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«Al Shabaab’s American Recruits Updated: February, 2015 A wave of Americans traveling to Somalia to fight with Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-linked ...»

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Al Shabaab’s American Recruits

Updated: February, 2015

A wave of Americans traveling to Somalia to fight with Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist

group, was described by the FBI as one of the "highest priorities in anti-terrorism."

Americans began traveling to Somalia to join Al Shabaab in 2007, around the time the group

stepped up its insurgency against Somalia's transitional government and its Ethiopian supporters, who

have since withdrawn. At least 50 U.S. citizens and permanent residents are believed to have joined or attempted to join or aid the group since that time.

The number of Americans joining Al Shabaab began to decline in 2012, and by 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) replaced Al Shabaab as the terrorist group of choice for U.S. recruits. However, there continue to be new cases of Americans attempting to join or aid Al Shabaab.

These Americans have received weapons training alongside recruits from other countries, including Britain, Australia, Sweden and Canada, and have used the training to fight against Ethiopian forces, African Union troops and the internationally-supported Transitional Federal Government in Somalia, according to court documents.

Most of the American men training with Al Shabaab are believed to have been radicalized in the U.S., especially in Minneapolis, according to U.S. officials. The FBI alleges that these young men have been recruited by Al Shabaab both on the Internet and in person.

One such recruit from Minneapolis, 22-year-old Abidsalan Hussein Ali, was one of two suicide bombers who attacked African Union troops on October 29, 2011. He was identified by his family as speaking in an audio message released by Al Shabaab claiming credit for the bombing. Somali authorities reported that 10 people were killed in the ensuing firefight.

Ali is the third American suicide bomber. The first, Shirwa Ahmed, carried out a suicide bombing at the Ethiopian Consulate and the presidential palace in Hargeisa killing 24 people in October 2009. The second, Farah Mohamad Beledi, carried out a suicide bombing on May 30, 2011, targeting a military base outside Mogadishu, the Somali capital, killing two African Union peacekeepers and a Somali soldier.

Federal investigators have also looked into reports about whether another American was involved in a suicide attack in Mogadishu in September 2009 that killed 21 people. The identity of that attacker has never been confirmed.

Additionally, Al Shabaab claimed that three Americans took part in its assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, on September 21, 2013. Al Shabaab named Ahmed Mohamed Isse of St. Paul, Minnesota, Abdifatah Osman Keenadiid of Minneapolis, and Gen Mustafe Noorudiin of Kansas City, Missouri as attackers via the organization’s Twitter feed. As of October, 2013, Al Shabaab’s claims had not been verified by American law enforcement. In addition, other Twitter accounts claiming to be Al Shabaab have suggested that other Americans were also involved.

FBI director Robert Mueller said he was "absolutely" concerned that the young American men may return to the U.S. with their passports and attempt to carry out an attack on U.S. soil similar to the foiled plot in Australia, in which Somali-Australians allegedly affiliated with Al Shabaab planned to carry out a suicide attack on a Sydney army base after returning from Somalia.

While there have been no similar plots in the United States to date, Al Shabaab's desire to expand its operations outside of Somali and its ability to attract American recruits, presents a significant threat to the U.S.

Recruitment in the U.S.

Al Shabaab, the FBI alleges, has made an "active and deliberate attempt" to recruit young American men both in person and on the Internet. "These young men have been recruited to fight in a foreign war by individuals and groups using violence against government troops and civilians," said B. Todd Jones, U.S.

Attorney for the District of Minneapolis, who brought charges against some of the men.

Mahamud Said Omar, a former janitor at Abubaker AsSaddique Islamic Center, a mosque many of the defendants attended, played a major role in recruiting some of the young men, according to the Department of Justice. In November 2009, Omar was arrested in the Netherlands and charged in a Minneapolis District Court with providing the young men funding to travel to Somalia. He also allegedly visited Shabaab safe-house and donated money to the group for the purchase of AK-47 rifles for the Minneapolis men to use. In October 2012, Omar was found guilty of five charges related to his recruitment for Al Shabaab and was sentenced to 20- years in prison on May 13,

2013. The Department of Justice has found no evidence that the mosque's leadership was involved in recruitment.

Two men who pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists, Abdifatah Yusuf Isse and Salah Osman Ahmed, claimed in their defenses that they were recruited in Minneapolis to join Al Shabaab.

