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2010 Remarks by David H. Shinn Somali Youth Radicalization: A View from South of the Border Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs George Washington University The radicalization of Somali youth in North America has taken two principal forms—supporting extremist organizations in Somalia, especially al-Shabaab, and joining Somali gangs in the United States and Canada. These two phenomena are related to the extent that social alienation experienced by persons living in a new and alien culture contributed to their attraction to gangs and extremist organizations. There are also several cases where Somali gang members joined al-Shabaab. As worrying as these two developments are, it is important to underscore that only a 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 from 150,000 to 200,000 in Canada. The overwhelming majority of these Somalis has become a 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 an extremist 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, the Forty 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-society within the larger American society and a separate subculture. Gangs are groups of people who often have an exclusive territory and exhibit a common culture. They provide an alternative 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 likely to use violent tactics than non-gang members. This willingness to turn to violence is often driven by frustration resulting from a lack of opportunity for meaningful employment, poor quality schools, failed public services, incompetent parents, inattentive churches and mosques and discrimination, real or perceived, from the wider community. Some gangs evolve into criminal networks. Their activities range from defending their own ethnic neighborhood to criminal activities such as gambling, prostitution,
2 armed robbery, extortion, people smuggling and arms and drug trafficking. Ethnic gangs have a need for social interaction and have developed in communities as widely varied as immigrants 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 the United States, although the number of gangs and their membership appears still to be small. 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 a series of robberies in 2005 by Somali teenagers, the Department of Civil Rights of the city of Minneapolis commissioned a report on Somali youth issues. Somali community organizer Shukri Adan was the principal author of the report, which appeared early in 2007. 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 2006 only 52 Somalis connected to a gang. This constituted less than 1 percent of the total gang population in the state of Minnesota. However, on the Eid holiday in 2006 following the holy month of Ramadan, authorities had to shut down the Mall of America due to Somali gang fights with a non-Somali gang. Somali criminal gangs consisted of a small number of loosely connected members who adopted the gang culture, including signs and symbols to show their affiliation. Unlike common gang culture, however, the first 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 report concluded that the refugee experience was partially responsible for the rise of gangs. Fractured family structures and post traumatic stress disorder followed many young Somalis from refugee camps to Minnesota. Gang-related activities included robbery, assault, carrying and using illegal weapons 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 need discipline and rules to follow. Another Somali commented that these boys did not grow up in Somalia like their parents; they are confused. There is culture shock. Most of them are not doing well in school. Their parents have not adapted well and it will be many years 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 youth volunteer, had been killed by fellow Somalis during a 10-month period. All of the deaths were 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. The Minneapolis Police Department reported that Somali gangs had also grown more active. The Somali gang situation in the Twin Cities became a major national news story in November 2010 when U.S. authorities arrested 29 individuals for their alleged involvement in recruiting and forcing into prostitution under age Somali and AfricanAmerican girls. The 29 persons are reportedly connected to 3 gangs in the Twin Cities
3 area—the Somali Outlaws, the Somali Mafia and the Lady Outlaws. The prostitution ring began as long as 10 years ago and included widespread credit card and insurance fraud, 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 growing evidence of Somali gang activity there too. The Somali gangs now have a modus operandi that is different from most gangs. They do not “own” a territory as is the case for 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 have gang 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 changing their tactics to elude the law and expand their activities. Mohammad Zafar published a study in 2010 based on interviews with a small number of gang members in the Twin Cities. He concluded that Somali youth found themselves in a new environment in which they felt unwelcome on all sides. Members reported they joined a gang to be part of something, to fit in and to get respect on the street. Parents and children experienced role reversal after arrival in the United States due to the increasingly heavy reliance of parents on their children. As a result, many young 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. This led to the formation of Somali gangs. Interestingly, many of the first, original gang members left the groups successfully. Those who joined later have had greater difficulty making 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 it was 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 in some 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 idea they had become part of a roving gang. All interested parties concluded that working with 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 at least 30 young Somali men have been killed in the past five years in violent battles surrounding 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 the oil sands. They quickly found it was easier to make money selling drugs but immediately encountered opposition from more established non-Somali drug gangs such as Hells Angels and Asian triads. As new kids on the street, the Somalis often did not know the rules of the drug business and experienced a violent end. Some of the non-Somali gangs recruited Somalis to work for them at the lowest levels of the operation. Somali community leaders in Alberta believe many victims were related to or knew each other before arriving in the province, suggesting they may have been lured by
