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.
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.
Despite the concerted efforts of the FBI and other counterterrorism agencies, the ability of al Shabaab and other groups in the global jihad network to recruit individuals has increased significantly over the past few years. Al Shabaab is not the only international terrorist organization that has attempted to recruit Westerners into its ranks. Recently, Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s media arm, the al Malahem Foundation, released al Qaeda’s first official English-language publication, a lengthy magazine it called Inspire. The magazine encourages Westerners to carry out small-scale attacks, provides basic instruction on how to make a bomb, and offers instructions on how to join the group in Yemen.
The American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al Awlaki wrote the feature article in that magazine. Both Chesser and Masri, the two individuals arrested for attempting to join al Shabaab, have mentioned Awlaki’s influence on their beliefs. Awlaki’s English-language messages have the ability to reach and inspire aspiring militants nestled into Western societies. Awlaki is the first known American citizen to have been placed on the CIA’s “capture or kill” list, and the U.S. Treasury Department and UN recently placed him on their respective terrorist lists for his leadership role in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Efforts by al Shabaab and other al Qaeda-affiliated organizations to attract Americans into their ranks only multiply the threat posed by such groups. Al Qaeda and its associated movements appear to have made the recruitment of Americans and Westerners a top priority in their overall strategy. American recruits increase the likelihood of a group’s ability to strike abroad because of the access that American passports allow to international targets. Further, American recruits can identify and provide insight on targets inside the U.S., as revealed by the Pakistani Taliban’s decision to let the Times Square Bomber – an American citizen – choose his own target. Finally, American recruits have the ability to enhance a group’s propaganda efforts and attract even more English-speakers. The counterterrorism community has demonstrated its ability this past month to track and apprehend aspiring American terrorists, but, unfortunately, the terrorist groups have ramped up their efforts to attract even more Western recruits.
Chris Harnisch and Katherine Zimmerman are analysts for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.