In a motion filed by Isse's lawyer, he said the recruitment happened "at a place of worship." Ahmed reportedly admitted that he attended "secret meetings" beginning in October 2007. Isse and Ahmed were both sentenced to 3-years in prison on May 14, 2013.

Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Minneapolis who the Department of Justice alleges previously fought "jihad" in Somalia, held meetings at private residences and a mosque where described his experiences in Somalia as "true brotherhood."

There is also concern that some American recruits return to the United States after spending time in Somalia with the goal of radicalizing others. After having been trained by Al Shabaab, they are able to assimilate back into their home communities, particularly in Minnesota, and “pose a significant threat” according to local law enforcement.

Young American men have also been targeted for recruitment by Al Shabaab through propaganda videos posted on the Internet. Omar Hammami, an Alabama native who became the public face and voice of Al Shabaab, has appeared in several videos urging foreigners "to come and live the life of a mujahid."

After an ambush shown in a March 2009 video, Hammami, who is identified in the video as Abu Mansour al Amriki (Arabic for "Abu Mansour the American"), praised a killed fighter as a martyr and said, "We need more like him, so if you can encourage more of your children and more of your neighbors and anyone around you to send people like him to this jihad, it would be a great asset for us." Hammami also maintained an active Twitter feed with which he regularly interacted with Americans.

Hammami has since become a cautionary tale for supporters of Al Shabaab. In March 2012 it became clear that he was in an open and public conflict with Al Shabaab’s leadership, primarily over differences between a global and local view of Shabaab’s mission. That same month, Hammami publicly declared that he fears that “my life may be endangered by [Al Shabaab] due to some differences that occurred between us regarding matters of the Shariah and matters of strategy.” The conflict between Hammami and Al Shabaab leadership grew over the course of the year to the point where he publicly broke from both Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda on September 5, 2013, claiming that he was still a terrorist but was disenchanted with Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda. The rift culminated in Hammami’s killing on September 12, 2013, ostensibly by Al Shabaab’s elite intelligence service, the Amniyatt Mukhabarat.

Al Shabaab has put together numerous additional videos with the goal of recruiting Americans. In April 2009, two men who identified themselves as Abu Muslim and Abu Yaxye appeared in another video claiming to be "Somali youth" from the United States who joined Al Shabaab. "We came from the U.S. with a good life and a good education, but we came to fight alongside our brothers of Al Shabaab…to be killed for the sake of God," Abu Muslim reportedly said in the video. Later in the video, Abu Yaxye added, "We are here to invite others to come and join us." Another video, released in August 2013, is specifically focused on the large Somali-American populations of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Titled “The Path to Paradise: From the Twin Cities to the Land of the Two Migrations,” it presents a standard Islamist narrative of the obligation to fight and then focuses on the importance of leaving the US to join Al Shabaab, including personal narratives by different individuals who have made the trip. One of the featured jihadists, named Muhammed, tells viewers, “This is the best place to be, honestly.… If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here – this is the real Disneyland.” He concludes by urging, “Everyone who is a real Muslim…who really wants to serve in the cause of Allah…come here and join us so that we can die for the sake of Allah.” In 2014, Al Shabaab began calling for homegrown attacks against the U.S. in its videos as well. A video released in May 2014 presented Muslims living abroad with two options: undertaking a “lone wolf mission” in their home countries or traveling abroad to join the group. And a video released in February 2015 called on Image from 2015 video calling for attacks on Western shopping centers followers to attack “American and Jewish-owned shopping centers across the world,” with specific threats directed at “the Mall of America in Minnesota, or the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, or in London’s Oxford Street, or any of the hundred or so Jewish-owned Westfield shopping centers.” Prior to leaving Minnesota, several of the men who trained with Al Shabaab reportedly listened to a sermon titled "Constants on the Path of Jihad" given by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric living in Yemen who targets English-speaking Muslim audiences with radical online lectures that encourage attacks against the West and non-Muslims. In December 2008, al-Awlaki praised Al Shabaab, calling on all Muslims to "help them with men and money."

