Islamist Movements Recruiting in the West for the Somali Jihad

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 1

Last month, U.S. media reported that up to 20 American citizens of Somali origin recently travelled from Minnesota to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, a hardline jihadist group that presently controls more than half of Somalia. One of the recruits is believed to have died while taking part in a suicide bomb attack (see Terrorism Monitor, December 8, 2008). Such reports should not be surprising. During the last three years, substantial numbers of Muslims have travelled to Somalia from a variety of western countries (including the United States and Canada) to fight against the country’s secular, internationally recognised government and its allies.
North American Volunteers in Somalia
Reports continue to emerge of young Somalis, many college-educated, who have disappeared from the Minnesota area and are believed to have travelled to Somalia to join al-Shabaab or other jihadist groups there (USA Today, December 18, 2008; Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, November 25, 2008; KSTP-TV [St.Paul], November 29, 2008; WCCO-TV [Minneapolis-St.Paul], November 26, 2008; AP, November 26, 2008). A U.S. citizen from the area, 19-year old Shirwa Ahmed, is believed to have died taking part in a suicide bomb attack on targets in Somaliland, a secular, break-away democracy in northwest Somalia. Other Muslim Americans are also known to have travelled to Somalia during the last three years to carry out jihadist attacks. In July 2007, Daniel Joseph Maldonado, a Muslim convert from Massachusetts, was convicted by a court in Texas of travelling to Somalia in December 2006 to receive weapons training at an ICU camp (AP, July 22, 2007). He was arrested by Kenyan troops in January 2007 as he fled Somalia following the ICU’s retreat from Mogadishu.
There is additional evidence that other American jihadists are active in Somalia. Al-Jazeera has broadcast interviews with American members of al-Shabaab – in one such interview, aired in September 2007, a former American resident using the name Abu Mansur al-Amriki, blamed “American-backed warlords” for Somalia’s ruinous state and said that the Islamists were “fighting to establish peace and justice in this land” (Al-Jazeera TV, September 30, 2007). In August 2008, an English-language statement – purportedly from al-Amriki – was widely posted on jihadi websites. The message called on Muslims worldwide to support al-Shabaab, which al-Amriki defined as being more radical than the ICU, writing that “while the Courts had a goal limited to the boundaries placed by the Taaghoot [un-believers], the Shabaab had a global goal including the establishment of the Islamic Khilafah in all parts of the world.” [1] In a video released in October 2008, an al-Shabaab member with an American accent told viewers that the group had a “global mission” and urged supporters “to make hijrah and come join us and defend the religion of Allah.” [2]
There are also reports that Somalis from Canada have joined jihadi groups in Somalia. For example, in late 2006, a Canadian daily reported that “a number of young Somali-Canadians” had joined the ICU (National Post [Toronto], October 14, 2006). In October 2006, the paper interviewed Abdullahi Ali Afrah, a Somali-Canadian who had become a deputy–chairman of the ICU. When asked if there were other Canadian citizens involved in the group, he ambiguously replied, “No, no, not really” (National Post, July 2, 2008). In 2008 Afrah was reportedly killed in a clash with Ethiopian troops. In 2006, several Canadian citizens of Somali origin were arrested by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops as they fled the country. Although arrested on suspicions of supporting the ICU, none have so far been charged. The most prominent of these prisoners is Bashir Ahmed Mektal, who was arrested on the Kenya-Somalia border in December 2006. An Ethnic Somali who was born in Ethiopia, Mektal emigrated to Canada in his early 20s, returning to East Africa in 2004. [3] He is presently being held in Ethiopia, reportedly on suspicion of being involved with Somali separatist movements in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region (Toronto Star, June 6, 2008).
European Volunteers
There are numerous instances of European Muslims joining al-Shabaab and the ICU.
Many of them come from Scandinavian countries, which are home to large numbers of Somali refugees and their families. In early 2007, the Somali government reported that several Swedish citizens had been killed or captured during attacks on retreating ICU forces (The Local [Stockholm], January 30, 2007). Later, in June 2007, the government of the semi-autonomous province of Puntland said that another militant with Swedish citizenship had been killed in US airstrikes on an Islamist militant group (The Local, June 3, 2007). A further three Swedish citizens were reportedly arrested by Ethiopian forces in Somalia in early 2007 on suspicion of aiding the ICU (Sunday Times, June 10, 2007). Although most of these Swedish citizens were of Somali origin, non-Somali Swedish Muslims also became involved in the Somali jihad. One example is Youssef Qomer, a 23-year-old Swedish Muslim of Arab origin, who briefly fought with the ICU in 2006 before fleeing the Ethiopian invasion (, February 2, 2008). Travelling to Yemen by boat from Somalia, he continued to Saudi Arabia where the Swedish embassy gave him a new passport and helped him return home. He was arrested by French police when he went to Paris to visit his brother. Norway has also investigated a number of Muslim citizens on suspicion of raising funds for Somali jihadist groups – although none have been charged (Aftenposten [Oslo], June 13, 2008).
