A new piece over at the Guardian, looking at the perennial question of al Shabaab and its western recruits. I realize the conclusion might be seen as a bit exaggerated, but it does seem to me that we are potentially running the risk of going in this direction and at the end of the day it is often what we don’t expect that happens. The question is how long will this sense hang over us. As usual thoughts and comments warmly welcomed.
Al-Shabaab: the American Connection
There’s ample evidence of radicalised US citizens wooed to fight in Somalia. We need to ensure they don’t bring the jihad home.
A fighter from al-Shabaab runs for cover from a burnt-out African Union tank during fighting in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, 2 July 2010. Photograph: Feisal Omar/Reuters
The news of another American suicide bomber shows, once again, the deadly allure of jihadism among a small number of young US citizens, but it also casts a light on the potential danger that allowing the conflict in Somalia to continue unabated poses. Now that we are at the third possible American suicide bomber in Somalia, it is time to take stronger measures to solve this problem – before it comes back to haunt us in the west.
In a cynical way, the news is a tidy resolution for security services. The fact that these young men have died abroad means they will no longer be able to pose a threat at home. But this fails to take into account the larger threat that these deaths represent, both in terms of the embedding of jihadist ideas in North America, but also the growing menace internationally of the al-Shabaab group.
The story of the American jihad is not new. At this point, we have seen jihadist plots in the US with links to all of the major jihadist battlefields abroad, and in many cases, they have involved US citizens. And within the US, there have been a number of plots uncovered involving Americans who have radicalised and chosen to participate in plots that may have concluded in terrorist attacks. The conviction of Tahawwur Rana for his role in a plot targeting Denmark was merely the latest manifestation.
Somalia and al-Shabaab (whose name literally means “the youth”) is a subset of this issue, but one that has been growing in importance as it becomes clear that the group has been able to draw to itself both young ethnic Somalis and an ever increasing number of radicalised young men and women from other ethnicities. Young Shabaab leader Omar Hammami, for example, is a Daphne, Alabama native of Syrian descent who left the comfort of the US to serve as a leader in the Somali group using the nom de guerre “Abu Mansur al-Amiriki”. And he is not alone, with some of his compatriots agreeing to act as suicide bombers in that war-torn country.
But in parallel to this trend of young Americans leaving to fight jihad, al-Shabaab has gradually escalated the tenor of its violence. From a group that was a wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which emerged from the rampant warlordism gripping Somalia, Shabaab has steadily risen to become a formidable fighting force that has absorbed other groups and taken and held increasing chunks of territory. It has also demonstrated a capacity to launch coordinated attacks beyond its territory of control. In October 2008, it sent six suicide bomber teams deep into usually peaceful northern Somalia; one of those bombers was Shirwa Ahmed, a 26-year-old Somali American from Minneapolis. Then, in July of last year, as people enjoyed the football World Cup final, a pair of suicide bombers sent by Shabaab blew themselves up in Kampala, Uganda, killing some 74 people.
In between, there were numerous other bombings, attacks and firefights inside Somalia, alongside a growing trend for terrorist plots or attacks in the west – all with links to Shabaab. A group in Australia, frustrated in its ambition to go fight in Somalia, was disrupted while apparently plotting to attack an army base in Melbourne. A young Somali Dane, who was picked up and repatriated to Denmark by Kenyan forces as part of an alleged network planning an attack against Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, tried to kill cartoonist Kurt Westegaard for his role in the Mohammed cartoons. And a group of young Britons, who had attended outward-bound camps in the UK alongside attempted London suicide bombers in the UK, went to Somalia seeking connections with a-Shabaab.
It is unclear whether al-Shabaab directed any of these attacks or groups, but the connections are worrying. As the head of Britain’s MI5 said last September, “I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab.”
Yet, the prevailing western tendency has been to observe the problem, rather than engage with it. While direct intervention in Somalia is clearly a bad idea, a more focused effort is needed. Broad sweeps of the Muslim community, exemplified in New York Representative Peter King’s recent congressional hearings on radicalisation, are not helpful: they put people’s backs up while failing to address a problem that only affects a minority within a minority. Instead, efforts should be focused on demythologising jihad. Former fighters who have returned and changed their minds can foster a counter-narrative, while jihadist websites in the west need to be taken down and the webmasters identified. Fundraising and support networks should be pursued, and the community needs to be persuaded that turning a blind eye to this activity is only going to attract negative unwanted attention. Some of these measures are likely already being deployed, but clearly, they are not proving totally effective.
The pattern that can be observed in the Somali jihad is one that replicates almost precisely the pattern that culminated in the 7 July 2005 bombings in London. Let us learn from those mistakes and ensure that it does not culminate with a similar atrocity in the US or elsewhere.