Al-Shabaab Recruiting in the West
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Madeleine Gruen and Sara Westfall
Nov. 4, 2009
Beginning in late 2007, dozens of young men of Somali descent disappeared from diaspora communities in the West, returning to Somalia to take up arms or to train in al-Shabaab camps. Islamists of non-Somali descent have also traveled there to join up with al-Shabaab. This article examines the phenomenon of Westerners disappearing to Somalia, including the apparent reasons that they have been drawn to the conflict. It also examines what is known-and what is not known-about Shabaab’s recruiting networks in the West.
The Somali Diaspora
The global Somali diaspora is unique among immigrant communities. An estimated 14% of Somalia’s population lives abroad. Attempting to put that figure into perspective, Hassan Sheikh and Sally Healy note in a report for the U.N. Development Programme that this would be the equivalent of the U.S. losing 42 million people.1 “Perhaps the closest historical parallel,” they write, “is that of the Great Irish Famine in the mid-19th century that resulted in the Irish population dropping from over 8 million to less than 6 million within a decade.”2
Most Somalis who left their home country went to neighboring states or the Persian Gulf. However, hundreds of thousands moved to Western countries. Many Somalis view their current host nations as temporary safe havens, and intend to return to Somalia when it stabilizes. This outlook has contributed to lower levels of integration compared to other immigrant communities. Andrew Liepman, deputy director of intelligence at the U.S.’s National Counterterrorism Center, said in Senate testimony that the American Somali community’s “relative linguistic isolation and the sudden adjustment to American society many refugees faced has reinforced, in some areas, their greater insularity compared to other, more integrated Muslim immigrant communities, and has aggravated the challenges of assimilation for their children.”3
Lack of integration is reflected in the economic challenges that the diaspora faces. For example, the Somali community “suffers the highest unemployment rate among East African diaspora communities in the United States, and experience[s] significantly higher poverty rates and the lowest rate of college graduation.”4 And in Australia, 30.8% of Somalis aged 15 and older are unemployed, compared to 5.2% unemployment for Australians as a whole.5
These conditions may help al-Shabaab recruiters find a niche within the diaspora communities.
The Missing Westerners
A number of Western countries with large Somali populations have seen people disappear to Somalia. In the United States, this phenomenon has been primarily associated with the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where 70,000 Somalis reside. However, there are credible reports of disappearances in other American cities with large Somali populations, and federal investigations of the disappearances are “active in Seattle; Boston; San Diego; Columbus, Ohio; and Portland, Maine.”6 While most people who disappeared in this manner are of Somali descent, a number of non- Somalis-such as Daniel Maldonado, Ruben Shumpert, and Troy Kastigar-have also gone to Somalia to connect with jihadis.
International reporting shows that in addition to the cases in the U.S., disappearances have occurred in other countries with large diaspora communities. The U.K. has the largest Somali population in Europe, around 250,000. The Times of London reports that British security services believe that “[d]ozens of Islamic extremists have returned to Britain from terror training camps in Somalia.”7 Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College, London, told a British news outlet: “The numbers I hear (going from Britain to Somalia) are 50, 60 or 70, but in reality we don’t know.”8
Sweden’s security service SAPO believes that about 20 people have left Sweden to join al-Shabaab.9 This includes people of various ethnicities, not just Somalis. Canadian government sources have told the press that 20 to 30 Canadians have joined al-Shabaab, a development that the country’s public safety minister has said “alarmed” him.10 And “[w]hile Somali community leaders in Australia say that between 10 and 20 Somali refugees have returned to their homeland to join the fight, Australian authorities have estimated the figure may be double that.”11
Factors Drawing Young Men to Somalia
Multiple factors have been cited by analysts as drawing young men living in the West to join violent Islamist movements in Somalia. The backdrop to this is the Somali diaspora’s lack of integration relative to other immigrant communities, which seemingly contributes to recruitment through disaffection and also the development of a mythologized sense of homeland.
There is a political dimension to the support for al-Shabaab. In March 2009 Senate testimony, Ken Menkhaus noted that U.S. policies during and after Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia “were seen as silent on the extraordinary human costs, and Somalis took the silence to imply consent. As a result, fierce levels of anti-Americanism took root among many Somalis at home and abroad.”12 The response to Ethiopia’s invasion manifested in “a complex cocktail of nationalist, Islamist, anti-Ethiopian, anti-Western, anti-foreigner sentiments.” Shabaab thrived on this, as it “was able to conflate its jihadist rhetoric with Somali nationalism and anti-Ethiopianism to win both passive and active support from many Somalis.” When Shabaab broke from the old Islamic Courts leadership in 2007 and proclaimed itself the leader of the resistance to Ethiopian occupation, many Somalis-even those averse to Shabaab’s extreme Islamist ideology-thought that Shabaab’s “use of armed resistance to the Ethiopian occupation was entirely justified, and tended to view the group first and foremost as a liberation movement.”
