November 25, 2009 | National Post (Canada)

Western Terrorism Recruits in Somalia

On Monday, the United States unsealed terrorism charges against eight defendants for supporting a Somali Islamist group called al-Shabaab. While few lay people in Canada or the United States have heard of al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-connected extremist organization — which controls a significant amount of territory in Somalia — has recently become a particular concern for analysts examining possible homegrown terrorist flashpoints in North America.

Beginning in late 2007, dozens of young men of Somali descent started disappearing from diaspora communities in the West. It turned out they were returning to Somalia to train in Shabaab camps or to take up arms against Shabaab’s enemies within the country. Islamists of non-Somali descent were also travelling there to join Shabaab.

This phenomenon has been repeating itself in a number of countries. Canadian government sources claim that 20 to 30 Canadians have joined Shabaab — a development that public safety minister Peter Van Loan has said “alarmed” him. In the U.S., the disappearances have primarily clustered around Minneapolis-St. Paul, but there are credible reports of disappearances in other U.S. cities with large Somali populations as well.

The Times of London reports that British security services believe “[d]ozens of Islamic extremists have returned to Britain from terror training camps in Somalia.” SAPO, Sweden’s security service, believes that about 20 people have left that country to join Shabaab. And Australian authorities think as many as 40 Somali refugees may have gone from Australia to Somalia to liaise with Shabaab.

Many factors cause young men in the West to join Somali Islamist movements. For one, the Somali diaspora is less integrated than other immigrant communities; this can lead to disaffection and the development of a mythologized sense of homeland, leaving newcomers especially vulnerable to recruitment.

There is also a political dimension to support for Shabaab. In March 2009 U.S. Senate testimony, Professor Ken Menkhaus noted that Shabaab thrives on the “complex cocktail of nationalist, Islamist, anti-Ethiopian, anti-Western, anti-foreigner sentiments” that resulted from Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion of Somalia.

Of course, there’s a religious aspect too. American convert Daniel Maldonado, who pleaded guilty in April 2007 to receiving training from a foreign terrorist organization, told U.S. authorities that when he decided to travel to Somalia, it was to fight jihad — something he described in religious terms as “raising the word of Allah, uppermost, by speaking and fighting against all those who are against the Islamic State.”

Shabaab recruiting is a security concern for both Somalia and the rest of the world. Within Somalia, Shabaab’s implementation of a strict version of shariah in areas it controls raises human rights worries. For example, according to Amnesty International, Shabaab jurists sentenced a 13-year-old rape victim in Kismayo to be stoned to death last year for alleged adultery.

Internationally, the problem is Shabaab’s links to global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. One important document explaining Shabaab’s outlook, entitled A Message to the Mujaahideen in Particular and Muslims in General, and written by the American mujahid Omar Hammami (a.k.a. Abu Mansoor al-Amriki) made its way around the jihadist web in early 2008. In it, Hammami contrasted Shabaab with previous Somali Islamist movements, such as the Islamic Courts Union.

In making this distinction, Hammami put Shabaab into the same ideological category as al-Qaeda. He said that while the Islamic Courts’ objectives were limited by national boundaries, “the Shabaab had a global goal including the establishment” of an Islamic caliphate. He also wrote that Shabaab’s religious methodology was the same as that expressed by such recognizable jihadist icons as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In August 2008, Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Mukhtar Robow said that Shabaab was “negotiating how we can unite into one” with al-Qaeda. In the same month, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, Shabaab’s chief military strategist (who was killed by U.S. commandos in September 2009), reached out to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in a 24-minute video entitled March Forth.

On Nov. 19, 2008, Zawahiri responded to Nabhan’s video with one in which he called Shabaab “my brothers, the lions of Islam in Somalia.” He urged them not to lay down their weapons “before the mujahid state of Islam” has been established in Somalia.

But authorities’ biggest concern is not what people pulled into Somalia do while they’re there, but what happens when they return to the countries from which they came. There are fears that these men could end up involved in a terrorist plot — fears bolstered by the fact that Shabaab’s training is both military and ideological, with the camps fostering what Nairobi-based journalist Fredrick Nzwili described as a “fundamentalist ideology.”

A clear picture of Shabaab’s recruiting networks in the West still has not emerged, although a significant thread running through a number of cases is the presence of recruiters. This could be seen, for example, following 25-year-old Abdifatah Yusuf Isse’s guilty plea in Minnesota to providing material support to terrorists based on his travel to Somalia. Omar Jamal, director of Minneapolis’s Somali Justice Advocacy Center, told the media that recruiters had approached Isse at the Abubakar as-Saddique mosque, the Twin Cities’ largest Somali mosque. This account was corroborated by Isse’s attorney.

Similarly, when 26-year-old Salah Osman Ahmed pled guilty to the same charges, he spoke elliptically of recruiters who helped draw him to Somalia, mentioning “secret meetings” beginning in October 2007 with people he would only describe as “guys.”

In other U.S.-based terrorism cases where recruiters played a prominent role, the recruiters enjoyed little support from the mosques they frequented; in the Lackawanna Six case, for example, leaders of the Islamic Center in Lackawanna, N.Y., chastised Juma al-Dosari when he lectured about the need for jihad. But in the Shabaab recruitment cases, there have been allegations of mosque complicity.

Many of these allegations have focused on the Abubakar as-Saddique mosque where Isse was allegedly recruited. Osman Ahmed, whose nephew was killed in Mogadishu in June 2009 after disappearing from the Minneapolis area, pointed his finger at that mosque in testimony before the U.S. Senate, claiming that family members of men who disappeared “have been threatened for just speaking out.”

The investigation into al-Shabaab recruitment in the West must continue. Only by better understanding these recruiting networks will authorities be able to stem the flow of young men to Shabaab’s destructive camps.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the director of the Center for Terrorism Research (CTR) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a PhD candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America. The Nov. 4 issue of the Center’s regular publication, CTR Vantage, is devoted to al-Shabaab’s recruiting efforts in the West.