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Somalia: Promoting Peace and Preventing Youth Radicalization

Somalia: Promoting Peace and Preventing Youth Radicalization

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Published by David Shinn
Remarks by Amb. David H. Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso and adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University, at a conference hosted by Canadian Friends of Somalia in
Ottawa, Canada, Dec. 6 - 7, 2010.
Remarks by Amb. David H. Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso and adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University, at a conference hosted by Canadian Friends of Somalia in
Ottawa, Canada, Dec. 6 - 7, 2010.

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Published by: David Shinn on Dec 09, 2010
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Somalia: Promoting Peace and Preventing Youth Radicalization
Conference Hosted by Canadian Friends of SomaliaOttawa, Canada6-7 December 2010Remarks by David H. Shinn
Somali Youth Radicalization: A View from South of the Border
Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International AffairsGeorge Washington UniversityThe radicalization of Somali youth in North America has taken two principalforms—supporting extremist organizations in Somalia, especially al-Shabaab, and joiningSomali gangs in the United States and Canada. These two phenomena are related to theextent that social alienation experienced by persons living in a new and alien culturecontributed to their attraction to gangs and extremist organizations. There are alsoseveral cases where Somali gang members joined al-Shabaab.As worrying as these two developments are, it is important to underscore that onlya tiny minority of Somali youth has been drawn to these harmful and dangerous groups.It is estimated there are more than 100,000 Somalis in the United States and from150,000 to 200,000 in Canada. The overwhelming majority of these Somalis has becomea good citizen and is only trying to escape violence in Somalia or find a better life in North America. At the same time, the small minority that joins a gang or supports anextremist organization in Somalia or elsewhere does incalculable damage to the image of the Somali community in North America. Let me turn first to the problem of gangs.
Gang Culture in the United States
Youth street gangs have a long history in the United States. In the 1820s, theForty Thieves of New York were the first documented street gang. Gangs subsequently became a significant part of American youth culture. They have become a mini-societywithin the larger American society and a separate subculture. Gangs are groups of peoplewho often have an exclusive territory and exhibit a common culture. They provide analternative set of values that replace those learned by mainstream society as a result of ties to family, religion, school and community. Each gang has a culture of its own,although it may be similar to the culture of other gangs. Most gangs even develop their own special language or argot. Gangs tend to be well organized and each member typically has a certain role to fill.The culture of the gang is often one of violence. Gang members are more likelyto use violent tactics than non-gang members. This willingness to turn to violence isoften driven by frustration resulting from a lack of opportunity for meaningfulemployment, poor quality schools, failed public services, incompetent parents, inattentivechurches and mosques and discrimination, real or perceived, from the wider community.Some gangs evolve into criminal networks. Their activities range from defendingtheir own ethnic neighborhood to criminal activities such as gambling, prostitution,
 
