Al-Shabab: The Jihadi Recruitment Drive in Minnesota

Kenya’s foreign minister says two or three Americans were among the Nairobi mall attackers. Jamie Dettmer on the al Qaeda affiliate luring young men away to fight and die in Africa.

Somali-Americans in Minnesota’s Twin Cities are bracing themselves for the news that some of the men recruited from their community by the al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabab were among the gunmen who stormed the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi and unleashed a bloodbath.

At least 68 people were killed and almost 200 others wounded in the attack that took place over the weekend. Among the dead were children, Western aid workers, ordinary Kenyans, the celebrated Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, and close relatives of the Kenyan president.

At least a dozen times in the past few years, community leaders say, parents living in this tight-knit Midwestern community have sometimes heard of their children’s deaths from fighting in Africa when a stranger called from a faraway land, offering congratulations instead of condolences and saying that, by dying in the jihad, the deceased had taken his rightful place in paradise as a martyr for the cause.

It’s an indication that in the last few years, Al-Shabab has been highly aggressive—and successful—in luring young Somali-Americans from the Twin Cities to fight in Somalia and neighboring states. On Sunday Rep. Peter King (R-NY), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, told ABC’s This Week that 15 to 20 Somali-Americans are active in the ranks of Al-Shabab and that up to 50 people from Somali communities in the U.S.—from the Minneapolis–St. Paul area; Portland, Maine; San Diego; and Seattle—had been recruited by the al Qaeda affiliate behind this weekend’s deadly assault.

But King’s number could underestimate the scope of recruitment in the U.S., says Abdirizak Bihi, a Minneapolis community leader. Bihi’s own nephew died fighting in Somalia, after he was recruited by Al-Shabab agents. Bihi believes that at least 40 from the Minneapolis–St. Paul area alone have been recruited by the group during the past six years.

“There are two types of numbers: those we have had confirmed by the families who have come forward, and they number more than 40,” he says. But even that number may be inaccurate. “We limit what we say to those who have been confirmed, but a lot more men have gone missing.”

During the last few years, Al-Shabaab has made at least a dozen calls to parents in the area, telling them their children had died fighting in the jihad, according to community leaders. However, since few families are eager to come forward to say their children have fought for the feared terror group, the number is difficult to corroborate with the relatives.

On Sunday a Kenyan jihadist who purportedly represents Al-Shabab tweeted a list of Westerners he claimed were among the gunmen who stormed the mall. The list included four Europeans, a Canadian, and three U.S. citizens: two from the Twin Cities and another from Kansas City, Missouri. (His tweet naming the men was subsequently confirmed by another Twitter user whom journalists regularly communicate with to reach Al-Shabab representatives.)

U.S. officials, however, have yet to confirm or deny that American citizens took part in the assault. On Monday White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters: “All we’ve seen are the same reports coming out of Al-Shabab ... But we have to run those to ground.”

An FBI official in Minnesota said he could neither confirm the identities of the assailants nor comment on the assault itself.

For Somali-Americans in Minneapolis and St. Paul, news that two of their own may have been involved in a bloody attack in Kenya has sparked a mixture of outrage and shame. For many of the 85,000 Somali-Americans in the Twin Cities, one of the largest Somali populations outside Mogadishu, Kenya was the first refuge when fleeing Somalia, a country beset by conflict almost continuously since 1991.

“Kenyans helped us when we fled Somalia. They gave us food and shelter, [and] our sons went to school there while we waited for resettlement in the United States,” says one Somali-American community worker. “We identify with Kenya as a second country.”

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Two years ago, Bihi testified before the Homeland Security Committee to warn of the widespread radicalization of young Somali-Americans in Minneapolis–St. Paul.

According to federal records, in the Twin Cities alone, at least 19 Somali-American residents have been indicted on suspicion of direct involvement with Al-Shabab or of aiding and abetting others connected with the al Qaeda affiliate.

Bihi says that despite greater vigilance by federal and state law-enforcement agencies, Al-Shabab’s recruitment drive has continued unabated.

The group’s message, perpetuated in mosques, through word-of-mouth, or via videos, is often a mix of religious propaganda laced with the promise of adventure. Many of the videos posted online show footage of combat and Al-Shabab training camps, suggesting that joining up could be an escape for the young men, who are often unemployed or stuck in dead-end jobs. More than half of the young Somali-Americans in the Twin Cities are unemployed.

One online recruitment video plays on the frustration young men feel living in Minneapolis. As the narrator of the video puts it: “When the siren of jihad ... blaring out from battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia [reaches] their ears, it’s simply too melodious to ignore.”

But not all Somali-American recruits fit this profile of despair. One of the American “martyrs” Al-Shabab has used in recruitment videos is Mohamud Hassan, who, when he was lured away five years ago, was about to start as an engineering student at the University of Minnesota. Hassan was killed in a gun battle with African Union forces in Somalia in September 2009.

Omar Farah, another Somali-American recruited by Al-Shabab, also had a chance for a prosperous life. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota for a year before dropping out. After a spell of unemployment, he left for Somalia, where he was killed in action.

W. Anders Folk, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Minnesota who was a member of an FBI-run task force investigating Al-Shabab activities in the state, said that calculating the number of people the al Qaeda affiliate has managed to recruit is difficult, but he believes it could be as high as 60. “They have targeted a very susceptible community and been able to play on Somali-American ties back to Somalia,” he says. “That has helped them mount a very successful operation.”

Their success, he suggests, shouldn’t just be seen in terms of the numbers they have recruited as fighters, but more broadly in the larger number beyond the recruited fighters who are “giving Al-Shabab material help, from logistics to funding.”

The group, he says, has “shown a willingness and desire to advertise the martyrdom, to use the words of the fighters they’ve recruited. They have shown [that] they want to notify the public.”