The bombing of a Kenyan shopping mall by the terrorist organization Al-Shabab is shining an unwelcome spotlight on Minnesota’s Somali community, which has been tied in the past to terrorism and Islamic extremism.
Home to the largest Somali community in the United States, the Twin Cities has been a recruiting ground for Al-Shabab, an Al-Qaida-linked extremist Islamic group that has taken responsibility for carrying out the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
Minnesota Somali leaders on Monday moved quickly to distance the community from the attacks, while awaiting word on the possibility that recruits from the state may once again be involved in violent terrorist action overseas. They refused to address reports that Somali-Americans were involved in the attack and said they had little information about who may have been involved.
Kyle Loven, a spokesman for the FBI in Minnesota, said the local office’s investigation into recruitment of Somali-Americans into Al-Shabab remains active. He added that the local office is monitoring the situation in Nairobi but is not able to confirm identities of anyone involved.
At an afternoon news conference, several Somali religious leaders sought to address any potential suspicions of a local connection, pushed to the forefront by a weekend Twitter post, later called inaccurate, that two of the Nairobi attackers were from Minnesota. Also on Monday, a Kenyan official told PBS NewsHour that two or three Americans were involved in the attack, and that one or two of them may have lived in Minnesota.
“The safety and security of the United States is of utmost importance to Somali-Americans, and we are committed to be in the forefront of defeating extremism,” said Abdisalam Adam, an imam of the Islamic Civic Society of America.
They called on Muslim youth to reject being recruited into extremist groups, and for religious leaders to preach about the dangers of extremist ideologies.
“This kind of activity, killing innocent people, has no base or any relationship with Islam,” said Abdirizak Hashi, an imam at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis.
“They do not represent any religion, they do not represent any community, they do not represent any nationality,” said Ibrahim Baraki, a Kenya native. “They are an organized group of criminals who have conspired to kill and destroy innocent lives. They are nothing but criminals. They are not Muslims.”
In what the FBI has said is one of the largest efforts to recruit Americans to a foreign terrorist group, at least 20 men have left Minnesota since 2007 to join the organization. Two have died as suicide bombers.
A federal judge sentenced four men to prison this year for helping recruit young men in Minnesota to travel to Somalia and fight for the militant group.
Abdirizak Bihi, a Twin Citian whose nephew was recruited and later killed, said he has heard from relatives that at least two young Somali-American men from the Twin Cities left for Somalia earlier this month and have not been heard from.
“It’s a scary situation,” said Bihi, who has become an advocate for and de facto recorder of Somalis who have left. “We may not know for some time what the end result will be.”
Meanwhile, a Minnesota Somali woman is worried about two nieces hurt in Kenya. Hodan Hassan of Minnetonka says the 17-year-old and 16-year-old were shopping when the attackers struck. She said the older one is in critical condition; the other was not as seriously hurt. She says they’re Canadian citizens who moved to Nairobi three years ago.
Former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who now teaches courses on Minnesota’s Somali community and ties to Al-Shabab, said it would be wrong to assume a similarity to the previous cases. Fletcher was part of a group who taught a course last year, “Being Prepared for Al-Shabab,” to law enforcement and others.
The nature of recruitment in Minnesota has changed and so has the makeup of Al-Shabab, he said.
Fletcher said religious leaders who might have encouraged radicalization may be less likely to be outspoken about recruitment to Al-Shabab because of the FBI’s investigation and successful federal prosecutions.
In addition, local Somali men who went to fight around 2007 and 2008 were fighting to drive out Ethiopian occupiers. When the Ethiopians left in January 2009, Fletcher said, Al-Shabab morphed into a more hard-line Islamist organization and many who believed in the nationalist cause left.
A large number of the Somali community in Minnesota started turning against Al-Shabab after a December 2009 bombing that targeted members of Somalia’s fledgling parliament.
Fletcher said anyone recruited now is likely to be more extreme in their religious views and Al-Shabab is attracting fewer potential fighters.
Despite what he said are signs of Al-Shabab being weakened, Fletcher said, poverty and isolation are still factors that could contribute to local Somalis being recruited.
“If they don’t succeed in America, there are three options: they can drop out of school and become a blight on the community, or they can join gangs, or they find respite in extremism,” Fletcher said. “We want the fourth alternative and that is where they succeed in the American opportunity.”