As the United States turns its attention to security threats abroad, the disturbing trend of extremism in America’s Somali communities is a reminder that there are also real and present dangers at home.
A growing body of evidence suggests that Somali communities in the Unites States have become fertile ground for terrorist groups to recruit and implant operatives. On November 23, the federal government announced eight more indictments of Somali-Americans in Minnesota on charges of recruiting members of their community to join the al-Shabaab terrorist organization in Somalia. This brings to 14 the number of Somalis from Minnesota who have been indicted for helping the Al-Qaeda-linked group.
Of the eight indicted, only one has been arrested; the rest are currently outside of the United States. Four of those previously arrested have pled guilty and two have been released while they wait to be tried. The government believes that about 20 Somali-Americans have left the state to join al-Shabaab’s jihad in Somalia, at least three of whom have died since departing. One, Shirwa Ahmed, died when he became the first American suicide bomber.
Several of those indicted attended the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in St. Paul, as did many of those who were recruited. The mosque released a statement in March saying that “Abubakar Center didn’t recruit, finance, or otherwise facilitate in any way, shape, or form the travel of those youth.”
Somali gangs are also becoming an issue in Minnesota. Shukri Adan, a former Somali community organizer, said in 2007 that there 400-500 members of his community were involved in gangs. The Associated Press reported in July that
“Despite anger and despair over the killings in Minnesota’s Somali community—the nation’s largest—police and prosecutors have struggled to catch and try the killers. Few witnesses have stepped forward because of a fear of reprisal and deep-rooted distrust of authority.”
The concern over extremist elements in the Somali community is not limited to Minnesota. The FBI is worried about the community of 6,000 living in the Washington D.C. area. The Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, which was attended by two of the 9/11 hijackers and the Fort Hood shooter, has many Somali attendees. The former imam of the mosque has acted as an Al-Qaeda recruiter and may be part of the group’s efforts to help al-Shabaab. The FBI’s investigation into disappearing Somalis who may have joined the terrorist group includes Seattle, Columbus, Cicinnati, Boston and San Diego.
Brian Moseley, a reporter for the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, won an award for documenting of the inability of Somali immigrants in Shelbyville, Tennessee, to assimilate, causing a culture clash in the town. Moseley described how law enforcement and fire department personnel had described to him how the immigrants were hostile to them, and how police officers were often reluctant to patrol areas where they live when it is dark. I also broke a story in May about how counter-terrorism expert Dave Gaubatz and his researchers had found extremist material at a mostly Somali mosque in Nashville. Gaubatz and his team collected evidence of child abuse and accused the Department of Child Services of failing to act.
A similar clash was caught on tape when on June 27, 2009 a video was uploaded to YouTube showing about 15 Somali youth harassing and throwing rocks at a homosexual man leaving the Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis.
Terrorism researcher Patrick Poole wrote in November 2007 that an organization tied to radical Islamic militants in Somalia was holding conferences in Falls Church and Minneapolis, where those attending were instructed on how to send money overseas without being detected. Poole wrote:
“…there exists an active recruiting and transportation network in the U.S., including Minneapolis, for Somali-run terrorist training camps, many of which have recently reopened. In many instances, these same Somali leaders purporting ignorance and innocence for the local media are not only aware of these recruiting operations, but have actively participated in them."
Al-Shabaab’s ranks have been swelled by the addition of non-Somalis. The president of Somalia’s government has said that up to 1,100 foreign terrorists have joined the group, which now is operating training camps in the East African country. The terrorist group has a wide international network and its training of foreign operatives means it has sympathizers willing to act in the West.
One Somali-American from Minneapolis was arrested in November in the Netherlands for financing the transportation of American recruits to Somalia. Up to five Somalis living in Canada disappeared in November as well and are believed to have traveled together to their homeland via Kenya. Previously, a Toronto-based businessman was killed in 2008 after he joined Somali terrorists fighting Ethiopian troops who had invaded the country to stop extremists from coming to power. British intelligence has said that dozens of people have gone to Somalia and received terrorist training and returned to the United Kingdom.
Al-Shabaab has taken large control over large swaths of territory, including parts of Mogadishu, potentially allowed Al-Qaeda to replicate the safe harbor and reverse some of its most major losses since the war in Afghanistan began. Already, Somalia is being used as a base to export terrorism. Saudi Arabia has captured Somalis that were helping the extremist Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and were planning attacks in the Kingdom.
Of course, not all Somalis are sympathizers with extremism. There has been outrage in the Somali community over these developments. On June 11, Somali-Americans in Minneapolis protested the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which they accused of encouraging members of their community not to cooperate with the government’s investigation. The Terror-Free Somalia Foundation, which closely tracks events related to al-Shabaab, is led by Abdurahman Warsame, a Somali-American activist.
The failure to integrate these Somali immigrants into American society is causing strife and has proved to be an asset to al-Shabaab. The majority of the immigrants oppose such extremism. But it doesn’t take many sympathizers to create a network of support for terrorists. The current focus of al-Shabaab is Somalia, but when the day comes that they change their focus to the U.S., they will have American recruits ready for action.