American Terrorists In Somalia
An alarming number of young Somali-Americans are returning to the Horn of Africa to fight for a jihadist group.
By Sean J. Miller
The National Journal, August 1, 2009
The FBI is struggling to determine why an alarming number of young Somali-Americans are leaving behind their U.S. lives in cities such as Minneapolis and returning to the Horn of Africa to fight for Al Shabaab, a jihadist terrorist organization in Somalia aligned with Al Qaeda.
Even more troubling, sources say, the FBI has a limited number of ways to track these young men. Without informants in the Somali community, the bureau uses passport numbers, names, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth to determine a suspect's whereabouts. The problem is that many ethnic Somalis share common names, and approximately 60 percent of the refugees who resettled in the United States after the U.S. intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s were assigned January 1 birthdays by the United Nations because they lacked documentation, according to the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. 'If your name is a generic name and your date of birth is assigned to you as an 01/01 birthday — how do you know that's the actual person you're interested in?' asked a Justice Department source who is not authorized to speak to reporters. 'Who do you say should be flagged?'
Moreover, the FBI is concerned that these young men could return from Somalia to the Midwest and other parts of this country battle-hardened and radicalized. 'We can't rule that out,' said E.K. Wilson, an agent in the FBI's Minneapolis bureau, 'because of the ideology involved, because of the training they're receiving, because of their status as American citizens.'
Countering the threat of so-called homegrown terrorism from within the Somali-American community has become a major priority for the bureau since last October. That was when a young Somali-American man named Shirwa Ahmed died in an apparent suicide attack targeting government offices in northern Somalia. Ahmed is 'what we believe to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing,' FBI Director Robert Mueller recently told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. 'It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.'
Officials believe that Ahmed was among some 20 young men of Somali descent who, traveling in two groups, left the United States in the past 18 months for Somalia, said Andre Le Sage, a counter-terrorism expert with the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. 'This is the largest group of American citizens that's ever been known to join a terrorist [group].' Reports conflict about what these young men expected to find once they arrived in Somalia — some may simply have been naive adventure seekers. But with American casualties beginning to appear in Somalia's ongoing civil war, 'the real concern is that they're fighting for Al Shabaab right now,' the Justice Department source said, adding, 'There are only 20 people we've managed to identify. Are there more? That's the big fear. We don't know who they are.'
Al Shabaab, which translates as 'the youth,' is an Islamist militant group that emerged in Somalia after the Ethiopian military invasion of 2006 routed the Islamic Courts Union. It is currently fighting the Western-backed Somali government for control of the capital, Mogadishu, and the southern region of the country. 'These Americans are fighting against a U.S. ally abroad,' the Justice Department source said, likening them to John Walker Lindh, an American who was captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. The FBI has launched an international investigation to determine how large Al Shabaab's recruitment effort was and what motivated Ahmed and the others to leave the comfort of their American lives, Wilson said. 'Obviously, nationalism comes into play. It's certain that the Ethiopian invasion played a large role in motivating these guys.' The U.S. and other African states encouraged Ethiopia to intervene in Somalia to defeat the Islamic Courts Union. Many Somalis, who have long been at odds with their Ethiopian neighbors, deeply resent that invasion.
The FBI is also conducting what Wilson called an 'extensive' outreach effort to try to build trust between the bureau and the Somali-American community. Wilson described the effort as 'frank' meetings, between agents and members of the Somali community, that have yielded tips. Still, the bureau knows what it's up against. Wilson said that agents in the field have to overcome the Somalis' 'distrustful' view of law enforcement. FBI Associate Executive Assistant Director Philip Mudd, who works in national security, recently complained to Congress that even the number of Somalis in the United States is difficult to pin down because of 'high rates of illegal immigration, widespread identity and documentation fraud, and a cultural reluctance to share personal information with census takers.' By most government estimates, the ethnic Somali community in the United States ranges from 150,000 to 200,000 and is concentrated in Minneapolis.
The Somali immigrant community has grown steadily since the early 1990s, when its country plunged into chaos after a coup toppled its last internationally recognized president. Before reaching America, most Somalis underwent processing by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at camps in northern Kenya. For those coming from rural areas without documents to prove their identities, the U.N. collected their information and then assigned them 01/01 birthdays with an approximate year. 'It's the agreed procedure now for people where you can't determine a birthday,' said Tim Irwin, a spokesman for UNHCR in Washington. And birthdays weren't the only problem. 'As with anywhere [that is] Arab-speaking, there's a lot of similarity in names,' said Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer for UNHCR. 'The challenge is keeping all the names straight.' Yungk recalled processing the family of a man named Albert Baba. 'He had four sons, all called Albert Baba,' Yungk said. 'The issue of identity is one [that] everyone is trying to improve upon.'
After the U.N. processes the Somalis, they wait for host countries to accept them. Those admitted to the United States must go through the Homeland Security Department's interview process before the State Department resettles them. DHS reinvestigates all of the information that UNHCR passes on, but it accepts the January 1 birthdays as valid. Other refugee populations, such as the Sudanese, have also been assigned 01/01 birthdays — a practice that has endured since the Vietnam War. Today, law enforcement officials are starting to realize how difficult it can be to track these individuals.
Officially, the FBI says that the January 1 birthdays aren't a 'major detriment' to its investigation, but other sources call them a 'nightmare.' As part of its intelligence-gathering, the FBI obtains the names of possible suspects from a variety of sources, including people at mosques in Minneapolis, websites, flight manifests, and intercepted telephone calls and e-mails, a Justice Department source said. Say, for example, a report comes in that a Somali-American named Muhammad Abdullahi, who is 27 years old, is recruiting for Al Shabaab, the source said. 'Finding who this Muhammad Abdullahi is, is a nightmare because of the ambiguous nature of that information.'
You don't want to flag the wrong person and subject him to more-intrusive inspections every time he goes to the airport, the source added. 'Contrary to popular opinion, we really do take privacy into account and we don't want to cast suspicions without a foundation of relevant information.' Giving people 01/01 birthdays 'as a policy,' the source added, 'makes that more challenging.'
Another challenge when dealing with Somali-Americans is that they have freedom of movement. 'You can put a travel restriction in [for all Americans not to visit Somalia], but you can't do it [just] for Somali-Americans,' said Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown's Center for Peace and Security Studies. 'It's very hard to stop people from going there.' Many in the Somali community are American citizens or permanent residents, he added, who have U.S. constitutional rights. 'You have a very high standard when you're trying to restrict their travel.'
The number of Somali-Americans being recruited to fight overseas could grow, Byman said. 'As the level of violence goes up, you're going to see more concern among Somali-Americans; and some of these, a small percentage, may be motivated to be directly involved.'