By CNN Terrorism Analyst Paul Cruickshank
Not so long ago Abdisalam Ali was a promising student studying medicine at the University of Minnesota. Last Saturday he blew himself up in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. It was the end of a journey into jihad that had begun for Ali as a teenager, and another sign of the appeal of Al Shabaab, the militant Islamic group in Somalia, to young ethnic Somalis overseas.
Ali had come to the United States with his family as a young refugee and lived for a while in Seattle before moving to Minneapolis. But soon after graduating from High School, Ali and several other young men left their homes and families for an uncertain future on the frontlines of an endless war.
News of his death will not surprise many in the Somali American community. According to U.S. counter-terrorism investigators, Ali was the fourth American suicide bomber in Somalia in the last three years, and one of at least sixteen Americans killed while fighting with Al Shabaab – far more than have died fighting for any other foreign terrorist group. Many of the others killed were also from the Minneapolis area – home to some 60,000 Somalis, the biggest community outside East Africa.
It is a trend that has U.S. counter-terrorism officials increasingly concerned because they fear that factions of Al Shabaab closely aligned with al Qaeda may one day try to use such recruits to launch a terrorist attack on American soil. Yet what alarmed officials over the weekend even more than the attack itself, was a message that Ali recorded before it.
“My brothers and sisters, do Jihad in America, do Jihad in Canada, do Jihad in England [and] anywhere in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in China, in Australia – anywhere you find kuffar [infidels]. Fight them and be firm against them,” Ali said in English in a martyrdom tape posted Sunday on a website associated with Al Shabaab.
Somalia analysts point out that if Al Shabaab had been more intent on targeting the United States, it would not have sent so many potentially valuable American recruits to die on the battlefield at home. But the equation may be changing, as Al Shabaab is forced on the defensive by the Kenyan incursion into southern Somalia, where it is strongest, and is being driven by African Union forces to the outskirts of the capital it used to control. The U.S. is deploying surveillance drones in the region to better track Al Shabaab – and it may lash out in retaliation.
“I wouldn’t go so far to call it a game changer, but it’s a very concerning development nonetheless – their backs are against the wall at the moment in Somalia and it’s possible they may not care so much anymore about the repercussions,” a U.S. counter-terrorism investigator told CNN.
Abdisalam Ali, the Somali-American suicide bomber, made clear his anger over the multi-pronged offensives against Al Shabaab. “If you were to be here, you would be shocked. The Muslims are getting bombed every day, they're getting injured every day, they’re being killed every day,” he stated in his martyrdom tape, “this is because of the infidels.”
Despite the Obama administration’s statements to the contrary, Shabaab experts say that many of the group’s commanders likely believe the U.S. is orchestrating the Kenyan military operation, and may seek revenge accordingly.
Somalia analysts believe the group has always weighed up the costs and benefits of terrorist attacks against the West, out of concern that its fundraising and recruitment networks might be disrupted, as well as the flow of remittances from the West. To date investigators have only directly linked Al Shabaab to one terrorist plot in the West – the January 1, 2010 failed attempt to kill Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, a targeted assassination which the group may have calculated was worth carrying out to boost its prestige, according to experts on the group.
U.S. counter-terrorism officials are trying to establish whether Al Shabaab has ambitions to bring jihad to the U.S. homeland. On at least one occasion there was chatter that such a plot was in the works, according to officials. In the lead up to President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009 the FBI and DHS issued a joint threat advisory about unconfirmed intelligence that individuals associated with al Shabaab might try to travel to the United States to launch an attack to coincide with the event.
“If you ask me what keeps me awake at night, it is the thought of an American passport-holding person who transits through a training camp in Somalia and gets some skill and then finds their way back into the United States to attack Americans here in our homeland. That's mission failure for us. So that's what we've got to remain ever vigilant for,” General Carter Ham, the head of the United States Africa Command said earlier this month.
According to U.S. counter-terrorism officials, Al Shabaab is in two respects better placed to launch an attack on U.S. soil than any other al Qaeda affiliate.
Firstly Al Shabaab currently has more American recruits in its ranks than any other al Qaeda affiliated group. In July, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King stated that "Al-Shabaab now has more capability than ever to strike the U.S. homeland," adding that "as many as two dozen Muslim-Americans with Al-Shabaab – who in many cases were trained by top al Qaeda leaders – remain unaccounted for." According to a majority report by King’s committee more than forty Americans are known to have joined Al Shabaab in the last half decade, two dozen of which travelled from the Minneapolis area.
Their number includes Alabama native Omar Hammami who has has risen up the al Shabaab hierarchy, recently vowed revenge for the death of bin Laden, and may now be pivoting to fill American cleric Anwar al Awlaki’s shoes as the pre-eminent English-speaking Jihadist propogandist, according to U.S. counter-terrorism officials.
