"Mom, I’m in Somalia” or It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

The inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States on 20 January 2009, and attendant celebrations, fortunately passed without incident.  Interestingly, the most credible terrorist threat that had surfaced in connection with these events came not from al-Qaeda or its leader, Usama bin Laden, or indeed his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as might have been expected, but from a largely unknown, radical Somalia organization, called al-Shabaab (Arabic: “the youth” or more accurately, the “young guys”).


A bulletin jointly issued the day before the inauguration by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US intelligence community to state and local law enforcement, advised that persons affiliated with al-Shabaab might attempt to stage an attack in the US on Inauguration Day. Although the threat never materialized, it nonetheless shed important light on an albeit obscure terrorist group that in fact presents US authorities with the most serious evidence to date of a “homegrown” terrorist recruitment problem right in the American heartland.

 

The First American Martyr And His Would-Be Successors

The first evidence of this long-feared development surfaced early in October 2008 with a SITE Intelligence Group translation of al-Shabaab’s new electronic magazine titled, “The Faith of Abraham.”  Heralded by the group as the product its new media arm, “The al-Zarqawi Center for Studies and Research,” the 52-page-long online publication contained 13 articles——including an especially noteworthy one about a Seattle, Washington native and African-American convert to Islam named, Ruben Luis Shumpert.  According to the “martyr” biography that appeared in “The Faith of Abraham,” Shumpert was killed by a rocket attack in the forests outside Mogadishu, where he and his fellow warriors had sought refuge after fleeing fighting in the city.  He was described as having been converted to Islam while serving a prison sentence and having arrived in Somalia nearly two years before.  Shumpert had apparently opened a barbershop that he used as a base both for the recruitment of other converts and the radicalization of fellow Muslims.  His own radicalization was reported facilitated by viewing jihadi videos and reading other material that he was given by some men who had supposedly returned to the US from “jihad in Chechnya.”  According to the article, Shumpert “was a knight obsessed with the news of Sheikh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, may Allah have mercy on him, and wished to have joined his convoy in [Iraq].”  Following another spell in prison, Shumpert fled to Somalia, where he “joined the brigades of foreign fighters.”  There, he was blooded in battle, but as widespread violence swept the Somali capital, Mogadishu, he and his comrades were forced to flee.  While hiding in the forest they were allegedly betrayed by an “American spy” and were targeted by the rocket barrage that killed Shumpert.

But it was not until later that month that the “Somali connection” aroused more widespread concern in the US.  According to the FBI, on 29 October 2008 a 27-year-old former University of Minnesota student and naturalized American citizen of Somali heritage named Shirwa Ahmed is believed to have become the first “US citizen suicide bomber.” Ahmed reportedly was part of an al-Shabaab terrorist team that exploded five car bombs in a series of simultaneous suicide attacks that rocked two cities in northern Somalia.  At least 30 persons were killed, including several United Nations aid workers.

Soon after, indications also began to surface that Ahmed’s sojourn from student to suicide terrorist may have not have been an entirely isolated phenomenon.  Just a few days later, on Election Day, 4 November, six Somali-Americans from the same Minneapolis, Minnesota immigrant community secretly departed the US for Somalia.  Indeed, according to the FBI, they are part of a flow of upwards of some 20 Somali youths from Minnesota that since 2006 have left their homes presumably to fight alongside al-Shabaab in their parents’ homeland.  US  intelligence officials have been quoted in news reports stating that the youths, who range in age from their late teens to their early 20s, are being trained in weapons use and bomb making at al-Shabaab camps.  “This is not just happening in Minneapolis,” one official explained, “but we’ve seen it across the country."

Reports of other youths from tight-knit Somali communities as far afield as Boston, Massachusetts; Portland, Maine; and Columbus, Ohio who have similarly left home to fight in Somalia have also begun to appear. The FBI, accordingly, is currently attempting to determine whether still other cities in the US with Somali expatriate communities, such as San Diego, California, and Seattle, Washington, have also experienced this phenomenon. The Somali expatriate community in the US is estimated to comprise around 200,000 persons.  The twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota is the largest, with over 70,000 persons. There are approximately 10,000 Somali immigrants, by comparison, in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

Shabaab members, Ahmed Sheikh Doon (Left) and Mursal Abd-al-Nur Muhammad (right).

Almost without exception, the youths who slipped out of the US in November were described as good boys who were “good students [who] had no problems with the law.” One, another University of Minnesota student named Mohamud Ali Hassan, who was studying engineering, had once told his grandmother who raised him that he wanted to become a medical doctor.  He had emigrated to the US when he was eight years old, after his father was killed in the Somali civil. He was accompanied by 17-year-old Burhan Hassan, a straight-A student and senior at Roosevelt High School, who aspired to go to Harvard University. It was Hassan who had telephoned his worried mother from Somalia weeks after he snuck out of the US; nonchalantly telling her, “Mom, I’m in Somalia! Don’t worry about me; I’m OK.” Two other mothers received similar calls, that ended abruptly with the promise that mother and son would be united “in heaven.” Still another University of Minnesota student who also left for Somalia, 19-year-old Abdisilam Ali, was studying health care. And another, who was a high school senior but whose family has requested that his name not be publicized, was described by his uncle, as a normal, average teenager.  “He was a very nice guy,” Osman Ahmed, a Somali community activist said of his 17-year-old nephew.  “He was very clever.  Very shy.  Very cool.”

