The terror group Al-Shabab in Somalia recently threatened the Mall of America. The threat was more serious than those issued before.
Even though Al-Shabab’s ability to plan and carry out an overseas operation has diminished over the years, the threat is real, since it takes little effort to commit an act of terrorism.
Terrorism is like a game of hockey. Rarely does anyone see all the great saves, but everyone sees the one that went in. Most people don’t see Al-Shabab’s losses, but do see the video threat on Mall of America.
The threat is also unique. Al-Shabab is part of Somalia’s political environment — one mired in perpetual violence for nearly a quarter-century now. Furthermore, the strong political connection that Somali-Americans have with Somalia provides Al-Shabab an edge in inspiring disenfranchised youths in Minnesota.
Many of the Somali-American young men who went back to Somalia acted out of political devotion. They wanted to fight Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006 but later joined Al-Shabab. Al-Shabab would have almost no chance of attracting Somali-American young people without a strong grass-roots political attachment to Somalia. But such connections create vulnerabilities that can be exploited, and terror groups like Al-Shabab are expert on exploitation.
It’s for this reason the threat on Mall of America presents a moment of clarity for Minnesota’s Somali-Americans. The time has come for them to start the process of disengaging from the violent politics of Somalia and starting to focus on political participation in America. This is the best long-term solution to eliminate vulnerabilities that could be exploited by terrorists.
The notion that Somali-Americans can engage effectively with politics in the United States and Somalia simultaneously is a fantasy.
This idea should be in no way misconstrued as an opposition to humanitarian activities, including finding a solution for the money-transfer services that recently were closed due to federal regulation. A mechanism to send money to family members in Somalia but to ensure that no money reaches Al-Shabab and other armed groups deserves support from Minnesota’s Somali community.
The current atmosphere in America is conducive for political shift. Genuine baby steps have occurred recently. For instance, the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism was a great milestone. It highlighted the plight of Somali-American youths. Somali community leaders spent time with both Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama and discussed how to move the community forward. Another example is Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s appointment of the first Somali-American to the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
A failure to disembark from the violent politics of Somalia could incubate the risk of Al-Shabab’s inspiring more youths. The sheer size of Minnesota’s Somali community increases the possibility of a lone-wolf terrorism attempt.
Even though Minnesota’s Somali community has no mechanism to prevent such an attack, how Somali-Americans would be treated after a failed attempt, let alone a successful one, is worrisome.
One potential parallel is Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The internment of Japanese-Americans was framed as protecting them from other Americans.
It could happen to Somali-Americans. We recently learned that Somalis have been profiled based on ethnicity at airports, with government approval. A government that secretly profiles citizens can also round them up.
This is a dark scenario, but here’s how it might transpire: First, the right to be considered innocent until proven otherwise, one of the cornerstones of the American legal system, would fall by the wayside. Second, cable news crews would converge on the scene of any terror event, broadcasting around the clock. Third, the national-security apparatus would be pressured to make an arrest, any arrest. Fourth, politicians would be enticed to make grandiose and irresponsible statements. Finally, the environment would be toxic and filled with an angry urge to search for Somali-Americans and punish them immediately.
No effort should be spared to prevent such a scenario. Minnesota’s Somali community is certainly not worthy of such evil treatment, nor is any subcommunity in America.
The best insurance policy is a political shift from Somalia to America, and the time has come for that transition. A disengagement from Somalia’s violent politics will pave the way for integration into American politics and, subsequently, economic integration, making Al-Shabab unattractive to Somali-American youths.
Jamal Abdulahi is a community organizer and independent analyst based in the Twin Cities. He can be reached by via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @fuguni.