There is clearly also a religious dimension to the support for Somalia’s Islamists. American convert Daniel Maldonado told U.S. authorities that when he decided to travel to Somalia, it was to fight jihad-something he described in religious terms as “raising the word of Allah, uppermost, by speaking and fighting against all those who are against the Islamic State.”13 His further statements to authorities underscore this point:
MALDONADO stated that he had chosen to fight in Somalia because he believed that he was fighting for a legitimate Islamic government. He said, “I would be fighting the Somali militia, and that turned into fighting the Ethiopians, and if the Americans came, I would fight them too.” MALDONADO further stated that he believed he would kill other Muslims, in an attack, if they were apostates and not faithful Muslims.14
Another factor helping to generate sympathy for Shabaab and other Somali Islamist groups is the sophistication of their media operations. In particular the videos of Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, a.k.a. Omar Hammami, combined technical proficiency with a hip hop-sounding nasheed in a manner that is clearly designed to “reach out to lost Western youth seeking meaning and direction.”15
Al-Shabaab’s Recruiting Networks
Investigators in the West are still struggling to develop a clear picture of al-Shabaab’s recruiting networks. One significant thread that runs through a number of cases is the presence of recruiters for the group.
The recruitment factor could be seen in the case of two ethnic Somalis who were indicted together in the District of Minnesota in July 2009. 25- year-old Abdifatah Yusuf Isse pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists based on his travel to Somalia to train with Shabaab. Omar Jamal, director of Minneapolis’s Somali Justice Advocacy Center and an outspoken critic of Shabaab’s efforts in the area, told the media that recruiters had approached Isse at the Abubakar as-Saddique mosque, the Twin Cities’ largest Somali mosque.16 This account was corroborated by Isse’s attorney Paul Engh, who filed a motion to amend the conditions of Isse’s detention that speaks of how “[r]ecruiting young men” to serve as suicide bombers “is the definition of evil.” His filing continued: “And this recruitment happened at a place of worship.”
Similarly, when 26-year-old Salah Osman Ahmed pleaded guilty to the same charges, he spoke elliptically of the recruiters that helped draw him to Somalia, mentioning “secret meetings” beginning in October 2007 with people he would only describe as “guys.”17
The Associated Press provides an account of one possible recruiter in the Minneapolis area, Zakaria Maruf:
Stephen Smith, an attorney who represents several young Somalis questioned by authorities, said his clients describe Maruf as someone with a bravado that appealed to younger men he met on the basketball court or at mosques. Smith said one of his 18-year-old clients got a phone call from Maruf, in Somalia, asking him to join the fight. Maruf and the teenager also exchanged e-mails and had a brief conversation in a chat room, Smith said. Smith said the teen didn’t go but felt uncomfortable turning down someone he looked up to. Maruf’s whereabouts aren’t known. Some family members say they believe he was killed in Somalia [in July 2009], but federal officials could not confirm that.18
In other U.S.-based terrorism cases where recruiters played a prominent role, the recruiters often enjoyed little support from the mosques they frequented, or even had a hostile relationship with mosque leadership. In the Lackawanna Six case, for example, recruiter Kamel Derwish worked to make congregation members see him as a “force for good” who led young men who would previously get into trouble toward “a straighter path.”19 But when he brought Juma al-Dosari to address the Islamic Center in Lackawanna as a guest lecturer, and al-Dosari used the opportunity to speak of the need for jihad, mosque leaders reprimanded al-Dosari. “They asked him to leave the mosque,” writes Dina Temple-Raston. “He was not welcome to preach there again.”20 A more extreme example can be seen in the case of Adam Gadahn. His mentors Hisham Diab and Khalil Deek created such an atmosphere of hostility toward the leadership of the Islamic Society of Orange County that Gadahn punched mosque president Haitham Bundakji in the face after Bundakji mildly reprimanded him for showing insufficient respect for the mosque’s imam.21
But in the Shabaab recruitment cases, there have been allegations of mosque complicity. Much of these allegations have focused on the Abubakar as-Saddique mosque, where Abdifatah Yusuf Isse was allegedly recruited. Beyond that, Shirwa Ahmed-the first successful American suicide bomber-had attended that mosque, as did a number of the young men who went missing.