armed robbery, extortion, people smuggling and arms and drug trafficking. Ethnic gangshave a need for social interaction and have developed in communities as widely varied asimmigrants from Albania, Russia, China, Serbia, Nigeria, South Africa, Ireland, Iran,Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and, more recently, Somalia.
Somali Gangs in the United States
There is little statistical data on the number and size of Somali youth gangs in theUnited States, although the number of gangs and their membership appears still to besmall. Most of the attention has been on the rise of Somali gangs in the Minneapolis/St.Paul area, which also has the largest Somali population in the United States. Following aseries of robberies in 2005 by Somali teenagers, the Department of Civil Rights of thecity of Minneapolis commissioned a report on Somali youth issues. Somali communityorganizer Shukri Adan was the principal author of the report, which appeared early in2007. She identified three Somali gangs operating at that time: Rough Tough Somalis,the Hot Boyz Gang and the Somali Mafia.A gang strike force in the Minneapolis metropolitan area documented in 2006only 52 Somalis connected to a gang. This constituted less than 1 percent of the totalgang population in the state of Minnesota. However, on the Eid holiday in 2006following the holy month of Ramadan, authorities had to shut down the Mall of Americadue to Somali gang fights with a non-Somali gang. Somali criminal gangs consisted of asmall number of loosely connected members who adopted the gang culture, includingsigns and symbols to show their affiliation. Unlike common gang culture, however, thefirst Somali gangs tended not to have a particular leader and no established hierarchy,although older members were treated with more respect than younger ones. The reportconcluded that the refugee experience was partially responsible for the rise of gangs.Fractured family structures and post traumatic stress disorder followed many youngSomalis from refugee camps to Minnesota.Gang-related activities included robbery, assault, carrying and using illegalweapons and use of drugs. One Somali parent interviewed for the report complained that parents need to pay more attention. Too many parents do not support their teens,emphasizing that boys in particular receive little guidance and support. They needdiscipline and rules to follow. Another Somali commented that these boys did not growup in Somalia like their parents; they are confused. There is culture shock. Most of themare not doing well in school. Their parents have not adapted well and it will be manyyears before they adapt to American society.With the passage of time, the gang problem has worsened in the Twin Cities area.By mid-2009, 7 Somali men, including a promising college student serving as a youthvolunteer, had been killed by fellow Somalis during a 10-month period. All of the deathswere apparently the result of gang activity. By this time, Shukri Adan estimated that between 400 and 500 Somalis were active in gangs in the metropolitan area. TheMinneapolis Police Department reported that Somali gangs had also grown more active.The Somali gang situation in the Twin Cities became a major national news storyin November 2010 when U.S. authorities arrested 29 individuals for their allegedinvolvement in recruiting and forcing into prostitution under age Somali and African-American girls. The 29 persons are reportedly connected to 3 gangs in the Twin Cities2
 
area—the Somali Outlaws, the Somali Mafia and the Lady Outlaws. The prostitutionring began as long as 10 years ago and included widespread credit card and insurancefraud, car theft, safe cracking and burglary of telephone cards.The gangs arranged to drive the girls to cities around the United States, including Nashville, Seattle, and Columbus, Ohio. The police in Columbus report there is growingevidence of Somali gang activity there too. The Somali gangs now have a modusoperandi that is different from most gangs. They do not “own” a territory as is the casefor most gangs; they are highly mobile. One wonders if this reflects the pastoral background of Somalia. They have also become hard to identify because they don’t havegang tattoos or display signs or symbols. On the other hand, the Somali gangs have become well organized. This suggests that the gangs based in Minnesota are changingtheir tactics to elude the law and expand their activities.Mohammad Zafar published a study in 2010 based on interviews with a smallnumber of gang members in the Twin Cities. He concluded that Somali youth foundthemselves in a new environment in which they felt unwelcome on all sides. Membersreported they joined a gang to be part of something, to fit in and to get respect on thestreet. Parents and children experienced role reversal after arrival in the United Statesdue to the increasingly heavy reliance of parents on their children. As a result, manyyoung Somalis did not have anyone to identify with as they went through adolescence.At risk youth found comfort in each other and created a new social identity. Thisled to the formation of Somali gangs. Interestingly, many of the first, original gangmembers left the groups successfully. Those who joined later have had greater difficultymaking the transition to mainstream society. Some of those interviewed by Zafar regretted having joined a gang and described the choice as a waste of time but argued itwas their only remaining option.Lewiston is a small town in the state of Maine that had a large influx of Somalis.It experienced a different kind of Somali gang problem. Groups of young Somalis banded together to rob non-Somali members of the community. Police concluded that insome cases the primary motivation of the Somali gang was to rob just for the thrill of it.Many of the gang members had dropped out of school. Their parents often had no ideathey had become part of a roving gang. All interested parties concluded that workingwith the Somali community was the best way to end the attacks.
Somali Gangs in Canada
Ground zero for Somali gangs in Canada seems to be Alberta Province, where atleast 30 young Somali men have been killed in the past five years in violent battlessurrounding the drug trade. Most of those involved in the trade went to Edmonton,Calgary and Fort McMurray from the large Somali community in Toronto to work in theoil sands. They quickly found it was easier to make money selling drugs but immediatelyencountered opposition from more established non-Somali drug gangs such as HellsAngels and Asian triads. As new kids on the street, the Somalis often did not know therules of the drug business and experienced a violent end. Some of the non-Somali gangsrecruited Somalis to work for them at the lowest levels of the operation.Somali community leaders in Alberta believe many victims were related to oknew each other before arriving in the province, suggesting they may have been lured by3

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