Monday, August 1, 2011

New Congressional Report on Homegrown Terrorism: Late and Off-target

Earlier last week the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security issued a report on the subject, “Al-Shabaab: Recruitment and Radicalization within the Muslim American Community and the Threat to the Homeland.”  Four years ago the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) brought this to the attention of their senior leadership and Congress.  Unfortunately, one excuse after another was raised as obstacles to the two primary weapons against terrorism; information sharing and public awareness.  Congress is just now getting around to issuing a report about this threat that has been on counterterrorists’ radar since 2007; however, while the report is relatively accurate, it is mistaken on quite a few points and fails to put the actual threat in context for use by local and state law enforcement.

According to the report, the US counterterrorism community “underestimated the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in Yemen’s capability of launching attacks” in the Homeland and that “we cannot afford to make the same mistake with Shabaab.”  First, our Intelligence Community has always placed a higher priority on terrorists from the Arabian Peninsula, which includes Yemen, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.  For example, the then-Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), Michael Leiter, testified before the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) in September 2009 that “al-Qa`ida and its affiliates and allies remain resilient and adaptive enemies intent on attacking US and Western interests,” with specific mention that “al-Qa`ida’s core in Pakistan represent[s] the most dangerous component of the larger al-Qa`ida network.”  And while there has always been the possibility of a threat from Somalia, it has only been in the last 18-months that a real threat has been considered more likely.  This is due to the fact that previously DHS and the FBI considered al-Shabaab too preoccupied with consolidating their control over Somalia and removing foreign troops from their homeland and less concerned with allowing al-Qa`ida East Africa (AQEA) to hijack their training facilities, cadres, and recruits to carry out attacks against the US.       

The Somali Diaspora in America

With this recent report the committee lays bare some of the challenges we face when dealing with Muslim communities in the Homeland.  However, the report does not explain the extenuating factors behind those challenges, specifically with regard to the Somali-American communities here in the US.  For example, unlike other Muslim communities in the US, those from Somalia are recent arrivals.  The great majority of Somali-Americans did not come to the US until the mid- to late-1990s; and then they came en masse.  This presented numerous challenges to both the incoming Somalis and the communities to which they were destined.  Unlike previous migrations of immigrants, there were no large, established Somali communities in the US to welcome the new arrivals.  Therefore, there were no established communities into which they could settle and which could aid them in communicating with the English-speaking welfare workers, school districts, hospitals, or law enforcement.  The Somalis were essentially on a deserted island in the middle of the most developed country in the world.  This obviously led to numerous issues, both within the Somali community and around it.  Within the community, without being able to speak the language, many, if not most, were unable to do the basic things in life such as get good paying jobs, apply for certain immigrant benefits, and go to college.  Other black communities harassed the Somalis for not being American or being able to speak English.  This led to insularity within the Somali community.  Young Somali boys and men banded together to defend themselves and their communities, leading to the creation of Somali-only gangs.  Additionally, Somalis, like many immigrants from underdeveloped, corrupt countries, intensely distrust law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which in their home countries are usually one and the same.  These agencies routinely grab innocent people off the streets or out of their homes either because they slighted the ruling regime in some way or simply to elicit ransom money from the person’s family.  These detentions are almost always accompanied by torture, forcing the detainee to confess, whether they are guilty or not.  Even fleeing their country to neighboring countries with other refugees, they are at the mercy of foreign government officials who detain and torture them to ensure they are not criminals or terrorists or to obtain some sort of outrageous payment to enter the country or refugee camp.  This distrust of foreign law enforcement and intelligence agencies did not change when they arrived in the US, thus creating the illusion that Somali communities are not very cooperative with law enforcement. 

This insulation also led to an identity crisis in the Somali communities.  The older Somalis, the ones who made the decision to immigrate to the US, remembered what it was like in war-torn Somalia.  They understood that as bad as it might be in America, at least they did not have to worry about armed militias attacking their villages or kidnapping their children for use in their armies.  However, the younger Somalis, those who were mere babies when they came to America or who were born here shortly after arriving, knew nothing of the hardships their parents faced in their old country.  All they knew was that they were not only not accepted as American, they were not even accepted as African-American by other black communities.  The only thing to which they could cling, and to which they could identify with other communities, was their Islamic religion.

Al-Shabaab and Radicalization of Somalis in America

Then came 9/11.  Now, not only were they disparaged for being recently-arrived African immigrants, but they were hassled and despised for being Muslim.  The younger Somalis, growing up with this harassment and hatred, felt nothing could be as bad as their current situation.  If this is what Western democracies were like, then there was no reason they should not be able to go home, back to Somalia, where they would fit in with other Somalis and other Muslims.  At least this was their initial thinking.  They wanted to make something of themselves and it was promised to them by others in their communities.  Unfortunately, these “others” were the same people the parents of these young people had wanted to leave behind.  Instead, many followed them to America.  These people were former members of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), comprised of multiple radical Muslim groups that consolidated control over most of central and southern Somalia in late 2006.  The ICU was able to do what no other Somali group had done since the civil war began in 1991; they brought peace to the parts of Somalia they controlled.  However, the group had two key elements going against it, first, Christian-led Ethiopia was not about to let a Muslim-led government take control in Somalia, and two, the ICU helped hide two key al-Qa`ida members involved in the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the US wanted them.

