More than 67 people have died at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall this past week in an attack attributed to a terrorist group that most Americans had never heard of, despite the fact that authorities have confirmed that several Americans, possibly from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, were among the attackers. Although al-Shabab is a radical Islamist terrorist group whose aim is to impose a strict interpretation of Sharia law on Somalia, it poses a legitimate threat to the United States.
Al-Shabab is both a symptom of Somalia’s state failures— factionalized elites, human-rights violations, and human flight—and a cause. Until two years ago, the group controlled Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu; and until a year ago, it controlled the vital port of Kismayo as well. In April 2013, in his yearly worldwide threat assessment, the Director of National Intelligence described al-Shabab as “largely in retreat.” Many consider the most recent attack on an unprotected shopping mall a sign of the group’s desperation.
In the rural areas it still controls, al-Shabab’s strict interpretation of Sharia law includes amputating the hands of thieves and stoning to death women accused of adultery. Its extreme violence against Somali Muslims has hurt its image, drawing criticism even from Osama bin Laden, according to documents discovered at bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. But al-Shabab’s new leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, is determined to make the organization more international. In February 2012, Godane pledged allegiance to the current leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a joint video recording, and this formal linkage to al Qaeda may make the group more attractive to Westerners determined to participate in the global jihad.
Of course, most Somali Americans are horrified by al-Shabab. On Monday, at a Minneapolis mosque, leaders representing about 20 Islamic organizations condemned the attack. ”The perpetrators of this barbaric act do not share our Islamic values,” said Abdi Salam Adam of the Islamic Civil Society of America. A group of some 160 Somali scholars issued a fatwa against the Shabab on September 12, condemning the Shabab’s violence. And yet, a very small percentage of the nearly 100,000 Somali refugees to America have traveled to Somalia to join the group.
After US-backed Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in 2006, a small number of Somali American boys disappeared from their homes in Minneapolis to join al-Shabab. At the time they joined the group, al-Shabab was not even on the US list of foreign-terrorist organizations, but once it became clear where these missing boys had gone, and why, the US government prohibited Americans from joining or supporting the group. Even so, the group has continued to recruit Americans (including some who were not of Somali origin). They have done this by deploying recruiters to cities where Somali-Americans live, and also via the Internet. Internet recruitment to al-Shabab is extraordinarily sophisticated, and includes “jihad rap” produced by artists deliberately seeking to attract Western youth, including converts to Islam.
In August of this year, a video was released on YouTube, exhorting Americans to join the jihad in Somalia. In the video, a seemingly relaxed Troy Kastigar (also known as Abdirahman) is seen saying, “If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here – this is the real Disneyland…. You need to come here and join us, and take pleasure in this fun.” What the video doesn’t say is that Kastigar, a Minnesotan convert to Islam who was not Somali, reportedly left for Somalia in November 2008 and was killed there in 2009.
Another American convert, Omar Hammami, also known as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki or “the American,” was reportedly killed a few weeks ago. Hammami, famous for his “jihad rap” recruitment videos, turned against al-Shabab, allegedly as a result of its leaders living extravagant lifestyles, based on the taxes they collected from ordinary Somalis and for sidelining foreign recruits. Hammami was quite active on Twitter and frequently tweeted with a well-known American counter-terrorism scholar, J.M. Berger.
Anders Folk, who was involved in the prosecution of several al-Shabab members as Assistant US Attorney for the District of Minnesota, says that up to 60 Americans and Canadians have been identified as having traveled abroad to fight on behalf of al-Shabab. Fifteen Americans have died, three of them in suicide bombings. The more significant worry, however, is the possibility that some Western recruits may have remained here at home, or managed to travel to Somalia without officials discovering their identities.
Dr. Heidi Ellis, a psychologist at Boston’s Children’s Hospital who has been working with Somali immigrant youth for many years, believes that the extreme trauma experienced by refugee youth or their parents plays a role in some youths’ joining anti-social groups including gangs. Unfortunately, the Somali refugees arrived and settled in the West at a time when prejudice against Muslims was particularly high, and when a global jihadi movement had already begun doing its best to recruit disaffected Muslim youth. Somali youth face prejudice, not only from Americans who are afraid of Muslims, but also from African Americans.
Two years ago, I spoke with a former member of al-Shabab, who had by then returned to Toronto. Like many Somali immigrants, he had a history of trauma. At the time I spoke with him he was no longer a member of the organization. After joining the group, Mohamed was sent to the Salahedin training camp, located in an old Italian graveyard. He said that he and his fellow recruits received weapons training during the day, and ideological training in the evenings. He quit the organization when he realized its goals were more Islamist than nationalist, and returned to Canada. But he was not happy in Canada. He had completed college, and was livid that he had been unable to find a job other than as a security guard. He viewed the “system,” which he blamed for his underemployment, as entirely unfair.
I also spoke with a former gang member in Minneapolis who was increasingly drawn to the idea of jihad. He, too, had experienced life-threatening trauma in Somalia as well as in the refugee camps in Kenya. As a young child, he witnessed his mother’s murder. Later, he witnessed the murder of the sister who was functioning as his mother. He was not yet an American citizen. He had been a member of a gang, and because he had committed a felony, it was unclear whether he would ever be able to become a citizen, he told me. He had found refuge at a local mosque, whose imam a number of Somali Americans described to me as “radical.”
So even though al-Shabab’s sights have been focused on the near enemy – the Somali government – their recruitment efforts pose a danger Americans. Because of the possibility that battle-hardened recruits, holding American passports, could eventually return, such recruitment must be taken seriously. “This is a cadre of young men, more or less fluent in American culture, who are getting indoctrinated in the belief that it is okay to attack people who disagree with you,” Anders Folk told me. That belief system alone poses a threat to the United States, he says.
Al-Shabab has threatened to attack the United States on a number of occasions. The FBI has already dispatched agents to investigate the wreckage at the shopping mall hoping to gather any information that could prevent such an attack from happening on American soil. The bottom line is this: Autocracies are much better at stopping terrorism within their borders than are democracies.