Minneapolis Somalis Struggle With al-Shabab Link

Under scrutiny from the media and law enforcement, the Twin Cities' Somali expatriates try to raise their children safely in America.

  • Share
  • Read Later

On most nice days, Burhan Mohumed is out on the fields next to the Brian Coyle Recreation Center watching over dozens of kids scrimmaging at soccer and basketball. The center, in the shadow of the Mall of America, is the heart of the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis, home to the largest population of Somalis in America.

On this fine September evening, though, the kids are distracted, stumbling over one another. Stray balls go unchased. Jerseys get left on the field. Mohumed hardly notices. Like the kids, his attention is fixed on the television crews filming nearby. The reporters, gesturing to the children behind them, are talking about a terrorist attack at another mall, a half a world away in Nairobi, Kenya.

Mohumed, 23, is fighting a daily battle to save hundreds of kids from a life of drugs and gangs—never mind terrorist groups. But just as America’s national security officials constantly warn, dozens of thwarted terrorist attacks mean little when one succeeds. And for Mohumed, and the Somalis of Minneapolis, the Kenya attack has once again cast a shadow over their community.

On Sept. 19, terrorists besieged an upscale mall in Nairobi frequented by diplomats and the Kenyan elite. At least 70 were killed, a death toll likely to mount. Al-Shabab, a Somali terrorist group, claimed responsibility, demanding that Kenya remove its peacekeeping troops from Somalia. Within hours of the attack, rumors shot across the Internet that the terrorists included some Somali Americans from Minnesota. Minnesota has lost any where from 25 to 40 young men to al-Shabab in the past six years.

(MORE: U.K. ‘White Widow’ Wanted After Kenya Terror Attack)

In the days since the attack began, no link to the Minneapolis community has been confirmed. No families have come forward in Minneapolis to say their sons were involved in the attack. An initial list of names allegedly released by al-Shabab included three men from Minnesota but proved to be false. But Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed on Monday told PBS that “one or two” of the terrorists came from Minnesota, though the government has yet to identify these men and it’s unclear if she was speaking from knowledge or off of rumors. And on Tuesday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said intelligence had linked the attack to the Minneapolis Somalis.

Al-Shabab has a history of recruitment from this community—the largest, most successful terrorist radicalization of American immigrants ever. Al-Shabab’s efforts in Minnesota, which is home to more than 30,000 Somalis, began in 2007 after the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. The Ethiopians came in at the request of the transitional Somali government with the backing of the African Union and the U.S., but some Somalis viewed it as a hostile intervention in their country. Al-Shabab cast itself as a resistance organization.

Most in the first two waves of al-Shabab recruits were between 16 and 19. Nimco Ahmed, a young Somali community activist, knew many of the young men who left in the first wave to join al-Shabab. Amongst them were straight-A high school and college students. “We lost some of our best and brightest,” she says. “We feel doubly victimized, to lose our children and brothers to terrorism and to be painted as terrorists ourselves.”

(VIEWPOINT: America Should Fear Somali Terror)

Al-Shabab quickly went from resistance movement to terrorist organization. In October 2008, Shirwa Ahmed, 26, of Minneapolis became the first known American suicide bomber after he drove a car full of explosives into a government compound in northern Somalia. Despite al-Shabab’s increasing radicalization—in 2011 they joined al Qaeda—it still attracted a trickle of American recruits. From 2009 to current day between five and 10 Somali Americans from Minnesota have joined al-Shabab, according to Abdirizak Bihi, a community leader whose nephew was killed fighting for al-Shabab.

Almost all of the young men have been accounted for. Most died fighting in Somalia. Some are in prison. Only three are known to remain at large, according to Bob Fletcher, a former Ramsay County Sheriff who now runs the Center for Somalia History Studies: Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax, Mohamed Osman and Omar Ali Farah. Faarax is one of al-Shabab’s leaders, according to his 2011 indictment in absentia. He taunts Somali community leaders in Minneapolis on social media. Osman and Farah are troubling to the community: both left last July, showing that despite six year of FBI scrutiny, al-Shabab is still having some success recruiting in Minneapolis.

How are these young men still falling through the cracks? When they can’t find jobs, fail out of school and don’t feel accepted by mainstream America, they often find solace in mosques, community leaders say. Nearly a dozen of the al-Shabab recruits came from one mosque, the Abuubakar Islamic Center. In May, Mahamud Said Omar, a former janitor at the center, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for recruiting young men and sending them to Somalia for al-Shabab, amongst other terrorist activities.

Part of the blame also lies with the government, says Mohamed Farah, executive director of Ka Joog, a nonprofit that helps Somali youths in Minnesota. “The federal government made some promises earlier this year, but nothing has come of it,” Farah told TIME. “We get some arts funding from the State but nothing from Minneapolis. Our biggest problem is funding. No one becomes radicalized overnight. In order to stop al-Shabab we have to empower local entities like Ka Joog.”

Last year, Ka Joog engaged 10,000 Somali American kids. “Ninety-nine percent of Somalis here are good, law abiding people. There’s maybe 1% that are extremist, that are al-Shabab, and yet the whole community gets tainted by them,” Farah says. “If all people see of Somalis are terrorists and pirates, then all they’re going to think of when we go to job interviews, to school applications is, these are terrorists and pirates.”

(MORETerror in Nairobi: Behind al-Shabab’s War With Kenya)

The intense FBI scrutiny that has come with the al-Shabab link also hasn’t helped, says Omar Jamal, First Secretary at the Somali Mission to the UN who splits his time between Minneapolis and New York. “Putting pressure on the community can also break trust with a community, which creates a backlash,” Jamal says. “This, in turn, creates a haven for sleeper cells as no one in the community will report them. This is what has happened here in the last five years. They can attack anywhere. The Westgate mall, the Mall of America.”

In the wake of the Kenya attack, the Mall of America has upped its security. Back at the Brian Coyle Center, Ahmed says the mosques are making an effort to emphasize that the Koran forbids killing. “It’s not religious what al-Shabab does,” she says. She reminds Mohumed that there’s a vigil on Friday for the victims of the Nairobi attack. “I thought it was a protest,” says Mohumed, who spent years in a Kenya refugee camp before making it to the U.S.

“A protest?” replies Ahmed. “Who are we protesting here? Ourselves? No, the only thing we can do is show our support. And pray. For them and for us.”

MOREKenya’s Somali Population Fear Reprisals After Mall Attack