Experts and Somali community leaders yesterday told Congress that a suicide attack carried out by a Somali-American youth in Somalia could mean that a terror group based there is recruiting in the United States, raising the specter of homegrown terrorism.
Last October, Minneapolis resident Shirwa Ahmed carried out a suicide bomb attack in Somalia. He is believed to be the first American suicide bomber ever.
“We are concerned that if Somali-American youth can be motivated to engage in such activities overseas, Ahmed’s fellow travelers could return to the U.S. and engage in terrorist activities here,” Andrew Liepman, deputy director of intelligence for the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), told the Senate Homeland Security Committee yesterday.
In recent years a number of Somali-American youths and American converts to Islam have traveled to Somalia to fight with the al Shabaab militia. The Islamist insurgent group has used terror and guerilla tactics to fight the the country's weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Ethiopian forces, according to intelligence officials.
In 2006, Ethiopia, a predominantly Christian country, invaded Somalia and routed its Islamist Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government, of which al Shabaab was part. When the ICU fell, al Shabaab mounted a resistance campaign against the Ethiopian forces until they withdrew from the country in January.
Because of al Shabaab’s links to al Qaeda, the United States provided resources to Ethiopia to fight the Islamist insurgency, which they listed as a terrorist organization in February 2008.
The 150,000 to 200,000 Somalis that currently reside in the United States fled Somalia’s collapse into a failed state.
Professor Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College told lawmakers that Somalia’s 9 million people, “almost all of whom are Muslims, have endured 19 years of complete state collapse, periods of civil war, chronic insecurity, lawlessness and warlordism, massive displacement, the destruction of major cities, disruption of already fragile livelihoods, and recurring humanitarian crises, including the 1991-92 famine in which 250,000 people died.”
Most of the U.S. Somali immigrant population fled after the famine struck and settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Colombus, Ohio; Seattle, Washington; and San Diego, California.
While most of the United States' Muslim population is assimilated and middle-class, the Somali community resembles the more isolated Muslim populations in Europe. Thus intelligence officials worry that Somali immigrants are more prone to radicalization and recruitment.
“Compared to most Muslim immigrants to the U.S., Somalis received less language and cultural training and education prior to migration,” said Liepman. This has led to a more insular and alienated culture than other Muslim-American communities.
Citing the most recent census, Liepman said “the Somali-American population suffers the highest unemployment rate among East African diaspora communities in the United States, and experience significantly higher poverty rates and the lowest rate of graduation.”
Further, Abdirahman Mukhtar, a youth program manager in Minneapolis, said that most Somali youth suffer from an identity crisis. Their parents want them to keep their Somali culture while American schools want assimilation. Torn between two worlds, many begin to make poor choices by joining gangs or abusing drugs.
Liepman believes that others, like Shirwa, may instead embrace radical Islam. Mukhtar, who went to high school with Shirwa, said he has heard rumors of terrorist recruiters operating in Minneapolis but has never met one.
Others say recruiters are present.
Osman Ahmed, a Somali community leader in Minneapolis, alleged many of the young man that fled to Somalia were indoctrinated at the city's Abu-Bakar As-Saddique mosque.
Liepmansaid he wanted “to emphasize that we do not believe we are witnessing any form of community-wide radicalization among Somali-Americans.”
The most important task for federal, state, and local government is to reach out to the Somali-American community and earn its trust.
Philip Mudd, associate executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, said the agency has crafted extensive outreach programs to Muslim communities and have also initiated a pilot program in Minneapolis to help FBI field offices and the Somali community deal with young men leaving to fight in their homeland.
The DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has also organized roundtable discussions to engage Muslim community leaders, Liepman said.
Federal, state, and local law enforcement must consider cultural and historical differences when working with Somali-American communities, said Menkhaus. Many Somali immigrants are suspicious of law enforcement after suffering at the hands of their country’s security forces.
“Sustained police programs to socialize Somali-American communities and reshape their perception of the state and the law are essential if this is to be overcome,” he said.
But community outreach and engagement cannot be limited to security concerns if Somali-Americans are to assimilate into American culture, Mukhtar said. When he asked a group of Somali-American youths ranging in age from 10 and 20 what their greatest challenge was, half answered police harassment.
Police and the community at large must show Somalis that they care about tackling racial and religious discrimination, poor education, and the youth identity crisis, among other social problems, Mukhtar said. When that occurs, “We can bridge cultural knowledge and understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities through open dialogue."