenon afflicting his community, Abdisalam Adam, director of the Dar al-Hijra Center in Minneapolis, conceded that some young men “fall prey to cyber recruiters.” Other community leaders believe recruitment takes place in the mosques. Before he left for Somalia in late 2008, University of Minnesota student Burhan Hassan was, according to one account, “very connected” at the Abubaker As-Saddique Mosque in Minneapolis, “he used to sleep at the mosque… like he lived there.”
Another case, involving a Hispanic American convert to Islam from Seattle, Washington, came to a head this year following a message issued by the Shabaab in Somalia.
The next case is an example of American convert to Islam recruited to the Shabaab in Somalia. Ruben Luis Shumpert, a former resident of Seattle also known as Amir Abdul Muhaimin, Washington, was memorialized as a fallen fighter in the Shabaab’s October 2008 Arabic-language magazine distributed over the internet. The eulogy, as part of the group’s media campaign, serves as a powerful recruitment tool targeting other potential fighters from the West, presenting an account of his early life in the US to which many American converts can relate:
|“The story began in the city of Seattle in Washington state. This brother was born to two Christian parents, from an African-American father and a Mexican mother, so his skin was a combination between black and brown. His parents named him Ruben Shumpert and he was raised in an absolutely Christian household… [he also] grew up and was raised by the drug gangs… he ended up in prison for a long time [inside] which he [became a Muslim]…”|
The magazine also described his travel from Seattle to Somalia, adding that Shumpert “met brothers who had returned from Chechnya” who gave him “instructional and jihadist tapes” as incitement to join the jihad. Later, Shumpert “met some of the Somali brothers with a jihadist creed” who provided him with the “necessary arrangements for travel, including forgery and tickets to leave America towards Somalia.”
The case of Ruben Shumpert echoes that of other American converts, such as Daniel Maldonado and Mark Robert Walker, who sought to travel to join the jihad in Somalia. Other cases have involved non-Somali Muslims traveling to Somalia, such as Amir Mohamed Meshal, an Egyptian-American of Tinton Falls, NJ who admitted traveling to a training camp in Somalia in 2007.
Shabaab Fighters from Other Western Countries
Americans are not the only Westerners traveling to Somalia to join the Shabaab; individuals from the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Sweden, Canada, and Australia have all appeared fighting in Somalia or have been documented intending to leave their country with that intent.
In 2007, a study conducted by Europol described Somalia as “a new alternative destination” for aspiring jihadists, citing cases pursued by officials in the UK, France, and Sweden. An excerpt from the study reads as follows:
|"In France, police and intelligence services found increasing evidence that Somalia is becoming a new alternative destination for people willing to fight jihad. In early 2007, UK authorities estimated that British passport holders fighting with the Islamists in Somalia were “in their dozens”... More than 90 suspected foreign Islamist insurgents were reported captured or killed during 2007; among them were five Swedish and five British nationals."|
Officials in Canada and Australia also believe residents of their countries have left to join jihadist groups in Somalia.
While there exists a marked difference in the background, location, and race of these aspiring Western jihadists, the inspiration is the same: answering the call, by al-Qaeda and other groups, to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
Declaration of an Islamic State in Somalia
Over the last year, the Shabaab has experienced great military success in Somalia. The group now carries out brazen attacks all over Somalia, announced the closing of Mogadishu international airport, and watched as the Somali president fled the country in December 2008. Over the internet, the group broadcasts its success through a slick media campaign that now rivals the productions of al-Qaeda branches in Iraq and the Afghan-Pakistan region.
Yet the most pressing question for jihadists around the world remains if or when the Shabaab will announce in Somalia the establishment of an Islamic state - the end goal of al-Qaeda’s global jihad, as has been declared in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Addressing this question of when the group will declare an Islamic state in Somalia, a man identified as Shabaab field commander Abu Abdul Rahman gave an interview broadcast December 22, 2008 over the social networking website PalTalk, a recording of which was distributed through jihadist forums:
|Interviewer: "Will the Islamic Emirate in Somalia soon be declared like there is in Iraq?"|
|Abu Abdul Rahman: "The mujahideen [in Somalia] have agreed on this matter… we have decided to soon declare, Allah willing, an Islamic Emirate... only a little time is left"|
In the months leading up to this interview, the Shabaab distributed messages announcing an "advanced stage of jihad" in Somalia and repeatedly claimed the implementation of Islamic law in parts of Somalia, among them an act of stoning a woman to death as penalty for adultery. On December 7, 2008, following a number of such messages regarding the implementation of Islamic law, the group declared the establishment of an Islamic province in southern Somalia (Lower Shabelle), naming five leaders of the Islamic province. Following “impressive victories achieved by the mujahideen in Somalia,” the message announced, “it has become necessary for your brothers to build civil administrations to fulfill the duties of the Islamic state.” This declaration of an Islamic state in Somalia represents another stop echoing al-Qaeda in Iraq’s developments, as the group appointed a “cabinet” to lead the Islamic State of Iraq.