4 friends into the drug trade. The ability to make money quickly in the drug trade in an oilrich economy almost certainly contributed to their decision to move there. Alberta is probably less tolerant of diversity than a large city like Toronto. The new arrivals likely faced social marginalization that contributed to their involvement in drug trafficking. Cities like Ottawa appear so far to have largely avoided the creation of Somali gangs, but this could change quickly. Earlier this year, Ottawa’s police chief said minority youth are being targeted by gangs and urged that their ethnic communities take the potential problem more seriously. He explained that gang members seek followers in lower-income housing areas and look for people who don’t otherwise have strong support systems in their communities. One of the organizers of this conference, Farah Aw-Osman, warned recently that very few persons in the Somali or Muslim communities are taking this issue seriously. Aw-Osman also underscored the absence in the community of paternal guidance and lack of direction by many Somali fathers. As a result, some young Somalis have slipped into the criminal justice system. Among other recommendations, he called on Somali parents to become more engaged in their children’s education and for Somali elders, community leaders, educators and parents to listen more to the concerns of Somali youth. Somali-Americans and Extremist Organizations Although fewer Somali-Americans have joined extremist organizations such as al-Shabaab than have joined domestic Somali gangs, those who have joined extremist organizations have received far more press coverage in the United States. This is not surprising in view of the fact that both the United States and Canada have declared alShabaab a terrorist organization. In addition, there is a fear that Somalis recruited into extremist organizations in Somalia might one day return to the United States to carry out attacks. While the number of Somalis who support or have joined these organizations is miniscule, there have been just enough of them from a variety of different cities to attract widespread, negative press attention that reflects badly on the responsible Somali community. One of the most disturbing cases became public in November 2010 when the FBI announced that a Somali-American teenager, Mohamed Osman Mohamud from the state of Oregon, had been arrested for conspiring over six months to carry out a bombing at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland. The suspect had been in contact with a terrorist recruiter from the Middle East; there do not appear to be any connections with Somali organizations. Because of the massive number of casualties the plot would have caused, it became front page news in the New York Times and Washington Post and was the lead item on NBC national news. This is not the kind of reputation and publicity that the Somali community wants to encourage. Al-Shabaab has developed one of the more effective internet recruitment programs developed by extremist groups. In some cases, it supplemented its internet effort with personal visits by recruiters who brought funds to pay the air fare of recruits from the diaspora. Amir Mohamed Meshal, Omar Hammami, Daniel Joseph Maldonado and Ruben Shumpert arrived in Somalia late in 2006. Maldonado and Shumpert were both American converts to Islam while Hammami is a Syrian-American by birth.
5 Hammami, who is from the state of Alabama, moved to Toronto and married a SomaliCanadian before joining al-Shabaab. He now holds a senior position with al-Shabaab. By early 2007, al-Shabaab began recruitment in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Small numbers of young Somalis also began leaving for Somalia from Seattle, Boston, Portland, Maine, and Columbus, Ohio. They seem to have been motivated by a complex mix of politics and faith. The arrival of Ethiopian troops in Somalia late in 2006 and a surge of nationalism among young Somalis motivated a significant number of them. By mid-2009, more than 20 young Somalis, most of them from Minnesota, joined al-Shabaab in Somalia. Although the numbers have subsequently grown, it is almost impossible to provide an accurate total today. Those Somali-Americans who have joined al-Shabaab represent a wide variety of backgrounds. Some have criminal and gang backgrounds; others are good students and were thought to be upstanding citizens. In August 2010, the United States filed charges against 12 persons in a Minnesota court and one each in Alabama and California courts for supporting or fighting for alShabaab. The two cases in Alabama and California did not involve the Somali community. The 12 indictments in Minnesota included 2 Somali-American women who where arrested and charged with raising funds for al-Shabaab in the United States and Canada. The remaining 10 indictments were against men who are not in custody but charged with supporting or fighting for al-Shabaab. Most of them came from the Somali community in Minneapolis and had been previously indicted. In making the announcement, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized that the American