Osman Ahmed, whose nephew Burhan Hassan was killed in Mogadishu in June 2009 after going missing from the Twin Cities area, pointed his finger at the Abubakar as-Saddique mosque in Senate testimony.22 He claimed that the mosque’s management painted family members who spoke out about the disappearances as “bad people.” He continued:
We have been threatened for just speaking out. Some members of Abu-Bakr Al-Saddique mosque told us that if we talk about the issue, the Muslim center will be destroyed and Islamic communities will be wiped out. They tell parents that if they report their missing kid to the FBI that FBI will send the parents to Guantanamo Jail. And this message has been very effective tool to silence parents and the community…. Public threats were issued to us at Abu-Bakar Assidique for simply speaking with CNN and Newsweek.23
In addition to Ahmed’s allegations about the “conspiracy of silence” atmosphere enforced by the leadership of the Abubakar as-Saddique mosque, one Minneapolis area man told the press about a militant lecture he heard at the Imam Shafii mosque. In November 2008, Yusuf Shaba and his sons attended a lecture by a speaker who had fought in Somalia. “He talked about the need for jihad,” Shaba told Newsweek. “He got very emotional.”24
Much remains unknown about al-Shabaab recruitment in the United States. There are many unclear aspects of the role that recruiters have played in luring young men to Somalia. It is also unclear how active institutions like the Abubakar as-Saddique mosque or Imam Shafii mosque have been in fostering radicalization. It is also clear that multiple factors-and not just religious extremism-have created sympathy for Shabaab within the Somali diaspora.
As the investigation into al-Shabaab recruitment in the United States continues, more will become known-both publicly and also by the law enforcement community-about the contours of the group’s efforts. And better understanding these recruiting networks, both in the U.S. and abroad, will be an important part of combating the steady flow of young men to Shabaab’s camps.
1Hassan Sheikh & Sally Healy, Somalia’s Missing Million: The Somali Diaspora and Its Role in Development (United Nations Development Programme report, Mar. 2009), p. 7. return
3Andrew Liepman, “Violent Islamist Extremism: Al-Shabaab Recruitment in America,” testimony before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mar. 11, 2009, p. 2. return
5Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, “Community Information Summary: Somalia- Born,” accessed Nov. 2, 2009. return
6Spencer S. Hsu & Carrie Johnson, “Somali Americans Recruited by Extremists,” Washington Post, Mar. 11, 2009. return
7Jonathan Rugman, “Somali Radicals ‘Importing Terror to UK’ Say Intelligence Analysts,” Times (London), Feb. 16, 2009. return
9“Swedes Killed Fighting in Somalia,” The Local (Sweden), May 29, 2009. return
10Stewart Bell, “Van Loan ‘Alarmed’ by Terror Cells,” National Post (Canada), Mar. 28, 2009. return
11Sally Neighbour, “Young Man was Prime Target for Militant Recruiters,” The Australian, Aug. 5, 2009. return
12Ken Menkhaus, “Violent Islamic Extremism: Al-Shabaab Recruitment in America,” testimony before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mar. 11, 2009, p. 4. return
13Jeremiah A. George, Criminal Complaint, United States v. Maldonado, No. H-07-125M (S.D. Tex., Feb. 13, 2007), 12. return
15Raffaello Pantucci, Understanding the al-Shabaab Networks (Australian Strategic Policy Institute Policy Analysis No. 49, Oct. 13, 2009), p. 3. For more on Hammami’s background, see Mike Levine, “Al Qaeda-Linked American Terrorist Unveiled, as Charges Await Him in U.S.,” Fox News, Sept. 4, 2009. return
16Mike Carter & Ian Ith, “Somali-Born Roosevelt Grad Pleads Guilty to Terror Acts,” Seattle Times, July 16, 2009. return
17James Walsh, “Second Somali Terrorism Suspect Pleads guilty,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), July 28, 2009. return
18 “Somali Militants Lure Americans for Recruitment,” Associated Press, Aug. 25, 2009. return
19Dina Temple-Raston, The Jihad Next Door: The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in the Age of Terror (New York: Public Affairs/Perseus), p. 86. return
20Ibid., p. 87. return
21Raffi Khatchadourian, “Azzam the American,” New Yorker, Jan. 22, 2007.return
22Osman Ahmed, “Al Shabaab Recruitment in America,” testimony before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mar. 8, 2009. return
23Ibid., p. 5. return
24Dan Ephron & Mark Hosenball, “Recruited for Jihad?,” Newsweek, Jan. 24, 2009. return
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