This article appeared in the Sunday Herald on November 29, 2009.
Burhan Hassan was an American boy: a fan of ice hockey and basketball who dreamed of studying law at Hartford University when he graduated from high school. He was born in Somalia, and died there too, but when people asked him where he came from, he used to say Minneapolis.
Hassan’s uncle, Abdirizak Bihi, rescued him from a refugee camp in Kenya when he was four years old. “He had no problem picking up English or engaging with the other students and soon began to excel,” Bihi told me. “He was joyous, very disciplined. He never missed a single day of school until the day he left.”
On November 4, 2008 – the day Barack Obama was elected president – Hassan disappeared. He took his passport, some clothes and his laptop computer. His family contacted the FBI and rushed to the airport, where they found other Somali mothers, frantic with worry, crying for their missing sons. An airline confirmed that the boys had taken a flight to Somalia.
Bihi was shocked that Hassan had returned to his homeland. “We could not speak with our nephew in Somali because he had no clue about the language,” he said. “Maybe if you said a few simple things he could respond in English, but in his culture, his life, he was an American kid.”
Hassan and his companions were not merely going back to their roots. They had been recruited by Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda that seeks to establish an Islamic state in Somalia as the first step towards a global caliphate. Their destination was a training camp, where they would learn to handle automatic weapons, fire rocket-launchers and build improvised explosive devices. Their new vocation was jihad.
Some would become suicide bombers. Some would die in battle. Others would be shot for desertion. “People say they are fighting for their country,” Bihi said. “These boys don’t even know what Africa is. They were as American as an apple pie.”
According to details of an FBI investigation released this week, at least twenty young Somali men from Minneapolis have joined the Islamist insurgency. For three years, devoutly religious teenagers have been vanishing from their homes, only to turn up on American wanted lists, in Al-Shabaab videos, or dead on the streets of Mogadishu.
Last October, student Shirwa Ahmed became the first known American suicide bomber when he blew himself up in Somalia, killing dozens of people. Fighter Jamal Sheik Bana’s father only found out his son had died when he saw a picture of his corpse on a Somali website.
Abdifatah Yusuf Isse and Salah Osman Ahmed are awaiting trial in Minnesota, after being arrested when they returned from the training camps. Both have entered guilty pleas on charges of providing material support to terrorists, saying they were radicalised and recruited at the Abu-Bakr Al-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis.
Burhan Hassan’s family believe he was executed when he tried to escape from an Al-Shabaab camp. He called home a few times, but it was clear from his “robotic, monotonous, cryptic” tone that someone was listening in. “His mom tried to convince him to come back and finally he accepted,” his cousin Osman Ahmed said. “She sent money to travel to Nairobi, Kenya, but somehow Al-Shabaab got hold of this information. We are sure they are behind his death.” His body was found in June. He had been shot in the head.
Al-Shabaab’s latest recruitment video, posted on Islamist websites in March, is clearly aimed at a western audience. Its star, identified as Abu-Mansour-Al-Amriki, speaks English with an American accent. “If you can encourage more of your children, and more of your neighbours to send people to this jihad, it would be a great asset for us,” he says.
Hip-hop plays in the background and images of Osama Bin Laden flash across the screen, breaking up shots of young Muslims training for war. One man chants like a drill instructor: “Mortar by mortar, shell by shell, I’m only gonna stop when I send them to hell.”
Fox News has identified Al-Amriki as Omar Hammami, a graduate of Daphne High School, near Mobile, Alabama. By virtue of his upbringing in small town America, he has become Al-Shabaab’s chief propagandist. In the video, he addresses the camera directly: “The only reason we’re staying here away from our families, away from the cities, away from ice, candy bars, all these other things is because we are waiting to meet with the enemy.”
Other Americans to have joined the group include Ruben Shumpert, a barber from Seattle, and Daniel Maldonado , who was captured in Kenya in 2007. Maldonado is serving a ten year prison sentence, as the first US citizen to be convicted of terrorism charges related to training for jihad overseas.
Somalia has not had a stable government since dictator Siad Barre was ousted in 1991. Civil war has been the rule, punctuated by fragile peace agreements and shifting alliances. Professor Ahmed Samatar, Dean of the Institute For Global Citizenship at Macalester University in Minneapolis, described Somalia, his homeland, as “the only country in modern times that has gone over a cliff… the worst place in the world today in almost all major measurements that deal with the quality of human life.”