[Shabelle Province, Somalia]
The importance of an official declaration of an Islamic state in Somalia, or in any other destination considered by foreign jihadists, cannot be overstated. American and other Westerners have repeatedly cited the potential establishment of an Islamic state as the motivating factor in their travel to Somalia. In a letter posted online by his supporters, convicted American jihadist Daniel Maldonado justified his travel to Somalia as an effort to live in an Islamic state, writing: "Once my wife… and I found out that an Islamic state was established in Somalia... we decided to go and make hijra (migration)” to Somalia. He and Mark Robert Walker, another convicted American jihadist, explained to federal agents his “intent to travel to Somalia and fight for groups… that support a Somali islamic government.” On a jihadist internet forum, Walker told another member “I feel that I should leave for Som[alia], we badly need mujahideen over there… we have to act quickly to stop the non-Islamic Somali provisional gov[ernment].”
Media Campaign Targeting Westerners
The media campaign launched in the name of the Shabaab in Somalia utilizes an array of communication methods, including websites, message boards, interactive PalTalk chat sessions, satellite television, and endorsements from jihadist leaders around the world. Since 2007, an American-accented fighter identified only as “Abu Mansour the American” has been at the forefront of the group’s campaign, alongside a number of other English-speaking Somali and foreign fighters. In addition, the Shabaab’s regular stream of communications – such as communiqués, claims for attacks, religious statements – are translated to several languages, including Arabic, English and French, by the Global Islamic Media Front, a web-based collaboration of al-Qaeda supporters.
In a 2007 documentary by al-Jazeera television, “Abu Mansour the American” was identified as a field commander with the Islamic Courts Union. In an interview facing the camera, he addressed his target audience as “my sons of America.” More recently, an English-language letter signed by “Abu Mansour the American” was issued by the Shabaab and distributed in both Arabic and English on jihadist forums. As an explanation for why he left the Islamic Courts Union to join the Shabaab, “Abu Mansour the American” explains that his new affiliate follows the ideology of al-Qaeda and its leadership, whom he praises as follows:
|"I was seen on Al-Jazeera [television] in a Somali training camp [as a member of the Islamic Courts Union] before realizing that [the group's ideology had] become extremely distorted… the Shabaab [follow the same ideology] heard from the mouth of the Mujahid Shaykh Usama bin Laden… the lion, the genius, the Doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri… [and] the martyr… Abu Musab al-Zarqawi… the list of the heroes of this time goes on.”|
Other leaders of the Shabaab have also emphasized the group’s global reach and aspirations. Ibrahim al-Maqdis, a member of the Shabaab movement filmed in Somalia in a recent expose by al-Jazeera television, stated “We will establish Islamic rule from Alaska and Chile to South Africa, Japan, Russia, to Solomon Islands, and all the way to Iceland. Be warned, we are coming.” In the same video, another Shabaab leader identified as Abu Mansour called on foreign fighters to travel to Somalia, stating “We shall welcome any Muslim from any part of the world who wants to join us. We will allow him to wed our daughters and share our farms. Many have already died fighting our cause and many others are here with us.”
Ordinary fighters in Somalia are given a voice through Shabaab propaganda videos, often speaking in English to target the global audience. A video released by the Shabaab in February 2007 features two armed fighters calling on Europeans and Americans to come to Somalia. “Those who are in Europe and in America, get out of those countries. You should [migrate and come fight jihad],” states the first fighter, after the first asked: “How can you sit [while] your [Muslim] brothers and sisters are getting murdered in our land[?]… How dare you sit at home and look on the tv, see people getting killed, Muslims getting killed[?]”
Despite the Shabaab’s cavalier words and steady military successes, the group would garner far less support were it not for regular public endorsements received from al-Qaeda’s recognized leadership around the world.
