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Al Shabaab Effectively Recruits Americans

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The Department of Justice last Thursday unsealed indictments charging 14 individuals – mostly American citizens – of allegedly supporting, or attempting to support, the al Qaeda-linked Somali terrorist group al Shabaab. Only two of the 14 individuals named are currently in U.S. custody – the rest are believed to be in Somalia. 

Al Shabaab Effectively Recruits Americans

Rescuers in Uganda after al Shabaab's July 11 attack.

The unsealing of the indictments came two days after the FBI arrested Shaker Masri, a 26-year-old Chicagoan born in Alabama, who was planning to travel to Somalia to execute a suicide attack targeting “infidels.” Less than a month ago, U.S. federal authorities also arrested northern Virginia resident Zachary Adam Chesser after he attempted to travel to Somalia, allegedly to join al Shabaab.  This string of arrests reveals the alarming success al Shabaab has achieved in recruiting aspiring Western militants and reflects the challenge the counterterrorism community faces in combating this threat.

At least two dozen Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Somalia in support of al Shabaab since late 2007, shortly after the group began operating as an autonomous entity.  Al Shabaab recognized the value of foreign – and especially Western – fighters early on: As one top al Shabaab official said in 2008, “We seek to empower the shari’a of Allah and commit His faith to His worshippers, in perfect conformity between the global jihad and the jihad in Somalia. However, [we] lack the precious element of the foreign fighters. There are an insufficient number of non-Somali brothers.”  The group has since put forth a robust effort to fill that void and reach out to Westerners.  It has released numerous English-language recruiting videos and statements, and, in 2010, nearly all of the group’s significant videos have been in English or at least included English subtitles.  Notably, one of the group’s early statements taking credit for the July 11 Uganda bombings appeared in a well-written English communiqué.

Al Shabaab also regularly features an Alabama-born commander in its ranks named Abu Mansour al Amriki, whose given name is Omar Hammami.  Al Amriki has not only served as an English-speaking recruiter for al Shabaab, but as a high-ranking commander. He serves as a model – proving to aspiring American militants that they, too, can achieve positions of prominence in the group.  Prosecutors unsealed a September 2009 indictment on Thursday that charges al Amriki with providing material support to al Shabaab.

The most recently unsealed indictments are a further indication that al Shabaab has an intricate grassroots recruiting network in the United States and Europe, which Attorney General Eric Holder described as a “deadly pipeline that has routed funding and fighters” to Somalia. In addition to those who have left to fight in Somalia, al Shabaab has recruited individuals to raise funds to support the group.  One of the unsealed indictments documented that two such individuals, Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, provided funding to al Shabaab between September 17, 2008 and July 19, 2009.  An estimated 2 to 3 million Somalis live outside their homeland, and approximately 150,000 to 200,000 live in the United States – most in Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta, Washington, and Columbus, Ohio.  The majority of Somalis – both in and out of Somalia – adheres to the peaceful brand of Sufi Islam and detests al Shabaab and the radical form of Islam that it espouses.  Al Shabaab, however, has successfully used surrogate recruiters and fundraisers, including imams, at mosques and community centers to prey on Somalis and silence the families of potential recruits.

The recent arrests of Americans seeking to join al Shabaab prove the success of the group’s recruiting efforts and the continued threat to national security posed by al Qaeda-affiliated movements abroad.  The FBI has taken clear steps to combat al Shabaab’s outreach to the Somali community, especially in Minnesota.  There is an ongoing, two-year long investigation into the recruitment of individuals from the U.S. to fight with al Shabaab.  A total of 19 people, including those revealed on Thursday, are known to have been charged in Minnesota alone, nine of whom have been arrested and five of whom pled guilty.

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