The current regime was installed three years ago, after Ethiopian troops, backed by the West, invaded to crush an Islamist insurgency. Many Somalis viewed the Ethiopians as an occupying power, and the support provided by the US government created lingering anti-American sentiment, at home and abroad.
Al-Shabaab evolved from the Islamic Courts Union, a faction that briefly controlled much of Somalia. Unlike its predecessor, it espouses the ideology of global jihad and consciously links itself to Al-Qaeda. Spokesman Mukhtar Robow announced “we will take our orders from Sheikh Osama Bin Laden because we are his students.” Ayman Al-Zawahiri responded with a video addressed to “the lions of Islam in Somalia.”
The FBI has downplayed the possibility that young men trained in the camps are planning to carry out terror attacks in the United States, saying there is no evidence of a plot, but counter-terrorism experts warn that the threat must be taken seriously. “The reason it’s a real danger is that these guys are going to Somalia, getting military training with a group that’s very anti-American in orientation,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, from the Foundation for Defence of Democracies. “There’s a heavily ideological, fundamentalist component.”
“They attach an added value to kids coming from overseas who can move freely because they have legal documentation from their respective adopted countries,” Dr Abdiweli Ali said. “The value for Shabaab is not for fighting within Somalia but in the future doing the same acts overseas.”
According to a recent Channel Four documentary, dozens of Somalis have returned to Britain from the camps. A student of Oxford Brookes University, raised in Ealing, is thought to have blown himself up at an Ethiopian military checkpoint two years ago. Intelligence agencies in Sweden, Australia and Canada have all reported cases of Somali immigrants returning to Africa to join the jihad.
It has been estimated that 14% of Somalia’s people have left the country, mostly fleeing the civil war. In their report for the United Nations Development Programme, Hassan Sheik and Sally Healy suggested that the closest historical parallel to this migration is Ireland’s Great Famine of the mid-19th century, in which the Irish population dropped from over eight million to less than six million in a decade.
Around 40,000 Somalis live in Minnesota. The vast majority are Sunni Muslims, from a moderate tradition strongly influenced by Sufism. “There are a thousand Somali-owned businesses in Minneapolis,” Ali told me. “ I know a dozen kids going to medical schools. There are young Somalis doing MBAs, PHDs. It is a vibrant, successful community.”
There is also, however, a desperately poor Somali underclass, living in housing estates, with all their associated problems of drugs, prostitution and gang violence. According to the latest US census, more than half of the country’s Somali immigrants live below the poverty line. Every other family is missing a parent.
“The community is very vulnerable psychologically,” said Omar Jamal, First Secretary of the Somali mission at United Nations. “They lost their country, they’re isolated, there’s an identity crisis, high unemployment rates, school drop-outs, language barriers. Anyone with the name of God written on his shirt can come along and victimise them.”
In sworn testimony before the US Senate, Hassan’s family claimed the Abu-Bakr Al-Saddique mosque was a recruitment hub for Al-Shabaab. His uncle, Abdirizak Bihi, said: “All of these kids were from the same mosque. They spent hours there every day and sometimes slept there too. The imams owed us a response, but instead they told their congregations openly to curse us, even to threaten us, because we spoke to the authorities.”
Mahir Sherif, a lawyer for the mosque, stated that it “has not and will not recruit for any political cause and never will be in support of terrorist philosophy or acts.” None of the imams or support staff have been implicated in the federal investigation.
Last month, Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faraax was stopped by the Nevada Highway Patrol near Las Vegas, in a car with four other Somali men. They said they were going to a wedding in San Diego, but could not remember the name of the bride or groom.
After checking with federal agents, the police let them go. Two of the men crossed the Mexican border and disappeared. Faraax returned to Minneapolis, where he was charged with conspiring to kill, maim, kidnap or injure people outside of the United States. Court documents allege that he trained at the Al-Shabaab camps, sustained a leg wound fighting against government forces and returned to America to enlist more recruits.
“Basically, the community has been paralysed by this situation,” Jamal said. “There is concern about being wrongly accused, fear that your son could be brainwashed, even fear of being fired from your job because of prejudice. Law enforcement cannot have a good working relationship with a community that is afraid, fearful, paranoid.”
Even in this climate of mistrust, though, the lot of most Somali immigrants is preferable to the violence and chaos they left behind. As he prepares to face another severe Minnesotan winter, which freezes the city solid from now until April, Bihi still cannot quite come to terms with the fact that his nephew is gone.
“An Islamic utopia was created in the minds of these kids, as if it existed in Somalia,” he said. “They had no idea of the realities there, the tragedy that happens every day. No person in their right mind would leave this life we have here.”