America's Deadly Terror 'Pipeline'

The U.S. has charged 14 people—at least half of whom are citizens—with being part of a “deadly pipeline” to a Somali group with ties to al Qaeda. Eliza Griswold on the roots of al-Shabab.

08.06.10 7:37 AM ET

The heavy-set Somali man covered his face with a cloth, which was held in place by a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. The lenses were fogged with his sweat. He was jumpy, and refused to give his name. As soon as he sat down, he wanted to split.

He claimed to be an insurgent commander of al-Shabab, which was, at the time, in the spring of 2007, a ragtag bunch of fighters who opposed the invasion of Somalia by neighboring Ethiopia. (Somalia is 99.9 percent Sufi Muslim; Ethiopia is split nearly 50/50 between Christians and Muslims, but Ethiopia has been governed by Christians since the fourth century.)

Amina Farah Ali called America “the enemy,” in a taped phone call submitted as evidence in the indictment.

“I only have a few minutes,” he said. “The house where I’m hiding is far from town and I must reach it by curfew.” The man refused to give his name, but said that he commanded a large swath of the growing numbers of insurgents.

Now, that ragtag group is at the center of the Justice Department’s latest terror crackdown. Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the government was charging 14 people—at least half of whom are American citizens—with being part of a “deadly pipeline” that funneled money and fighters to al-Shabab.

Indictments were unsealed in Minneapolis, San Diego, and Mobile, Alabama, reflecting what the attorney general described as a disturbingly broad effort to recruit U.S. residents as terrorists. Two of the suspects, both women, were arrested for allegedly raising money through door-to-door solicitations and teleconferences “to support violent jihad in Somalia.”

Interestingly, America played a role in the rise of al-Shabab—setting in motion a chain of events which brought the group to such ominous prominence on the terrorist landscape.

The man who sat before me had been a member of the shura council, the inner circle that ran the Islamist government which briefly held power in Somalia until late 2006. Then, the Ethiopians, backed by the United States, invaded Somalia, overthrew the Islamists, and drove a suspected handful of al Qaeda-linked militants toward the coast.

Here’s how the invasion was supposed to go: the Ethiopians would force the Somali militants and some murky group of international jihadis down the coast toward Kenya, where U.S. airstrikes would weaken the fighters. Then, along the Kenyan border, the bad guys—including an unknown number of American militants--would be easy for Kenyan security officials (with some U.S. assistance) to net.

Here’s how it went: Ethiopia invaded Somalia and drove the militants down the coast as planned. The allies met little resistance. After U.S. air strikes struck some makeshift jungle training camps, the Islamist fighters fled over the Kenyan border and were scooped up by American officials and Kenyan security agents. There were at least two Americans there: gangland American convert gone awry, Daniel Maldonado, and his colleague Amir Meshal, an Egyptian-American from New Jersey who basically stumbled into Somalia at the wrong time as an Islamic missionary. Many militants, including Meshal, were shipped off to prison in Ethiopia, where some claim they were tortured.

For a brief moment, the Ethiopian invasion appeared to have successfully uprooted a few thousand jihadis—Somali and otherwise. It appeared to have destroyed safe havens for militants. It appeared to have quietly netted some American militants.

But that hopeful moment ended with a series of explosions and counterattacks led by the resurgent military wing, al-Shabab. Within months, when an insurgency began, none of this proved true. Most importantly, the Ethiopians and the U.S. had mistakenly created the very enemy they were seeking to destroy.

This enemy is now al-Shabab, a mostly homegrown group of militants that now has established links with al Qaeda. They recorded this sycophant’s shout out is this hi-tech video. “At your service, Oh Osama!” Even earlier, on al Qaeda’s media channel, As-Sahab (which translates as “The Clouds”), Ayman al-Zawahiri had long been calling for his Muslim brothers to take up any means necessary—including suicide bombing, or “martyrdom seeking operations”—to drive the infidel invaders out of this so-called sacred gateway to the most holy of Muslim lands of the Arabian peninsula. Here, he has repeatedly said, is where the holy land of Islam, Dar-ul-Islam, ends and the infidels land of war, Dar-ul-Harb, begins.

By casting Somalis as Muslims suffering under an alien, infidel invasion, Zawahiri has used the politics and language of global jihad to drive al Qaeda’s own agenda in Somalia. And this is where the crux of the problem lies: al Qaeda has successfully co-opted the suffering of nearly seven million Somalis as Africa’s front-line in the war against Muslims. It is a PR drive, and it is working.

When Amina Farah Ali was indicted yesterday, along with 13 other Somali Americans living in the United States, for raising money for al-Shabab, she was essentially charged with raising money for al Qaeda.

Gone are the days when al-Shabab commanders, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, are willing to talk about the evils of the Ethiopian occupation. Or what America was doing with its Tomahawk missile strikes that frequently ended up killing civilians. The days of those kinds of conversations are over.

Even though much of the strategic alliance between al Qaeda and al-Shabab remains wishful thinking on both parts, the ideological divisions between them have disappeared.

When Amina Farah Ali called America “the enemy” in a taped phone call submitted as evidence in yesterday’s indictment, she crossed a line from which her return is far from certain.

Eliza Griswold is a New America fellow and a recipient of the 2010 Rome Prize. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Islam and Christianity, will by published by FSG in August.