Al Shabaab not part of Global Jihad
Ken Menkhaus a professor of political science at Davidson College, N.C., and specializes in the Horn of Africa. He is the author of numerous articles and monographs on Somalia, including “Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism.”
Why have Somali-Americans apparently been more susceptible to recruitment into a jihadist militia in their family’s country of origin than other immigrant groups? Much has to do with events in Somalia.
First, recruitment of Somali-Americans into the Shabaab is very recent, correlated with politics in Somalia since 2006, not with Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror. The agenda which appears to have initially inspired Somali recruits into joining Shabaab was primarily about Somalia, not global jihadism.
For many Somalis, Al Shabaab was an entirely justifiable liberation movement against Ethiopian occupation, not a terrorist group.
Second, it is important to recall that the Shabaab was not designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government until March 2008, by which time many of the Somali-Americans in question had already been recruited into the movement. For many Somalis, Shabaab was an entirely justifiable liberation movement against Ethiopian occupation, not a terrorist group.
In addition, the recruitment of Somali-Americans into Shabaab is a reflection of the “diasporization” of Somalia. Roughly one million Somalis, about 15 percent of the total population, now live abroad. The diaspora plays a leading role in every aspect of Somali life. Most leaders of the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia hold citizenship abroad, as do many of the top Islamist opposition figures, business people and civic leaders.
Somalis in that country now complain that the current violence is a “war of the diaspora” over which they exercise little control. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that some Somalis holding passports abroad are turning up as Shabaab members.
Americans have long presumed that our immigrant communities are largely immune to recruitment into radical (especially jihadist) movements back home because the U.S. is better able to absorb immigrants than is the case in Europe. But Somali-Americans have, perhaps more than most immigrant groups, chosen to cluster tightly in their own communities, and are thus more prone to a sense of isolation from broader American society.
Many older Somali-Americans hope to return to Somalia, see their residency in the U.S. as temporary, and so have little incentive to assimilate. Some younger Somali-Americans feel they live in exile, belonging neither in America nor in Somalia.
As the Times’s article illustrates, a small percentage of these Somali-American youth were attracted to the Shabaab because of various factors, including a quest for a higher purpose, an impulse for adventure, an adolescent search for identity and the alluring conflation of Somali nationalism and Islamism. In no small part, Ethiopia’s harsh military occupation of Somalia appears to have catalyzed and radicalized Somalis abroad to a degree rarely seen in other Muslim diasporas in this country.