Al-Qaeda Leaders Communicate Support to Shabaab
In the eyes of al-Qaeda leaders, many of whom regularly condemn the views of Hamas and other Sunni Islamist groups as insufficiently cosmopolitan (i.e., nationalist), there exists a thoroughly nuanced terrain across the various jihadist movements. For this reason, it is of great significance that al-Qaeda leaders have recognized the Shabaab over other US designated terrorist groups in Somalia, such as the Islamic Courts Union, as the preeminent jihadist movement in Somalia.
In the past six months, prominent al-Qaeda leaders in the Afghan-Pakistan region and across the Middle East have issued public statements in support of the Shabaab in Somalia. While the group has not rebranded itself a formal al-Qaeda franchise, as did the GSPC in Algeria, these public statements in support of the Shabaab are incredibly valuable in terms of recruitment and status. The following is a sample of recent statements from al-Qaeda leaders regarding the Shabaab.
[From left: Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir of Iraq, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi of Jordan, and Anwar al-Awlaki of Yemen]
In a video message distributed November 19, 2008, Ayman al-Zawahiri stated the following:
|“I tell my brothers, the lions of Islam in Somalia: rejoice in victory and conquest. America is gathering its wounds in Iraq,and Ethiopia is looking for a way out… don’t put down your weapons before the mujahid state of Islam and tawhid has been set up in Somalia.”|
In an interview with the Islamic State of Iraq’s Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, distributed October 23, 2008, the al-Qaeda commander stated the following:
|“I say to the Shabaab of Somalia: the Horn of Africa is a responsibility in your hands. Beware of the backstabbing of the nationalists… If they fight with you today, tomorrow they are at the side of your enemy. The pains of the experience of Iraq are sufficient for you and for us…"|
|“Today we are one army under one banner. We are fighting our enemy on several fronts: in the North of the world in the Caucasus and Afghanistan; in the South of the world in Somalia and Uganda; and in the Middle of the world in Iraq and Algeria. Our hearts are united. Our goal is one, we are covered by one belief.”|
In a video message distributed June 22, 2008 titled, titled “Somalia… No Peace Without Islam,” Abu Yahya al-Libi stated the following:
|“O mujahideen brothers in Somalia… continue to fight [your] enemies among the [Ethiopians], and their apostate helpers, no matter if they are the closest of relatives, until there remains of them no trace, and no mention, and until the faith is fully for Allah.”|
In a message distributed January 4, 2009, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a jihadist ideologue and mentor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, issued a statement condemning Hamas and naming jihadists in Somalia, alongside those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Chechnya, as holding the correct ideology:
|“Hamas has fallen short of understanding the equation that the monotheist mujahid understands in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia”|
Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the few remaining English-language jihadi scholars not imprisoned, released a statement praising the efforts of jihadists in Somalia:
|“the university of Somalia will graduate an alumni of judges, administrators… capable and tested leaders, teachers, imams, and fighters who are hardened by the field… it will provide its graduates with the hands-on experience that the [Ummah] greatly needs for its next stage.”|
The Shabaab and the Future of Somalia
In a report dated December 23, 2008, the International Crisis Group estimates that “one way or another, Somalia is likely to be dominated by Islamist forces.” An excerpt of the report reads as follows:
|“Islamist fighters are gaining ever more ground. All major towns in south-central Somalia have been captured by one faction or another except for Mogadishu, where [Somali government] control is ever more contested, and Baidoa. The Islamists already dominate nearly as much territory as they did before the Ethiopian invasion, and a takeover of the entire south seems almost inevitable.”|
The most active among the Islamist fighters are those affiliated with the Shabaab. Currently, there does not seem to be a native Somali force strong enough to compete with the Shabaab. Without the presence of a sufficiently-empowered, local source of opposition, such as that posed by the Awakening movement in Iraq, the Shabaab will likely continue its rise to power in Somalia despite the efforts of foreign military forces.
Therefore, the situation in Somalia in the near future will depend on how the Shabaab decides to move forward. One route would be for the group to formally join as a part of al-Qaeda – to rebrand itself with the al-Qaeda name, as did the GSPC in Algeria in 2007. The Shabaab has already repeatedly announced its support for Usama bin Laden, which may lead to a formal pledge of allegiance to the al-Qaeda emir. “A merger between al-Shabaab and al-Qa’ida could give Somali extremists much needed funding while al-Qaeda could then claim to be re-establishing its operations based in East Africa,” CIA Director Michael Hayden told… in January 2009.
Alluding to the changing role the Shabaab faces as it assumes power in many parts of Somalia, one al-Qaeda leader has urged the group to “be kind and soft with the masses.” Having already declared an Islamic province, the group is clearly working to establish a full-fledged Islamic state.