Who is al-Shabaab? Who are the jihadist terrorists that attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya and slaughtered non-Muslims and anyone who could not recite an Islamic prayer or name the prophet Muhammad’s mother? They are an al-Qaeda affiliated group with links to the United States.
There are many conflicting reports coming out of Kenya. Some officials say Americans were involved in the Westgate Mall attack, while others say the nationalities of the terrorists cannot be confirmed. Kyle Loven, a Minneapolis FBI spokesman, told the Associated Press he could not confirm that Americans were involved.
Paul Bergen at CNN says Minnesota houses the largest Somali population in the United States. Many people fled Somalia to escape war, and many are now American citizens along with their children. But in 2007, Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax gathered several young men to persuade them to fight for al-Shabaab. He told them jihad would be fun and they would travel to Somalia.
One was Shirwa Ahmed, a 26-year-old naturalized American citizen. Ahmed became the first American to conduct a suicide attack when he drove a truck loaded with explosives toward a government compound in Puntland, northern Somalia, blowing himself up and killing 20 other people in October 29, 2008. He is buried in a cemetery in Burnsville, a suburb of Minneapolis.
Farah Mohamed Beledi, 27, and Abdisalan Hussein Ali, 22, both from Minneapolis, were suicide bombers in Somalia in 2011. The FBI thinks 18-year-old Omar Mohamud of Seattle took part in an attack in 2009 at the Mogadishu airport that killed a dozen peacekeepers.
According to Bergen, the majority of the men come from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which is one of the poorest in the nation. On average, residents earn less than $15,000 a year and unemployment is at 17%. But potential recruits come from otherer places in America, such as San Diego and St. Louis; Omar Hammami grew up in Daphne, AL.
Omar Hammami of Daphne, Alabama, grew up Baptist and converted to Islam when he was in his teens. In a lengthy autobiography that Hammami posted online last year entitled “The Story of an American Jihadi,” he explained his long journey from growing up Christian in a small town in Alabama to fighting on the front lines in Somalia with Al-Shabaab.
The journey began with a life-changing trip to Syria, the homeland of his father, when he was 15 that sparked his interest in Islam. Hammami wrote in his autobiography (PDF), “when I came back from that vacation, I had become a different person.”
Over the past several years, Hammami rose up the ranks in Al-Shabaab, becoming an important leader. Disputes with other Al-Shabaab leaders led him to split off from the group. He was killed this month, probably by members of Al-Shabaab, according to Islamist websites.
The FBI and Department of Justice initiated an investigation codenamed “Operation Rhino” in an attempt to stop these men from engaging with al-Shabaab. However, authorities are still concerned about attacks on foreign or US soil.
“Americans should be concerned about this because these are American citizens who are traveling to Africa ostensibly to engage in fighting and terrorist activities on behalf of foreign groups… Just as we wouldn’t want foreign fighters in the United States, we should be doing everything in our power to prevent Americans from engaging in these kinds of activities overseas,” Loven said.
The number may be down, but al-Shabaab leaders say they are still recruiting American men for their jihad.
“One thing I know is the fear is growing,” said Abdirizak Bihi, whose nephew was among at least six men from Minnesota who have died in Somalia. More are presumed dead.
Eighteen men and three women have been charged in Minnesota in investigations for allegedly either traveling to Somalia or sending money to the terror group.
Seven men pleaded guilty to various charges. One man was convicted on terrorism-related charges last year. Two women were convicted in 2011 of being fundraisers for al-Shabab. A third woman pleaded guilty last month to lying to a grand jury. The other defendants remain at large, or are confirmed or presumed dead.