American Jihad: New Details Emerge About al-Shabaab Recruitment in North America

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 37

Mahmoud Said Omar, an arrested member of a group of Minneapolis natives that allegedly sent recruits to fight with al-Shabaab in Somalia.

On November 23, federal prosecutors in the United States unsealed indictments against members of a group of Minneapolis natives accused of being at the heart of a cell sending men and boys to fight with al-Shabaab, a radical Islamist movement in Somalia with close ties to al-Qaeda. [1] The unsealing of the documents came in the wake of the arrest of one of the members of the group, Mahamud Said Omar in the Netherlands, and the possible discovery of a similar cell operating out of Toronto (AP, November 10; National Post [Toronto], November 21).

The release of the information, which for the most part does not pertain to new cases, does shed further light on the recruitment structures in place and the radicalization method by which a foreign terrorist organization like al-Shabaab is able to entice young Westernized men to join their ranks. In many ways, the revelations show the degree to which the sort of radicalization that was previously thought to be more prevalent in Europe is in fact a problem shared by the United States. On the basis of the growing numbers of American jihadis, it would appear as though foreign terrorist rhetoric has found an increasing resonance in America.

The released documents which show in detail the path taken by 26-year-old Shirwa Ahmed, a young Somali-American who laid claim to the dubious honor of being America’s first suicide bomber, having been identified by a finger that was found at the site of one of a pair of suicide car-bombings that targeted offices of the Puntland Intelligence Service in Bossaso on October 29, 2008. [2] Ahmed was part of a group of men who left Minneapolis in early December 2007, but while the others headed for Northern Somalia, Ahmed instead went on Hajj to Saudi Arabia, landing in Jeddah on December 4, 2007 (Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, November 25, 2008).

Having completed his pilgrimage, Ahmed joined the others who had first passed through a series of al-Shabaab safe houses before starting a training course alongside dozens of “young ethnic Somalis from Somalia, elsewhere in Africa, Europe and the United States.” At these camps, the men were taught to use a variety of weapons while being indoctrinated in “anti-Ethiopian, anti-American, anti-Israeli, and anti-Western beliefs.” [3] The training regimen was apparently tough, with only Ahmed and one other recruit completing the course. These two went on to take part in an assault on Ethiopian troops before the second man left the conflict and lost track of Ahmed.

The documents also show the importance of a local support network of older individuals who help in the radicalization process and aid in supplying the young men with equipment and money to go to Somalia. Three individuals in particular are identified in the new documents: Abdulahi Ahmed Farah, 32; Abdiweli Yassin Isse, 24 (who both remain at large and were last spotted crossing the San Ysidro border into Mexico on October 8 with tickets to Mexico City); and Mahamud Said Omar, 43, who was captured in the Netherlands on November 8. [5]

The three men were allegedly involved in hosting a series of meetings at a variety of locations in Minneapolis, where Farah would tell the others of his experiences fighting in Somalia, claiming “that he experienced true brotherhood while fighting in Somalia and that travel for jihad was the best thing that they could do.” He exhorted them “not to be afraid” and that “to fight jihad will be fun.” Farah emphasized that “they would get to shoot guns in Somalia.” [5] Farah claimed that he had sustained injuries (corroborated by others who knew him in Minneapolis) while fighting on the Somali/Kenyan border and had left soon afterwards for Nairobi where he married two women – undoubtedly intending to persuade the young men in Minneapolis of the possible benefits of jihad in this world as well as the next. He also allegedly helped coordinate a conference call between a group of potential recruits at a Minneapolis mosque and Isse in Somalia (Pioneer Press [St. Paul], November 24).

While both Isse and Omar are reported to have contributed to this radicalization (Isse allegedly referred to fighting in Somalia “a good jihad,” while Omar “provided encouragement”), the released documents point to a greater role as fundraisers. Isse was apparently involved in approaching other members of the Somali community to ask them to contribute money to help individuals study the Koran in Saudi Arabia. [6] It is unclear from the documents where Omar got the money he is alleged to have given the men, but he had enough to help nine of them to travel to Somalia. [7] He is also alleged to have traveled to join the men at a Shabaab safehouse in Somalia, where he supplied them with money to purchase AK-47s and calling cards.  He also gave money to their Somali hosts (Pioneer Press [St. Paul], November 27). Finally, he is alleged to have hosted a meeting in Minnesota in November 2008, a few days before another group left for Somalia (Minnesota Public Radio, November 24, 2009).

In early November, six young ethnic-Somali men disappeared from Toronto’s Somali community. Their families are reported to have received a phone call from Kenya, where the men were believed to be preparing to cross into Somalia to join al-Shabaab (Toronto Star, November 19; National Post [Toronto], November 18). The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) are searching for information on the missing men. Canadian Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan warned that those who traveled overseas to participate in terrorist activities could face prosecution in Canada (National Post, November 20). Toronto is home to about 150,000 ethnic-Somalis, a number of whom have returned to Somalia to join militant Islamist groups since 2006.

None of the new revelations point to a direct threat from these networks to the United States, but the role of a former fighter in the recruitment of others highlights the risk of such individuals returning home. Details are yet to emerge concerning the Minneapolis group (and the apparent Canadian parallel group in Toronto), but their existence shows an appetite for jihad amongst young Muslim men in North America. Whether this presages an impending threat on a scale similar to that seen previously in Europe is unclear, but it certainly shows that the United States is not immune to militant Islamist radicalization.


1. Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, “Terror Charges unsealed in Minneapolis against eight men, justice department announces,” November 23, 2009,
2. United States District Court, State and District of Minnesota – Criminal Complaint, United States of America v. 1) Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax; 2) Abdiweli Yassin Isse, October 8, 2009. The document uses the official Somali written form in rendering the names.
3.Ibid, p.8
4.Ibid, p.14
5.Ibid, pp.9-10, 14
6.Ibid, p.12
7. United States District Court, District of Minnesota – Indictment, Case 0:09-cr-00242-JMR-SRN, United States of America v. Mahamud Said Omar, August 20, 2009

<iframe src=’’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>