As a result, the rule of al-Shabaab lasted only a few weeks when Ethiopia invaded and occupied Somalia, primarily the capitol Mogadishu.  The ICU scattered into the hinterlands of Somalia, where the Ethiopians would not dare follow.  As a result, the ICU, already a fragile alliance of multiple Islamist groups, each with their own leadership, objectives, and end-states, splintered.  Some of the more moderate members wanted to work towards a peaceful assumption of government, compromising with Ethiopia and the US while balancing the wants and needs of the Somali people with respect to their Islamic roots.  Other, more radical elements of the former ICU, particularly those affiliated with the armed wing of the group, Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahidin, or Mujahidin Youth Movement, joining forces again with other like-minded radical Islamist groups, sought to continue the armed struggle to take over the government and implement strict Islamic law, Shari`a, and oppose any outside interference by Ethiopia or the US.

However, as previously mentioned, al-Shabaab is comprised of at least four major radical Islamist groups who work together when needed, such as fighting against Ethiopian occupation, but, as was seen when Ethiopia withdrew its forces, were equally satisfied with fighting each other for control of lucrative areas in southern Somalia, such as the port of Kismaayao.  It was these reasons, their fight against Ethiopia and their own internal conflicts, that have led most counterterrorism analysts to determine that while al-Shabaab leadership may have the intent to attack the US and its interests, it did not have the capability as their arsenals were already prioritized.

As for American citizens in its ranks, the most serious threat to the Homeland, the report claims, “No Al Qaeda group…has attracted anywhere near as many American and Western recruits as Shabaab has over the past three years.”  This statement, like a good portion of the report, is misleading.  What it fails to mention is that a number of the American-born Muslim converts either wanted to go to places such as Pakistan or Yemen, but were discouraged or, after seeing the abundant media reports about the ease with which Somali-Americans were able to go and join al-Shabaab, opted to go there instead.  There is no mysterious al-Shabaab recruiting network secretly recruiting American-born Muslim converts to join al-Shabaab; it is simply that there is no cohesive government in Somalia, thereby leaving the borders porous, and al-Shabaab leadership has openly allied itself with al-Qa`ida, thus attracting the most radical, and potentially most violent type of recruit, the American-born Muslim convert. 

Al-Shabaab is comprised of two elements, which the House of Representatives’ report erroneously combines under a single terrorist umbrella; Somali-Americans, the great majority of whom were convinced to return to Somalia either for nationalist reasons or who were tricked into returning for other reasons and then convinced or coerced to stay and fight, and American-born, Muslim converts who went to Somalia specifically in an effort to join the global jihadi insurgency inspired by the al-Qa`ida movement.  In the world of counterterrorism, a person’s intent is just as critical as their capability to carry out a terrorist attack.  While the majority of Somalis, both in the US and in Somalia, sympathize with al-Shabaab’s efforts to rid their homeland of interlopers, they do not agree with al-Qa`ida’s wider, global goals of jihad against the West.  The majority of the rank-and-file al-Shabaab fighters are concerned with securing Somalia and ridding it of foreign influences.  The same cannot be said for American-born, Muslim converts who went to Somalia in an effort to join al-Qa`ida or an al-Qa`ida affiliate.

These two groups of US citizens, Somali-Americans and US-born Muslim converts, cannot easily be lumped into the same category as al-Qa`ida-inspired terrorists.  The House report would have everyone believe all Somali-Americans are being secretly radicalized in their local mosques and are fully aware that they are traveling to Somalia to train in terrorist operations, particularly suicide bombing, and will then be sent back to the US to carry out suicide attacks.  The report states that the first-ever suicide attack carried out by an American, Shirwa Ahmed, an American-Somali, in Somalia in 2008, “immediately raised serious fears among homeland security-focused officials that if an American Muslim could be radicalized to be a suicide bomber overseas, he could be convinced to do it back home.”  While theoretically true, any person, with the proper indoctrination, can be radicalized to carry out suicide attacks, the intent must come from the person themselves.  There must be a reason for this person to want to carry out a suicide attack.  An individual like Shirwa Ahmed, who probably firmly believed in his mind he was giving his life for the greater good of his country, will more than likely not seek to undertake a suicide mission for any other reason.  If that were the case, if al-Qa`ida, using al-Shabaab as a proxy training and operational cell, wanted to use Somali-Americans to carry out attacks against and within the US, why would they take the chance on having them travel overseas, where the risks of being picked up on the Intelligence Community’s radar are much greater, just to receive training that can be just as easily conducted here in the US without raising as much suspicion?  Since 9/11 al-Qa`ida and al-Qa`ida-inspired operatives have continually sought ways to enter the US without arousing suspicion; why not leave their potential operatives where they are in the US and risk sending just the master bombmaker or trainer here?