Some of the men raised funds for their travels from other members of the Somali community in Minneapolis by lying about what they intended to do with the money. In one instance, some of the men told members of the Somali community that one young man needed money to study Quran in Saudi Arabia, according to court documents.

Efforts to recruit fighters for Al Shabaab have taken place in other countries as well. For example, an Al Shabaab recruiter at a youth recreation center in Stockholm, Sweden, reportedly showed YouTube clips that encouraged young people to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs. Approximately 20 individuals from Sweden have been recruited by Al Shabaab, according to the Swedish security service. Other foreign recruits come from Australia, the United Kingdom, South Asia, and the Middle East. And Al Shabaab listed individuals from Canada, the UK, and Finland among the attackers on the Westgate Mall in addition to the three Americans previously mentioned.

Al Shabaab

Al Shabaab (Arabic for "the youth") is an Islamic militant group that seeks to create an Islamic state in Somalia. Al Shabaab is linked to Al Qaeda both ideologically and through leadership contacts, training and joint operations in the Horn of Africa, according to U.S.


In a February 2010 press conference, Al Shabaab announced it was aligned with Al Qaeda "to confront the international crusaders and their aggression against the Muslim people." In order to do so, an Al Shabaab leader said, "the jihad of the Horn of Africa must be combined with international jihad led by the Al Qaeda network headed by Sheikh Osama bin Laden."

In June 2011, Al Shabaab reaffirmed its affiliation to Al Qaeda by swearing allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, who assumed leadership of Al Qaeda after bin Laden's death in May 2011.

A joint communiqué issued by Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda in February 2012 further solidified the relationship between the two groups. Zawahiri welcomed "the joining of the Al Shabaab Al Muhajideen Movement in Somalia to Al Qaeda in support of the jihad gathering in the face of the Zionist Crusade campaign."

Another indication of Al Shabaab's ties with Al Qaeda is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed's leadership role in the Somali-based terrorist organization. Mohammad, a member of Al Qaeda, traveled to Somalia for the first time in the early 1990s to train Somalis to fight the American and U.N. forces, after he had trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He brought Al Qaeda tactics, including suicide bombings to Somalia, and served as a conduit for foreign financing and fighters to join Al Shabaab.

Mohammed was wanted by the U.S. government for allegedly masterminding the 1998 U.S.

Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 220 people including 12 Americans.

Kenyan officials have also alleged that Mohammed organized a November 2002 failed missile attack on an Israeli airliner and the bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Mombasa, Kenya, which killed 15 people.

Mohammed was killed at a checkpoint in Mogadishu in June 2011. At the time of his death, Mohammed was found with a list of targets including several prominent institutions in Britain.

Another Al Qaeda leader with links to Al Shabaab was Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was killed in a U.S. raid in Somalia in September 2009. He was also connected to the 1998 Embassy bombings as well as the attacks on the Israeli airliner and resort in Kenya.

Al Shabaab has also established links to the Yemeni regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This relationship was highlighted by information gathered from an Al Shabaab leader, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, who was detained by the American military while traveling between Somalia and Yemen. He reportedly confirmed that Al Shabaab seeks to expand its operations beyond Somalia and has received training and weapons from AQAP.

Al Shabaab started as the military wing of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts, which took over most of southern Somalia in 2006. Though this group was routed by the Somali government and Ethiopian forces, a clan-based insurgent terrorist group remained. The group has managed to exert control over much of southern and central Somalia and controlled large portions of the capital, Mogadishu until it was routed in August, 2011.

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