But it is the militants they don’t know about which most worry U.S. counter-terrorism agencies. The large annual travel flows between the United States and Somalia and chaotic conditions inside Somalia make it hard for U.S. intelligence agencies to identify and track those embarking on Jihad.
U.S. counter-terrorism officials say there is no clear evidence that Al Shabaab’s Western recruits have received instruction in making explosive devices out of readily-available chemicals – the training that al Qaeda has provided Western militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan, but are worried that this may change.
“In some terrorist training camps, AQ-affiliated foreign fighters led the training and indoctrination of the recruits," the U.S. State Department warned in an August 2011 report on terrorist trends in Somalia in 2010.
Secondly unlike any other al Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabaab has operatives directly working on U.S. soil to recruit young Somali-Americans.
“Shabaab recruiters have used mosques as cover and as safe places to meet to discuss recruitment and radicalization efforts to send fighters to join a foreign terrorist group, as well as to recruit and raise money to support Shabaab,” the July House Majority report stated.
According to U.S. counter-terrorism officials, Al Shabaab recruiters, as well as being active in Minneapolis, are now also operating in Boston, Seattle, Washington DC, San Diego and several other American cities with sizeable Somali communities.
Recent U.S. cases have shed light on Al Shabaab’s recruitment networks in the United States. In July, Omar Abdi Mohamed, 26, pleaded guilty to running a recruiting network for Al Shabaab in Minneapolis. According to court documents, in the fall of 2007 Mohamed began mobilizing groups of young Somalis to fight with Al Shabaab, secretly meeting with them in mosques and restaurants. The recruiting network raised funds to send the men to Somalia and assisted with logistics for the trip. Their approach could not have been more hands-on.
“They challenged members of the conspiracy who had planned to travel, questioning their commitment, dedication, and knowledge of both the religion and events in Somalia, before ultimately assisting them with the trip,” according to U.S. authorities. One of the recruits dispatched to Somalia was Shirwa Ahmed, a 27 year old from Minneapolis who carried out a suicide bombing in northern Somalia in October 2008, the first American citizen ever to carry out such an attack.
The radicalism of some Somali-American youngsters was dramatically demonstrated in November 2010 when Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, was arrested after attempting to blow up a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon with a fake bomb given to him by FBI undercover agents. According to U.S. authorites Mohamud was radicalized by Jihadist websites and was not directly connected to any Jihadist group. He has pleaded not guilty.
Counter-terrorism officials are worried that Americans are being radicalized by Al Shabaab’s online propoganda output, much of which is in English and is amongst the most sophisticated and savvy of any Jihadist group.
Stevan Weine, a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois in Chicago who has conducted extensive field research in the Somali community in Minneapolis, says not enough is being done to confront radicalization in the area at the community, local, or federal level.
“There continue to be voices of extremism on the internet and in the community that anybody can have access to, and no strong counter-narrative has really yet emerged. What really concerns me is that so many young people have been touched by this message, some likely pretty far along in the process of being prepared for mobilization to go to fight in Somalia,” he told CNN.
According to Weine in many ways the experience of Somalis in Minneapolis more closely resembles that of North African immigrants living in the suburbs of Paris or British-Pakistanis living in the outer neighborhoods of London than the experience of the mostly upwardly mobile American Muslim community. “The lack of integration of many Somalis in Minneapolis, poor living conditions, the fact that 60% live below the poverty line, and feelings of lack of purpose and discrimination have all created a fertile climate for al Shabaab’s recruiters, which the recent economic downturn has only aggravated,” Weine told CNN.
One small sign of progress he says is that departure of so many youngsters to Somalia has made parents more aware of the presence of Al Shabaab recruiters in the community.
All the Somalis that left from Minnesota to fight in Somalia he says are part of a “Generation 1.5” that “were born in a war-torn country, raised in refugee camps in Kenya, and then in ghettoized U.S. communities.” Experts believe it is this trajectory that has made such youngsters so uniquely vulnerable to a recruiting message that promises meaning, purpose, and adventure.
Yet support for Al Shabaab Weine says is running significantly lower in the Somali community in Minneapolis than several years ago because many perceive the group to have brought only chaos and violence to Somalia. Ken Menkhaus, a Professor at Davidson College and the author of "Somalia: StateCollapse and the Threat of Terrorism,” says the group has hemorrhaged support amongst the U.S. Somali community because they have been put off by its brutal imposition of Taliban-like rules on the local population, and have been angered by its refusal to let in Western aid agencies despite acute famine conditions in many parts of the country.
But counter-terrorism officials say there remains a significant fringe of ideological extremists in Minneapolis and other cities that enthusiastically support Al Shabaab.
“It’s hard to reach those people,” Weine told CNN.