WASHINGTON – Dozens of Americans have been lured away from comfortable homes to join Somalia’s al-Shabab insurgents, the Islamist group behind the bloody attack on a Kenyan mall.
While the FBI said Tuesday it has not yet been able to confirm reports that two or three U.S. citizens were among the gunmen at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, the news has the nation’s Somali community on edge, especially since Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said at least one of the young men hailed from Minnesota. The state has the largest Somali community in the United States.
More than 20 young men have been recruited by al-Shabab from Minnesota, where the FBI has an ongoing investigation dubbed “Operation Rhino.”
“It is still an active investigation, as it has been for several years,” FBI spokesman Kyle Loven said.
At least two of those men became suicide bombers — Shriwa Ahmed is the first known U.S. citizen to have done so when he drove an explosive-laden truck into an office of the Puntland Intelligence Service in 2008 — and several others have been killed in Somalia’s brutal civil war.
Three of the “martyrs” from Minnesota were featured in a lengthy recruiting video posted online by the al-Qaida-linked group earlier this year.
“This is the real Disneyland,” Troy Kastigar, the only non-Somali among the recruits, said in the video obtained by KMSP news. “You need to come over here, join us and take pleasure in this fun.”
The 2006 invasion of Somalia by the Ethiopian Army was a major factor in recruiting Somali-Americans to al-Shabab, said Peter Bergen, director of the New American Foundation.
Young men were drawn to protect their homeland from a “crusader army,” Bergen wrote in an editorial posted on CNN.com, noting that Ethiopia is predominantly Christian.
U.S. officials have been able to track down and prosecute some of the people who have helped raise money for al-Shabab or recruit others to the cause in recent years, including eight Minnesotans who received lengthy sentences as a result of Operation Rhino.
Given how many U.S. citizens have been drawn to al-Shabab and other militant groups, it’s only a matter of time before one of them attempts to strike in the United States, said William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University. “We’ve had a lot of intelligence and law enforcement successes and we’ve been extremely lucky,” Banks said. “The chances of being lucky forever are not so good.”
While it’s clear that the capabilities of al-Qaida have been “degraded” by U.S. strikes, Banks cautioned that the threat of terrorism is more serious than a decade ago. “It’s more diffuse, it’s harder to pinpoint, the capabilities and ease of training are expanding because of Internet postings as well as the development of cybercapabilities that will allow individuals or groups to attack from afar,” Banks said.
Somali religious leaders in Minnesota condemned the violence in Kenya and repeated their calls for youth to reject extremism. “This outrageous act of violence has no place in Islam,” Abdisalam Adam of the Islamic Civic Society of America said at a news conference Monday.
Yet Somali immigrants are not the only Americans who have joined al-Shabab. A 2011 congressional investigation found that least 15 Americans had been killed fighting with the group and at least 21 others “remain unaccounted for and pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.”
The most high profile recruit was the Alabama-born “rapping jihadi,” Omar Hammami, who was killed earlier this month after a falling out with the al-Shabab leadership. Born in 1984 to a southern Baptist mother with Irish roots and a Muslim father with a Syrian background, Hammami moved to Somalia in 2006.
He became one of the most prominent foreign al-Shabab fighters and recruited trainees with English-language rap songs and videos. Videos showed him enthusiastically promoting the battle to overthrow Somalia’s internationally backed government.