Inevitably, the UK – which currently produces far more jihadis than any other Western country – has also seen some of its Muslim citizens join the Somali militants. Last year, a reporter for The Independent wrote that, while in Mogadishu in 2007, he interviewed two Somali brothers from London who had acted as bodyguards to a man described as "Sheik Yusuf, one of the main Islamist commanders" (this may refer to Shaykh Yusuf Muhammad Siad "Indha Adde," who was then the head of the ICU’s military wing). The newspaper quoted one of these British-Somalis as saying, "We are doing our duty by fighting for the cause of Islam, which is above all countries" (Independent, November 28, 2008). In early 2007, at least seven British Muslims were reportedly arrested by Ethiopian forces on suspicion of aiding the ICU (The Times, January 10, 2007). British-Somalis have also been involved in terrorist attacks in Europe. The most notable example of a Somali connection to jihadi violence in the UK is the July 21, 2007 London bombing, in which four of the participants were from the Horn of Africa region (two were Somalis, one was from Eritrea and the other was an ethnic Somali from Ethiopia). Support for Somali Islamists is reportedly widespread among British Somalis. One Somali youth worker in London told the Jamestown Foundation last month that support for the ICU/al-Shabaab was almost universal among young British-Somalis– even among those born and brought up in the UK. [4] He said people mainly supported the Islamists because they were explicitly “Islamic,” but also because it was believed that their success would lead to peace and stability in Somalia.
Islamist Support for the Somali Jihad
Many prominent Islamist groups and pro-jihadist individuals worldwide have expressed support for al-Shabaab and the ICU. In some cases, they have openly called on Muslims to travel to Somalia to carry out attacks. For example, Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen of Yemeni origin who is one of the most prominent English-speaking jihadist preachers, wrote on his website in December that al-Shabaab “have succeeded in implementing the sharia and giving us a living example of how we as Muslims should proceed to change our situation. The ballot has failed us but the bullet has not.” He also told Muslims that “their success depends on your support. It is the responsibility of the ummah to help them with men and money” (, December 21, 2008). The Muslim Brothers worldwide have also been largely supportive – even though Islah, the Brotherhood’s Somali branch, has often been in conflict with these groups, which view Islah as a competitor and rival. In the UK, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), a group founded by leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, has explicitly backed and aided recruiting and fund-raising efforts of the ICU. For example, in late 2006, MAB reportedly allowed a visiting delegation from the ICU to hold a meeting with supporters at the MAB’s Finsbury Park Mosque (Guardian, January 13, 2007). MAB was asked to take over the mosque from the control of extremist preacher Abu Hamza by local police and government officials in 2005 (BBC, February 7, 2006). Leading MAB members have also publicly defended the ICU; Azzam al-Tamimi, for example, has referred to the ICU as “pious men of religion,” saying that their “only ambition was to restore order and enable the Somalis to live their lives as they wished” (Guardian, January 10, 2007).
The gradual withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Somalia in January 2009 will leave only a few thousand poorly equipped African Union troops and Somalia’s increasingly fragile government forces standing between al-Shabaab and the capture of Mogadishu and most of southern and central Somalia. Barring unexpected developments, al-Shabaab’s takeover of all Somalia (with the possible exceptions of the breakaway territories of Somaliland and Puntland) is therefore probably only a matter of time. When the ICU captured Mogadishu in late 2006, it quickly established militant training camps, threatened to invade Ethiopia and appealed for foreign jihadists to come to Somalia for military training. A similar takeover by al-Shabaab, a far more hardline organisation than the old ICU, makes it likely that this scenario will be repeated to some extent. Al-Shabaab already has pretentions for global influence. For example, in an October 2008 propaganda video, an al-Shabaab fighter cursed the “filthy dogs of Denmark” in broken English, adding, “we will never forget their mockery of the best of mankind and the last Messenger [i.e. the Prophet Muhammad]. So, sleep with the thoughts of our swords dripping with your blood.” [5] He also told Muslims to “stand up and resist the oppression of the kuffar [infidels] … fight the kuffar and their apostate puppets.” At present, however, it is hard to determine to what degree such statements are rhetorical hyperbole and how reflective they are of al-Shabaab’s philosophy and worldview.
An al-Shabaab victory in Somalia in 2009 will certainly have consequences far beyond the Horn of Africa but much will depend on how al-Shabaab behaves once it is in power: Will al-Shabaab use its victory to rebuild a country shattered by 15 years of civil war? Or will it reach out to jihadists around the world and seek to use its new-found power to attack the “kuffar and their apostate puppets” wherever they may be found?

3. Amnesty International report: Horn of Africa: unlawful transfers in
the “war on terror,” (June, 2007),
4. Author’s interview with a Somali youth worker in London, December 2008.
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