The Conflicts Behind the Conflict: Extremism in the U.S. Somali Community
The day after Thanksgiving, Mohammad Osaman Mohamud, a nineteen-year-old Somali-American, tried to detonate a car full of explosives at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, OR.
Mohamud sent bomb components to undercover FBI agents who he thought were assembling the bomb. However, agents provided him with a fake that Mohamud attempted to detonate twice with his cell phone.
This was only the most recent in a series of terrorist plots coming from Somali communities within the United States.
Mumin Barre is the President of the Somali Diaspora Network in Washington D.C. and a Commissioner for the Governor of Maryland’s Commission on African Affairs. When I asked him about the reaction within the Somali community, he said it’s “been one of overwhelming shock, and disbelief.
This is certainly not something the community would condone. We want to know more about the facts behind how this whole thing came about. This brings a bad light on our community.”
A 20-year-old Somali student from Georgia State University, we’ll call him Ibrahim because he wishes to remain anonymous, expressed similar sentiments. He said he was shocked when he heard about the attempted bombing. “I don’t know what the hell this kid was thinking. It seems really funny to me. He’s only 19, he’s American … something’s not right.”
Entrapment or legitimate terrorist plot aside, there is definite discussion about extremism going on within the Somali community. One such group of extremists which has caused concerned is Al-Shabaab.
The reign of Al-Shabaab is becoming a threat outside of Somalia because of their ability to draw upon members of the Somali Diaspora within the United States. Many U.S. citizens of Somali descent have returned to their homeland, have been trained in terrorist operations, and have become further radicalized in extremist Islamic thought. These Somali-American U.S. passport holders are providing Al-Shabaab with the ability to broaden its mission of terrorism outside of Somalia.
This is has the potential of becoming a dire national security issue. Al-Shabaab has a terrorist network with links to Al-Qaeda, connections to Somali communities in the West, and extensive terrorist training camps. This is particularly concerning to the U.S. and Western Europe which are constant targets of terrorism by Islamic extremists. A radicalized Somali with nefarious intent in possession of an American passport can travel with little to no scrutiny in and out of the United States and Europe, and could easily support or conduct a terrorist attack.
The Somali-American community itself is concerned with what's happening. Imam Johari says the genesis of extremists penetrating the Somali community comes from people within the community partaking in “heated rhetoric, pro Somali identity, anti-American, and anti-Western sentiment.” The anger and frustration comes from the feeling of alienation and the hybrid-culture the youth experience. Imam Johari goes on to say that within the community, there is not a legitimate platform for the Somali community to tell youth, “if you are Somali youth, they're out to get you!” The positive support systems are lacking.
Imam Joari says, “Until we can have an open discourse and make even new [Somali] immigrants feel comfortable in discussion, the only place left for discourse is from the radicals.” The Imam says this problem is especially prevalent among youth. “Young people will find somebody who will listen to them, and I like to call that ‘Jihadi confusion’ … because there is no safe place to have dialogue about your discontent, Jihad becomes the ‘cool’ phenomenon.”
The discontent within the community is related to the ongoing civil war in Somalia. The war began in 1991 and continues today as tribal factions and Islamic extremists fight for control of the country, which has left the country extremely unstable. Hence, Somalia has become a state without infrastructure and little economic activity. However, this is not to say that Somalia was immediately forsaken by the international community.
In 1992 the United States dispatched troops to Somalia in a mission called Operation Restore Hope. The mission was a disaster due to the continuous splintering of factions in the region. The military couldn't keep up and the mission was aborted in May of 1993. The abandoned mission placed Americans in a negative light in the eyes of Somalis. That image lives on today for many Somalis, which in turn has bred the anti-American sentiment Imam Johari noted.
Ibrahim was born in the United States, and he didn't grow up in Somalia. He thinks that this may be the reason he isn't as upset as other Somali youth who have joined Jihad. 'We weren't there in 1991 [when all the violence really started], so personally I don't care. It happened so long ago that it's not really my problem.' Ibrahim says he would like to see the situation in Somalia improve, but he doesn't really know what he can do to alleviate the conflict.
Although Ibrahim says he feels little connection to the country, this isn't always the case for the rest of the community. It is not uncommon for refugees who have fled from Somalia to still have family and friends there, therefore many Somalis have a vested interest in their home land. Youth who are upset and angst ridden about what is going on in Somalia are prime targets for extremists. Ibrahim says, “The people that can stop this are at the head of the community, like the Imam or other leaders.” Mumin Barre thinks, “This is an area where our community has a tremendous opportunity to come up with tangible programmes and services for our youth. We need to do a better job and we have an opportunity to improve.”
Imam Johari notes that he utilizes the platform of the Friday service, youth conferences, and social networking to create a support system for Somali youth. He also says that he is always available in a setting where “young people can feel comfortable enough to talk to me one on one.” Both Imam Johari and Mumin Barre mentioned that platforms are being developed within the community for Somalis to caucus with each other and with government officials.
Mumin Barre stated, “One of the things that we do is continuously engage local, state, and federal agencies who are in involved in Homeland security issues to make sure they understand that what one person may have done doesn’t reflect upon the rest of the Somali community. We are making sure the relevant agencies know that this isn’t something we condone, and we make sure we have ongoing dialogue and communication with those agencies.”
Although the good news is this ongoing dialogue is happening, Imam Johari says it’s not happening enough. And when it doesn’t happen enough, the message against extremism isn’t as wide spread, and that’s when people become more susceptible to extremism.
Even if programs are implemented, and discussion platforms are raised, Mumin Barre says that what the problem of extremism inevitably comes down to is what’s happening back home in Somalia.“The losing civil war and crisis, is certainly influencing people here. I think the sooner we deal with that situation back home, the sooner we can get rid of this whole element of extremism not only here, but every where else.”By: Sheridan Gunderson, Aslan Media Contributor