- By David FrancisDavid Francis is a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covers international finance. An award-winning journalist, David has reported from all over Europe, Nigeria, Kenya, Mexico, and Afghanistan on terrorism, national security, the geopolitics of energy, global economics, and the European financial crisis. His work has been published in outlets including the Christian Science Monitor, the Financial Times Deutschland, Slate, and SportsIllustrated.com.
The new threat by al-Shabab extremists to attack the Mall of America in Minnesota could serve as a call to arms for disillusioned Somali-Americans, according to a former law enforcement official who investigated the group.
While it’s doubtful that al-Shabab currently has enough operational capability in Minnesota to carry out the attack, former U.S. attorney W. Anders Folk told Foreign Policy that “there’s certainly some precedence for the idea of a terror group putting out ideas in the public sphere to influence people who are on the fence.”
The threat could “influence the ideology of people thinking about what they could do. It could be a call to action,” said Folk, who investigated al-Shabab in Minnesota while on a FBI-run task force from 2005 to 2011.
Minnesota is home to the biggest Somali population in the United States. More than 25,000 people with Somali ancestry live in the land of 10,000 lakes, with the state accounting for about a third of the Somali population in the United States. There, Somalis own more than 600 businesses. Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, where some 14,000 Somali immigrants live, is known as Little Mogadishu, a nod to the Somali capital.
In the past, Minnesota’s population has proven to be a ripe recruiting ground for al-Shabab, a group formally affiliated with al Qaeda. In 2013, the group released a video called “Minnesota’s Martyrs: The Path to Paradise,” a 40-minute recruiting film directly aimed a Somali-American youth in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The group’s efforts have been successful. A U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security report found that since 2007, more than 40 Muslim Americans have left the United States to join al-Shabab, many of them from the Twin Cities. Two, Shirwa Ahmed and Farah Mohamad Beledi, have become suicide bombers (Ahmed is believed to be the first American to die in a terror-related suicide attack). Minnesota native Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax was recruited by the group in 2005 through the Abuubakar Islamic Center, located in Minneapolis. He is still at large and wanted by the FBI.
The terror group has also been successful in attracting Americans from outside of Minnesota. Alabama native Omar Shafik Hammami is believed to have been killed fighting for the group, and Ruben Shumpert, an African-American from Seattle, also died fighting in Somalia. California native Jehad Serwan Mostafa and Liban Haji Mohamed, a former cab driver in northern Virginia, are at large and wanted by the FBI for their involvement with al-Shabab. In total, more than a dozen Americans have died fighting for the group.
Seth Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, told Congress after al-Shabab’s 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that the group “does not appear to be plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland.” But he also warned that al-Shabab is recruiting in American cities, including Phoenix, Boston, Seattle, Wash., San Diego, Columbus, Ohio, and Lewiston, Maine.
In addition to American citizens, American dollars are flowing to east Africa. In October 2012, 46-year old Minneapolis resident Mahamud Said Omar was found guilty of providing financial assistance to the group, as well as facilitating travel for potential militants. Earlier that same year, Ahmed Hussein Mahamud, 27, was convicted of helping to raise money for the group. According to the Associated Press, at least 18 American men and three American women have been convicted of assisting al-Shabab.
Efforts to stop money from flowing to Somalia have paid off. Merchants Bank of California, which handles 60 to 80 percent of the remittances sent to Somalia from the United States, recently announced it would no longer service accounts of companies who transfer money on behalf of Somali immigrants living in the United States.
The FBI is taking the homegrown threat seriously. In September 2014, it launched Operation Rhino in an effort to stem the flow of money and men to east Africa. Law enforcement officials say al-Shabab — which issued a warning to America after the 2011 death of Osama bin laden — appears intent on targeting the United States.
Photo Credit: The Washington Post