Muslim community has been a strong partner in fighting the threat of terrorism. He also praised the assistance of the Somali community in dealing with this issue. In 2008, Shirwa Ahmed from Minneapolis became America’s first known suicide bomber when he drove a vehicle laden with explosives in an attack that killed as many as 30 people in Puntland in northern Somalia. In 2009, a Somali-American from Seattle was one of two suicide bombers who drove vehicles bearing UN logos into the African Union force headquarters in Mogadishu, killing 21 peacekeepers. In 2010, a SomaliAmerican died on the streets of Mogadishu following a battle with pro-government forces. An estimated 12 U.S. citizens have been killed fighting alongside al-Shabaab in Somalia. Several of the recruits became disenchanted with al-Shabaab and returned home while al-Shabaab reportedly killed a couple of others who tried to leave Somalia. In an effort to staunch the problem in the Somali community in Minnesota, Somali elders and community leaders have begun speaking out against al-Shabaab and urging young Somalis to resist the organization’s recruitment efforts. Somali-Canadians and Extremist Organizations Canada’s first brush with radicalization among the Somali-Canadian community may have been the case of Mohammed Warsame, who was born in Mogadishu and immigrated to Canada in 1989. He attended al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2000 and 2001. Al-Qaeda paid for his return to Canada in 2001. He continued email contact with al-Qaeda associates before moving to Minneapolis where he attended Minneapolis Community and Technical College and maintained communication with al-Qaeda. Indicted in 2004 for providing material support to al-Qaeda, he pleaded guilty in 2009. Officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported him
6 to Canada in October 2010 when he was turned over to the Canadian Border Service Agency. Canada’s National Post reported in October 2006 that several Somali-Canadians had joined al-Shabaab. They reportedly went to Somalia from Toronto and Ottawa during the previous two or three years. According to the National Post, the participation of a significant number of Canadians in the Somali conflict raised alarms in Ottawa. A declassified March 2007 report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service confirmed that an undetermined number of Somali-Canadians had joined al-Shabaab. In October 2009, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner William Elliott, speaking in Ottawa, warned that radicalization of the U.S. Somali community may be an indicator of similar processes at work in Canada. With one of the largest Somali diaspora communities in the West, he suggested there is also a possibility that Somali-Canadians who travel to Somalia to fight will return to Canada, imbued with an extremist ideology and the skills to translate the ideology into action. The Canadian press refocused attention on Somalis joining al-Shabaab late in 2009 when a half-dozen Somalis went missing from Toronto and were believed to have gone to Somalia. They were all second generation Somali-Canadians who had never been to Somalia before. The Somali community suggested that a sense of alienation and failure to integrate into Canadian society made them vulnerable to radical propaganda that is rampant on the internet. At least two Somali-Canadians have been killed in combat in Somalia. The mosque in Toronto where they sometimes worshipped issued a plea to the Somali community to come forward with any information about the missing youth. The statement from the Toronto mosque also urged parents to have frank and open discussions with their children. It reminded young Somalis of their duties to their parents and the need to be grateful “for the blessings of living in Canada.” Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a Somali-Canadian who immigrated to Ontario in 1989, spent 6 months with al-Shabaab in 2008. He said the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia inspired him to join al-Shabaab. When the Ethiopian force left Somalia early in 2009, he became disillusioned with al-Shabaab and returned to Toronto where he works as a security guard and is trying to start a group called Generation Islam to combat radicalization in his community. He also argues that those Somalis who joined alShabaab while Ethiopian forces were there should not be considered as terrorists. On the other hand, those who joined after the Ethiopian withdrawal, he says, are motivated by radical ideology. Moving Forward It has not been easy for Somalis to integrate into Canadian and American society. Somalis have confronted a new culture and language. They have probably experienced some discrimination and their religion is no longer that of the majority. Many have had to deal with broken family structure and poverty. But the fact remains that Canada and the United States have opened their doors to Somalis and immigrants from numerous other nations. The overwhelming majority of these immigrant groups have eventually become an integral part of Canadian and American society. There is no reason why Somalis will not also succeed.
7 While some of the responsibility for successful integration falls on local social service organizations, schools and police forces, the first line of defense for ensuring that Somali youth do not join gangs or become radicalized by organizations like al-Shabaab is the family. There is no substitute for caring parents, siblings and grandparents. Before parents blame others for the failings of their children, they should first look at their own role. The second line of defense is the leadership at the mosque. By helping to encourage young Somalis to act responsibly and by keeping extremism out of the mosque, the imams can have a critically important impact. Government and community organizations and society generally in Canada and the United States can then help meet the remaining challenges.