By Zachary Elkaim, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Zachary Elkaim is a researcher at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute in Washington D.C., focusing on national security issues. The views expressed are his own.
Kenya’s Foreign Ministry has claimed at least two al-Shabaab terrorists involved in the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi last week were Americans. This is neither new nor surprising, but it raises troubling questions about the American al-Shabaab connection.
The American-Somali community has grown since 1991, when immigrants fled the civil war. Current estimates of the number of Somali-born persons in the United States are unreliable, varying from under 50,000 to over 150,000. But once here, they often live in concentrated groups, with the largest community in Minnesota.
While the majority of the population have adjusted to American culture, the Somali experience in America has been punctuated by the radicalization of some its youth, a problem that has been on the radar since at least 2004. By 2007, al-Shabaab was openly issuing calls for foreign fighters to join their jihad, and small numbers of Somalis living in America began to answer the call. Americans trained, including the use of weapons, alongside Somalis from all over the world. Al-Shabaab’s ideological indoctrination included “anti-Ethiopian, anti-American, anti-Israeli, and anti-Western beliefs.”
In 2008, Somali-American Shirwa Ahmed became a suicide bomber when he drove an explosives-laden truck into the office of the Puntland Intelligence Service in northern Somalia. Other members of the Somali community in America have contributed to al-Shabaab’s jihad by recruiting youth. In 2009, for example, the U.S. government charged Minnesota-based Mahamud Said Omar with arranging and financing flights to Somalia.
Omar, who last year was convicted on five counts of terror, also provided funding for guerilla training and purchased weapons for his recruits. Other members of the Somali-American community have helped recruit additional fighters by recounting their fighting experiences with al-Shabaab. Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax was one such fighter. When he returned, he described his experiences of “true brotherhood” to a group of Somali youth, assuring them that jihad would be fun.
The path to al-Shabaab for Somali-Americans is not always the same. Mohamoud Hassan was reportedly radicalized in 2008 following the American airstrike that killed al-Shabaab leader Aden Hashi Ayro. Abdisalan Ali became disaffected with life in America after being wrongly accused of robbing a restaurant on campus and found solace in religion.
The internet has also become an important tool for al-Shabaab. American-born Omar Hammami, a non-Somali, was a huge boon to al-Shabaab’s recruitment efforts, with his fluency in Arabic and English, as well as computer savvy. Although he later publicly broke with al-Shabaab, Hammami’s online activity for the group included videos glorifying jihad, and an April 2010 video featuring a festival for the children of al-Shabaab “martyrs.” Al-Shabaab has since recruited another non-Somali American, Abu Ahmed al Amriki, who along with two Kenyan jihadists, reportedly urged Muslims to abandon their comfortable lives and wage jihad all over the world.
American nationals have left the United States to fight alongside al-Shabaab and are being tied to the attack in Kenya, and it will be important that U.S. intelligence now identify the local figures that may have mentored and radicalized the Somalis involved in this attack.
None of this is to suggest that Somali-Americans are uniquely vulnerable to radicalization, nor indeed that it is anything but a small minority who are ultimately pulled toward jihad. But the events in Nairobi are a reminder that for some, this pull undoubtedly exists, and it is crucial that the United States work to prevent others from returning to America to recruit more “heroes.”