Similarly, the report claims “Shabaab recruiters have used mosques as cover and as safe places…to recruit and raise money to support Shabaab.”  What the report fails to highlight is that for every one person they attempt to be truthful with, there are dozens more who are told that they are raising money and other types of donations to support the widows and orphans back in Somalia, when in reality it is all going to support al-Shabaab.

The Solution

So how do we address the problem?  First and foremost the US government must employ a holistic approach to the problem.  Why are these young men willing to return to Somalia?  We should address those problems, both internally with local support groups, and internationally, by supporting a government in Somalia that the people, not Ethiopia, will accept.  Additionally, if Somalia is such as haven for terrorist threats to the US, why does President Obama not go there and give a speech like he did in Cairo?  The only messages the al-Shabaab fighters get are those from their radical leadership and the attacks the US has carried out in the country; reassure the common al-Shabaab soldier he is not the target and that we only want peace for Somalia.

What about those Somali-Americans already there fighting with al-Shabaab?  One possible solution is to use the carrot-stick approach.  The majority of Somali-Americans who went to Somalia and joined al-Shabaab did so out of nationalistic fervor, at a time when Ethiopian troops, Somalia’s main antagonist in the region, were deployed in Somalia to ensure a radical Islamist government could not come to power.  The only difference between these individuals and those of Jewish extraction who go to Israel to join its military to fight Palestinians is that the US happens to support Israel and there is no US politician willing to stand against Israel; whereas, in the case of Somalia, the US backs Christian-dominated Ethiopia and therefore considers any Somali who fights against the foreign incursion into their country by Ethiopia a personal affront to America and its ally in the region.  As a result, any Somali-American who returns to Somalia to fight foreign troops is automatically considered a terrorist and is hesitant to return to the US where they will most likely face criminal or terrorist charges.  Instead of lumping all Somali-Americans who fight with al-Shabaab as terrorists, each one should be determined on a case-by-case basis.  They should be given an ultimatum; return to the US and renounce violence and work within the confines of the international legal community to help bring peace to their homeland or lose their American citizenship and remain in Somalia, possibly being labeled as a terrorist and suffer the consequences of that label.  This can also be applied to those here in the US intent on supporting al-Shabaab; either they cease and desist or face the possibility of losing their resident status and being returned to Somalia to the current government.

Obviously there will be those who refuse to return or stop their support, especially the American Muslim-converts, such as Omar Hammami and others of his ilk, who went to Somalia specifically to get closer to al-Qa`ida.  There is no excuse for these individuals and as a result they should be hunted as al-Qa`ida operatives by the US military and Intelligence Community.  These individuals are the real threat to the Homeland, something not made very clear in the House’s latest report.


Radicalization is at the heart of terrorism, whether it is al-Qa`ida’s brand of global jihadist terrorism, Christian-identity terror, black separatist terror, or right-wing Neo-Nazi or KKK terror.  Everyone has a breaking point and any person, under the right circumstances and conditions, with the appropriate level of hatred and radical beliefs, can be swayed to commit acts of terrorism or support terrorist groups.  To accuse anyone who has received any level of military training, whether it was provided by a group such as al-Shabaab or from the US military, of being a potential terrorist is simply asinine and idiotic.  We must identify the intent behind the individuals as well as the groups with which they associate in order to better identify the threats of homegrown terrorists.  This can only be done at the grass-roots level; local and state law enforcement and the communities in which these individuals live and associate.  For the FBI and DHS to try and gauge the level of radicalization at their level is like trying to ascertain the license plate of a car on a road from an airplane 30,000-ft in the air.

Congress needs to investigate and issue a report on the intelligence gaps and failure to share information between the federal and state / local level.  A key example is the case of Omar Hammami.  Initially, in 2007, the FBI’s reasoning for keeping this intelligence under wraps, to include keeping some of the more critical information from state and local law enforcement, was to allow the bad guys to continue to operate normally and lead law enforcement to others in their group; it made sense, from a law enforcement and counterterrorism perspective.  However, DHS soon found out how limited the FBI’s information sharing was with state and local law enforcement, with the release of a propaganda video in March 2009 starring Omar Hammami, aka Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, a US-born Muslim convert, not even of Somali descent.  At the time, though DHS knew he was an American, we only knew him by his nom de guerre.  Once some simple research and comparisons were done, DHS published an Unclassified // For Official Use Only (U//FOUO) document for dissemination to state and local law enforcement agencies, especially those in Alabama since that is where we found, on the Internet, information about Hammami and the Muslim Student Association at the University of South Alabama.  When law enforcement agencies from Alabama thanked DHS for the information and queried the FBI on why it did not come from them, especially when it was discovered the FBI knew his true identity since at least 2007, it was then that we found out the extent, or the lack thereof, of the FBI’s information sharing with state and local counterparts.

The state and local law enforcement officials working at the ground-level, in and with the Somali communities, will be among the first to sense a change of attitude or notice missing individuals; therefore, unless potential threats are shared in a timely and forthcoming manner our counterterrorism community as a whole will always play the reactive vice proactive role and Congress will continue to hold hearings and investigations into threats that are years old.