When terrorists affiliated with the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab attacked a Kenyan mall, killing at least 62 people and holding hundreds more hostage, something was off. As rescuers, military, and law enforcement made their way through the bloody wreckage, they discovered something shocking. Some of the terrorists appeared to be American citizens.
Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization whose main goal is an Islamic theocratic state in Somalia, has been recruiting Americans–mostly, but not only, ethnic Somalis from the diaspora–for years. Their recruitment efforts are centered on the Internet, and especially Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The terrorist group maintains an active English-language Twitter presence and one particular terrorist (who later broke with the organization and was likely killed by them), Alabama-born Arab-American Omar Hammami, even became a social media star of sorts thanks to his verbal sparring with counterterrorism analysts and journalists on Twitter. Since the Internet offered the connective glue that allowed disaffected Somali exiles worldwide to connect alongside militant Islamists, it became Al Shabaab’s link to the outside world.
A handful of Somali-Americans have drifted to Al-Shabaab over the years despite the fact that the organization’s ideology and methods offend the vast majority of the community. The organization is widely believed to have informal recruitment agents in the United States who approach potential targets through mosques, the Internet, and community contacts; the English-language skills and social disconnect of Somali-Americans may be assets for Al-Shabaab. Due to both trauma among parents fleeing Somalia’s long period of anarchy, and cultural and economic issues when it comes to integrating into American society, some angry teens have become a fertile asset for Shabaab recruitment.
Although YouTube regularly scrubs Al-Shabaab content that infringes on their terms of service (primarily for hate speech and violence), sympathizers and other third parties regularly post their content to the video-sharing site. One video, not included here because of the content, can easily be found by searching “al shabaab killing a man.” Another video, which appears to have been reposted by Islamic militants from the former Soviet Union, appears to show Al-Shabaab killing Burundian soldiers (Warning: graphic content)
Before being removed from Twitter, Al-Shabaab used an English-language feed to both manage its public diplomacy and taunt regional enemies. The group regularly taunts the Kenyan military and other actors; Twitter is also used as a platform by the group–much like conventional nation-states and nonstate actors like Hezbollah–to enhance its prestige and reputation. In a sign of how terrorism works in 2013, Al Shabaab live-tweeted the mall massacre. One sample tweet read “The Mujahideen entered #Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the #Kenyan Kuffar inside their own turf.”
As mentioned earlier, the vast majority of Somali-Americans are hostile to Al-Shabaab and their goals. Community activists aren’t happy the Internet is being used as a recruitment tool for the organization; Somalians believe they didn’t escape their war-torn country only for their children to return there as jihadist soldiers. Back in 2011, the Washington Post profiled Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali community activist who specializes in protecting young people from extremists. The founder of a community-based counterterrorism program, Bihi started the program after his own nephew joined Al-Shabaab and died shortly afterwards in Somalia.
Bihi told the Post that one of the major issues his community faces is funding. While local organizations fighting terrorist recruitment suffer perpetual budget problems, Al Shabaab recruiters freely use their money against vulnerable youth. In Minneapolis-St. Paul and other Somali population centers, they cultivate potential recruits with new phones, transportation to malls, meals, airfare abroad, and more.
Meanwhile, every time there a Somali-American who just turned 18 clashes with his family (like normal teenagers all over the world), there’s always an Al-Shabaab Facebook page to browse. And if the Facebook page is taken down for a TOS violation? Well, there are always 10 more pages ready to go online.