LONDON - It has been five years since Shirwa Ahmed, a 26-year-old from Minneapolis, blew himself up in northern Somalia, and sent shivers up American spines about young immigrants from war-torn Muslim countries who were turning into terrorists. Unconfirmed reports that American Muslims might have been among the gunmen who stormed Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall over the weekend will no doubt revive fears of the “enemy within.”
I know the Westgate well. Nairobi was my jumping-off point for many research trips to Somalia in 2011 and 2012. The sunny terrace of the ArtCaffe, with its excellent coffee and free Wi-Fi, became my virtual office. I shopped often in the mall’s Nakumatt supermarket, where the jihadis staged their attack. They reportedly singled out non-Muslims for execution by asking them the name of the Prophet’s mother: a test that I would not have passed.
I remain, however, unafraid of Somalis, least of all of Americanized ones. I spent time in Minnesota in 2011 - the Twin Cities is home to the greatest concentration in the United States of Somalis in exile - and uncovered this reassuring truth: Hotheads inclined to support the Shabab may exist in Minneapolis, but they are a mere handful in a community of tens of thousands of Somalis who want nothing to do with extremist Islamism.
While Islamist recruiters remain active, officials report far less traffic on the route back to the terror war at home than there was five years ago. (The Justice Department contended in a terrorism-related trial last fall that more than 20 men had left Minnesota for Somalia since 2007 to join the Shabab.)
Meanwhile, the diaspora in Minnesota sends a steady flow of remittances to relatives in Somalia, along with leadership and advice for the country’s fragile new government. Cedar-Riverside, the Minneapolis district known as Little Somalia, feels integrated and safe. In short, and despite the disaster in Nairobi, there is reason to hope that the generation of young Somalis whom some Americans fear may actually be one of Somalia’s best hopes for a stable future.
That transition is partly a result of changes in Somalia: African Union troops drove the Shabab from Mogadishu, the capital, in 2011 and remain as peacekeepers. (Kenya’s military involvement in the African Union operation appears to be the Shabab’s main justification for the Westgate attack.)
An elected government rules with United Nations backing. Although the Shabab still control much of the countryside and an occasional bomb goes off in the capital, Mogadishu is being rebuilt; its beach-side restaurants have been full on weekends, as have been arriving flights.
But the main motor of change in Somalia has been Somalis themselves, and their links between home and exile. Tellingly, many of the new government’s cabinet ministers are returned exiles. Total remittances from diaspora communities, furthermore, dwarf international aid. In the Twin Cities the chief source for those remittances has been Somali-owned businesses: Hundreds were operating there in 2012.
Not all is rosy in the Twin Cities, of course. Many Somalis there live in economically marginal communities and, as elsewhere, some teenagers join criminal street gangs. So law enforcement officials still watch to see if some will turn to jihadism.
After all, in the words of Zuhur Ahmed, a woman in her 20s who used to host a Minneapolis radio show called Somali Community Link, the motives for joining a street gang and for signing on as a jihadi can be similar - typically, an alienated boy’s desperate yearning for identity and importance. The Shabab, she noted, means “the youth” in Arabic. “They’re just street boys who want to belong somewhere,” she told me.
But if young people are impressionable, their malleability can cut both ways. And there seem to be many more ambitious young Somalis who seize opportunities for work and education, and adopt Western values.
Last spring, the online forum Open Democracy posted a Wake Forest University student’s account of a poll canvassing Somalis in their late teens and 20s in 38 countries. Of 700 respondents, 87 percent said they had a degree or were working toward one, and 37 percent said they had been back to Somalia in the last five years. Though unscientific, the study hints at the esteem in which aspiring Somalis hold learning, as well as at a persistent interest in their homeland.
One example is Mohamed Hassan, a principal planning analyst for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, who emigrated to the city in the early 1990s and is now in his 40s. With fellow exiles, he helped establish government services for his home district, Adado, in central Somalia. One of them, Mohamed Aden, better known by his nickname, Tiiceey, returned there to run the administration and focus on counteracting pirates. Hassan and the others have stayed on in Minnesota, sending financial and other support.
Or consider Nimco Ahmed, a Minneapolis official and a Democratic Party stalwart who works with marginalized communities, and whose office has a photograph of her alongside President Obama. She regularly returns to Somalia. Her enthusiasm to succeed as an American has made her locally famous. Yet she was a high-school friend of Shirwa Ahmed, before he turned terrorist.
There are comparable stories in Britain, home to hundreds of thousands of Somalis. Adam Matan, 27, is a “community engagement officer” in the local council in Hounslow, a London borough. Repelled by the traditional loyalties to clan and tribe that he blames for Somalia’s chaos, he began online an international Anti-Tribalism Movement for Somalia that now boasts more than 100,000 members, most in their 20s.
A principal goal is to lower the average age in Somalia’s Parliament. The United States Embassy in London, meanwhile, has reached out to that city’s Elays (“Beacon”) network of young Somali activists, who produce films about dealing with obstacles that include prejudice and stereotyping. The embassy tutored them in publicizing their efforts with the slogan, “That’s not our jihad.”
Such early interventions - getting to the young before extremists do - is surely a key to countering radicalization. So Americans wondering how to address the marginalization of young Muslim immigrants might examine what their own country’s embassy in Britain, and many Somali-Americans in Minnesota, are already doing.
Both stake their hopes on a simple, visionary premise: Given opportunities, support and acknowledgment that Islam and violence are not synonyms, the vast majority of young diaspora Muslims are likely to reject extremism on their own.
James Fergusson, a journalist, is the author of “The World’s Most Dangerous Place — Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia.”