What all these young men had in common, too, is that they were raised by their mothers in single-parent households and all lived in a collection of six tall public housing buildings known as Riverside Plaza, called “The Towers” in the Twin Cities’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Another thing that the young Somali-Americans had in common was that they all worshipped at the same mosque near the Towers or another across the river in St. Paul. The Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center was the neighborhood mosque for these young men and is also the largest in the Twin Cities.  The men reportedly spent a lot of time in the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque, which their relatives and community activities reportedly accuse of “preaching intolerance to vulnerable young men.” Similar accusations have been leveled against the The Dawah Institute in St. Paul where, according to some of the parents, the young men also congregated.  The leader of the Dawah mosque denies any involvement in the disappearances, as does a lawyer speaking for the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center. Interesting, though, both the imam and the youth coordinator of the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center were placed on the Department of Homeland Security’s “no-fly list” last December and barred from leaving the US on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Meanwhile, suspicions on the part of parents and relatives persist.  “Up to now, no one knows who recruited them,” a teacher and head of the local Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center Abdisalem Adam explains.  “But they obviously did not wake up one morning and decide to go [to Somalia].” Indeed, no one can explain how the impoverished young men were able to pay for the $2,000 airline ticket with which to travel to Somalia. “My nephew, he doesn’t have money for a ticket,” one relative lamented.  “None of these kids do.” Omar Jamal, the executive director of Minneapolis’ Somali Justice Advocacy Center, agrees that just how the young men were enlisted and their journey funded remains a mystery.  “The community finds itself dumbfounded. . . they are really interested . . . to find who is doing the financing, who is doing the training and who is sending them to fight a war.”

Déjà vu All Over Again: A Terrorist Infrastructure Smoothes the Path to Radicalization And Then To Violence

Admittedly, the path to radicalization and Somalia remains unclear still.  But al-Shabaab, which the US Department designated a terrorist organization in February 2008, and fears that it has established a foot-hold in the US, have figured prominently in the speculation about why and how these young men traveled to Somalia. According to one account, al-Shabaab has escalated both its propaganda activities over the Internet and its international recruitment efforts in recent years.  This report states that a

United Nations investigation recently uncovered evidence that extremist groups in Somalia have ratcheted up their online recruiting and fundraising capabilities.  Among other things, the U.N. Monitoring Group, which is tasked with monitoring weapons flowing to Somalia, found that members of Al-Shabaab (“The Youth”), a Somali group designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, have ‘intensified their cyber activities’.

Significantly, the US government contends that al-Shabaab “depends on a flow of foreign fighters, including some recruited from the Somali community in the United States, to implement its goal of creating an Islamic state in Somalia.” Al-Shabaab’s stepped-up overseas recruitment, some analysts therefore believe, may be a reflection of the mounting casualties that have appreciably reduced the movement’s strength from its high water mark of some 3,000 to 7,000 fighters less than years ago. Given that al-Shabaab reportedly maintains close tied with al-Qaeda operatives in region, including at least two persons wanted in connect with the August 1998 suicide bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, such concerns have assumed greater urgency. Al-Qaeda’s long-time aim of establishing a terrorist infrastructure within the US only fuels that concern.  The danger, as Omar Jamal sees it, is at once as local as it is international.  “That kid that blew himself up in Somalia,” he observed, “could have done it here in Minneapolis.”

Fears over terrorist recruitment among Somali expatriate communities outside the US have also recently intensified.  The authorities in Australia and a number of European countries are now carrying out similar investigations. “What is happening in the United States and Europe as far as recruitment is something we must be mindful of,” a European intelligence official commented.  “And certainly, if we don’t try and stay ahead of it, it will come back to haunt us.”

Conclusion

At least a year before the 7 July 2005 suicide attacks on London transport, a British intelligence analysis had concluded that “Al-Qaeda is secretly recruiting . . . Muslims in British universities and colleges to carry out terrorist attacks. . . .” It was further reported that throughout the decade preceding the attacks, some 3,000 British Muslims had left the United Kingdom and then returned after having been trained by al-Qaeda.  The developments detailed in that analysis——which at the time failed to arouse sufficient alarm——shows clearly that the same threat may now exist in the US: orchestrated not by al-Qaeda, but by a Somali affiliate of al-Qaeda that, much as was occurring in Britain, has radicalized, manipulated and harnessed Somali expatriate youth in this country as part of an intended terrorist campaign.  In the past, many in the US could console themselves that America’s unparalleled upward socio-economic mobility, historically absorptive capacity of immigrants, and racially tolerant and assimilative culture provided a firewall that mitigated if not effectively countered the radicalization of Muslim youth that in recent years has plagued Britain, Spain, the Netherlands and other countries.

The dimensions of al-Shabaab’s alleged activities in the Twin Cities, its seemingly unimpeded radicalization of Somali youth, and the orchestration of their secretive departure from America for the war in Somalia should be regarded as fundamentally disquieting, if not outrightly alarming.  If the US is to avoid the situation of Britain——where radicalized British citizens have repeatedly plotted terrorist attacks and perpetrated terrorist violence——the case of the missing Somali-American young men must be taken very seriously indeed.  The possibility that a terrorist infrastructure has been established in the US would have far-ranging consequences for American security.  In this respect, the threat bulletins issued just prior to President Obama’s inauguration alluded to a chilling potentiality: the possibility of these young men, having been trained in the means and methods of terrorism in Somalia, returning to the US using their American passports to wreck violence here much as occurred in Britain.