The state of Minnesota has become the focal point for the U.S. export of Islamic fighters to Africa. Nearly two dozen young Somali men have disappeared from the state and joined rebels fighting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Ethiopian forces that are supporting that government. While there appear to be varying motives for their joining in the civil war in Somalia, all those who leave the United States to take up arms in Somalia are considered in league with terrorism.
Like any location in the United States, Somalis were attracted because others from their homeland emigrated there, and once a critical mass was achieved, Minnesota became the place to be for Somalis in America. As of the most recent census in 2007, there were 35,000 Somalis in Minnesota. Most Somalis arrived here with refugee status because of the violence in their homeland and lack of government for nearly two decades. For the approximately 250 Somalis not here as official refugees, the U.S. government has just extended their temporary protected status that allows them to live here until March 2011. Perhaps someone in our government recalls that it was only after the United States withdrew as an ally of Somalia in 1991 that everything fell apart there.
Somali refugees have largely been content to “fadhi ku dirir”, which means in Somali “fighting while sitting down.” In other words, older Somalis, and even some younger ones, debated the causes and remedies to the continued violence and warfare in their homeland. In late 2007, Somalis began to consider doing more because of the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia. The two countries have had a contentious history over territory each claims, and many Somalis feared the Ethiopians would take advantage of the chaos in their homeland to annex territory and protested the Ethiopian invasion vehemently. But some young Somalis became convinced they needed to go home to prevent this from happening.
Of the nearly two dozen or so young Somalis who left Minnesota to join the fighting, eight are believed to have been killed, including Shirwa Ahmed, who became a suicide bomber last fall. Another believed to have died is Zakaria Maruf, a reformed gang member authorities think was instrumental in recruiting the others to go to Somalia to join in “fighting the enemy of Allah” as a former associate quoted him as saying. Most of the young Somalis were good students who didn’t get into trouble; they just became convinced they had a duty to protect their homeland. However, also among the Minnesota boys who died in the fighting was Troy Kastigar, a white Muslim convert who became convinced he needed to fight for his new-found faith.
Many of the young men attended the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis. Officials at the mosque deny they radicalized the young men. Still, young Muslims did listen to presentations from Somali Islamic warriors and saw videos about the war in Afghanistan and about perceived Muslim victims of injustices in places like Palestine and Nigeria. One young man reported that he and others were encouraged not to get married and to sever ties with their families so they would be ready to take up the cause of jihad.
What undoubtedly has American officials concerned is not only that young Somalis are being radicalized and sent to fight in East Africa, but that those left behind are becoming ever more violent. Somali youth often grow up in poverty and broken homes. Since December 2007, at least eight young Somalis are known to have died in gang violence that often mirrors the clan feuds back in Somalia. Somalis are estimated to comprise only one percent of the known gang members in Minnesota, but authorities in Minneapolis take this trend seriously enough to have created a position for a Somali liaison officer. Since Somalis are reluctant to cooperate with police due to their bad experiences in their homeland, that tactic may be rendered ineffective.
Meanwhile, federal authorities take very seriously a video released recently by Al-Shabaab, the insurgent group trying to overthrow the U.S.-supported Somali government. In that video, its members are shown training and pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Al-Shabaab now controls most of Somalia’s territory, and this is leading the federal government to take a hard line against those surviving young Somali men who return home. Three of them are now being prosecuted for participating in Somalia’s war. Abdifatah Isse and Salah Ahmed have made a deal with federal prosecutors and pled guilty to providing material support for terrorists. The third, Kamal Hassan, also pleaded guilty to the same charge, but is being further prosecuted for providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. The difference in treatment may be because Isse and Ahmed stayed only a few days in the Al-Shabaab training camp before returning home, while Hassan may have actually fought alongside Al-Shabaab after it was declared a terrorist organization.
The concern over possible Al-Shabaab/Al-Qaeda infiltration in the United States has caused federal security agencies to engage in what some Somalis in the United States consider intrusive questioning and unreasonable searches. Many Somalis in America disavow the suicide bombings and fanaticism of Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda, but they may be embittered by what they consider harsh treatment and American military intervention in Somalia, such as the recent air attack that killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan wanted over a hotel bombing and a simultaneous, but botched, missile attack on an Israeli airliner leaving Kenya's Mombassa airport in 2002.
Last week, Somali TFG President Sheik Sharif Sheikh Ahmed visited Minnesota and denounced the recruitment of young Somali men from the state and said he will work with the U.S. government to bring survivors back home. It is uncertain whether his appearance will have the desired effect because of clan rivalries and the memory of the TFG leaders, former warlords themselves, abusing the rights of the people. After all, it was the lawlessness of the warlords that gave the Islamic Courts Union, the original rebel movement in Somalia, a foothold of support among Somalis.
The U.S. government will surely keep an eye on Somalis in Minnesota and elsewhere. One hopes they will wisely deal with them, or they could radicalize those who now oppose Al-Shabaab and its terrorist tactics. It may only take a nudge to turn Somali gang members into Islamic fighters. We’ve already seen what good Somali boys can turn into.