MINNEAPOLIS – Law enforcement and community leaders in Minnesota have seen this before: Young Somalis traveling abroad to fight under the banner of a terrorist organization.
But while it can be tempting to compare a recent round of would-be jihadis attempting to join the Islamic State group’s campaign in the Middle East to previous instances of Somalis leaving to fight for al-Shabab in Somalia, key differences have made countering the extremist pull this time around all the more difficult.
“Back in 2006 and ’07, 20 young men left here to join al-Shabab. We don’t approve it. It was wrong,” says Sadik Warfa, deputy director of Global Somali Diaspora, a nonprofit with offices in London and Minneapolis that aims to empower Somali communities outside their homeland. “But if you put [it in] context, you could understand why they had left here, because Ethiopia is the archenemy of Somalia. Sometimes you see that nation calling you to defend it.”
Previously, young men who left Minnesota – home to the largest Somali population in the U.S. – to join al-Shabab were largely drawn to the fight in Somalia in response to an invasion by Ethiopia in 2006. They numbered between 20 and 25, says Richard Thornton, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis Division.
Somalia had been a failed state since civil war ravaged the country in the early 1990s, leading many of its residents to seek asylum in the U.S. The absence of an effective government in the country also allowed terrorist groups to thrive, and made neighboring Ethiopia nervous that the precarious security situation would spill across its borders.
When Islamic militants seized the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 2006, Ethiopia – with U.S. support – decided to act.
J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, says the Ethiopians felt they couldn’t let the militants continue to gain influence in Somalia, but that it’s a common misconception to link the rise of al-Shabab – which has been linked to al-Qaida and is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. – to the invasion.
“There’s no doubt that the Ethiopian intervention helped Shabab gain a nationalist narrative,” Pham says. “The fact is al-Shabab and its precursor groups have existed for quite some time, for more than a decade, before the Ethiopians invaded.”
Jamal Abdulahi, a Somali community activist and independent analyst in Minnesota, says the population there felt reverberations from the invasion.
“That created a huge outcry in the Somali community in Minnesota,” Abdulahi says. “It’s just humiliating for Somalis to be able to see their archfoe drive down tanks of whatever remained of downtown Mogadishu at the time. So there was actually a genuine nationalistic sense in the Somali community where everybody said, ‘OK, this is a time to stand up and do something.'”
The Somali leaders say joining al-Shabab out of a sense of duty to defend Somalia isn’t defensible, but those that did at least had some connection to the fight happening in their homeland. The Islamic State group, however, is operating mainly in Iraq and Syria, and its appeal is less comprehensible to those who oppose the group’s extremist ideology.
“This is something that is unacceptable … We are still very confused why these kids are attracted to it,” Warfa says. “Because Syria and Iraq, they have no border with Somalia, and it’s a faraway land.”
In April, six Somali-Americans from Minneapolis were arrested for attempting to join the Islamic State group. Federal authorities said two of the men were arrested in San Diego, from where they had intended to travel to Mexico and then to Syria. The other four were arrested in Minnesota.
Thornton, whose FBI office is responsible for investigating those in Minneapolis believed to be interested in joining terror organizations, says the Islamic State group is taking advantage of social media communication and using peer-to-peer recruitment, in which those who have already left to join the terrorist organization work to convince friends that they should travel to fight as well.
The Islamic State group doesn’t offer a “nationalistic pull” for Somalis, he says. But the extremists are much more “sophisticated” than al-Shabab when it comes to propaganda and public relations.
“The [Islamic State group] piece is a combination: It’s people in Minnesota talking each other into going combined with the pull of social media; people that have successfully traveled that are communicating back to people here saying, ‘It’s great,'” Thornton says.
Religious leaders in Minnesota also have been working to spread the message that the Islamic State group has no legitimate religious pull, says Abdisalam Adam, an imam at Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque in Minneapolis.
“Deep inside me, I believe they are not representing Islam with brutality and their message. I don’t want them to be the bearer of that message: ‘I’m a defender of Islam and I’m going to establish justice.’ They are not,” Adam says. “The number of Muslim victims, the method they’re using, it’s really contradictory to core Islamic teaching. I do not see answering their calls as really Islamic or jihad. I don’t believe that.”
He says Somali youth should not be leaving to join the extremists.
“There’s no reason why they should go to Syria,” Adam says. “I’m not giving it any excuse.”