World News

10.19.13

Nairobi Mall Attack: Al Shabaab’s Scandinavian Connection

The first suspect in last month's terror attack at a Nairobi shopping mall comes from Norway – and may be linked to Al-Qaeda. Christopher Dickey reports.

Larvik, a former whaling village on the eastern coast of Norway, would seem an unlikely hotbed of jihadists. But it now appears that among those men who attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi last month, killing at least 70 people, there may have been a 23-year-old Norwegian citizen from Larvik named Hassan Abdi Dhuhulow.

If so, he would be part of a long, and sometimes surprising line of young men born abroad but raised in Scandinavia who have embraced the most violent versions of Islam. They have sought to wage what they see as holy war wherever they think they stand the greatest chance of glory and “martyrdom.” But as the most recent surveillance videos from the Westgate Mall attacks in Kenya demonstrate all too clearly, they become nothing more or less than cold-blooded murderers.

Stig Jarle Hansen, an associate professor at Norwegian University of Life Sciences near Oslo and author of Al-Shabaab in Somalia has studied the phenomenon for years. He says the terrorist nexus in the land of the midnight sun suggests just how complex and interwoven the world of international jihadist gangs and organizations has become. Al Qaeda, in its various iterations, is a significant player, but not always the decisive one. Allegiances shift unpredictably.

Earlier this month, U.S. Special Operations Forces unsuccessfully targeted an alleged terrorist known as Ikrimah al-Muhajir in the coastal Somali town of Barawa. Ikrimah spent four years in Norway seeking asylum from 2004 to 2008. He now speaks five languages, including Norwegian, and has emerged as a key figure, a kind of floater on the terrorist scene.

Ikrimah exists “at the intersection” of Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab, says Hansen. He reportedly has been loaned out by the Somali group to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, operating out of nearby Yemen. He is also alleged to have written bomb-making instructions for the Al Qaeda web magazine “Inspire.”

Some of the Scandinavian recruits to Al-Shabaab are indeed of Somali origin. But others are converts to Islam. And the collection of radical jihadists in Larvik was very international indeed. Its most prominent figure is a young Iraqi naturalized as a Norwegian, Mohyeldeen Mohammad. The local press reports that he has preached holy war against the West while living off the Norwegian dole, which has somewhat diminished his credibility. But the foundations of radicalism have been well laid. Another member of that jihadist circle is an ethnic Norwegian who disappeared into Yemen.

Dhuhulow is typical of what counter-terrorism analysts call “generation 1.5” immigrants—born abroad, but raised from early childhood in their new countries.

One of Norway’s most interesting alleged Islamist terrorists, according to Hansen, was of Somali background but seemed so well integrated into local society that he not only starred on a local soccer team, he served in the Norwegian military. More surprising still: he trained to be part of the VIP protection service in the Norwegian Royal Guard. Then, in 2009, he traveled to Somalia to teach his skills to Al-Shabaab fighters and became Norway’s first jihadist martyr. Hansen, who spoke extensively with the man’s family members, says he has not published his name in order to protect them. When Hansen interviewed Shabaab fighters in Somalia, he says, “they teased me, telling me he was very well instructed by the Royal Guard and was very helpful to them.”

Dhuhulow never appeared so well integrated into Scandinavian life. His parents were immigrants who brought him from Somalia to Norway when he was a child. Like thousands of Somalis now living in Europe and the United States, they were looking for asylum from the mad violence that has racked their homeland for decades. But in 2009, Dhuhulow started traveling back to Somalia, eventually disappearing into its battlefields. And Norwegian, Kenyan and other international investigators now believe he may have been one of the shooters in Nairobi previously identified only as “black shirt,” from his attire seen in the surveillance videos.

In some respects, Dhuhulow is typical of what counter-terrorism analysts call “generation 1.5” immigrants—born abroad, but raised from early childhood in their new countries. As teenagers, many are unsure of their identities, their allegiances and their futures, and thus become easy prey for recruiters from Al-Shabaab or other radical organizations who claim to give them a purpose in life, even if that is only an early death as a suicide bomber.

But of course such problems of identity coupled with violence and the desire to stage spectacular terrorist attacks are not limited to Somalis, Muslims or immigrants. Norway’s most famous terrorist remains Anders Behring Breivik, who slaughtered 77 people in the summer of 2011 because, he said, Norway was letting in too many foreigners.