There is no single model to explain young Somali-Americans’ yearning to join terror groups like Al-Shabab and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Alienation, however, is a critical factor that makes young people susceptible to terrorist propaganda. Fortunately, there are policy opportunities to address the problem.
Many of the young men who have traveled overseas were either born and raised in America or were brought here at a very young age. America is the only country they know. So this is not a problem of first-generation immigrants longing to go back to an original homeland.
Moreover, the root cause is not Islam. Youths who have attempted or traveled overseas had limited knowledge of Islam. Some were involved in self-destructive behaviors, including drugs and alcohol abuse and gang membership, before departure. These activities indicate a lack of the self-discipline encouraged in Islam.
Eliminating religion and immigration leaves us with alienation as a critical contributing factor. The alienation in the Somali-American youth experience is the result of rejection, at two levels.
First is rejection by parents. Somali parents often engage youth issues only when the situation reaches a crisis. Ask any school administrator with a large population of Somali-American students, and the problem becomes apparent.
Young Somali-Americans attend school with the added burdens of being among the minority cultures, and come home to parents engrossed with the affairs of Somalia. The combination aggravates the experience of alienation.
Rejection by the broader community is the second level. Somali-American students at St. Cloud Technical High School walked out twice in one month after school leaders failed to take action on numerous incidents of bullying. More than 200 Somali-American students became involved in a brawl in 2013 at South High in Minneapolis after school leaders failed to address issues that had festered for a long time.
Other examples of rejection don’t make headlines, but the experience of alienation is the same whether Somali-Americans live in St. Cloud, Minneapolis, St. Paul or Twin Cities suburbs.
Deeper alienation follows when young Somali-Americans resort to social media in their search for belonging and become recruiting candidates for international terrorists. Resources for after-school activities, such as tutoring, recreation and mentorship, would certainly provide alternatives to trolling social media for camaraderie.
Another policy option would be to clarify the “material support” clause in the Patriot Act. According to Hassan Mohamud, an imam and adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law, it’s not clear whether faith leaders could become liable for attempting to talk a youth out of thoughts about joining a terrorist organization. Sweeping provisions such as this one have created an atmosphere of fear and have abridged freedom of speech, pushing discussion of ISIL and Al-Shabab to dark alleys.
Ultimately, the Somali community must embark on a process of disengaging from the politics and economy of Somalia and focusing their young people on America. Somali politics and economics have become synonymous with conflict. The strong, grass-roots political connection the community maintains with Somalia can carry that conflict to Minnesota.
American policymakers can help with the disengagement process by imposing restrictions. Restrictions will help to scale back the constant drumbeat and the unabated political events in Minnesota about fixing Somalia. This will shift focus to youth alienation.
One way is to restrict visas for the parade of Somali politicians traveling to places like the Twin Cities. Only leaders from Somalia working on humanitarian efforts should be allowed to enter Minnesota. Those working on behalf of Somalia and other foreign entities should have their movements limited to Washington, D.C., and New York, and should be monitored. American passport holders should justify any involvement in Somalia’s politics and economy.
Another long-term policy opportunity here at home in America is to reform mainstream institutions by making them more responsive to new members. Images of high school students walking out of class or of massive brawls in cafeterias because school leaders fail to take adequate action are not acceptable.
It’s imperative to recognize alienation and understand better how it makes young Somali-Americans susceptible to terrorist propaganda. Policy opportunities highlighted in this column should be the forefront in our collective effort to address the problem.
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.