Small Wars Journal

Thrilla in Minnesota

Wed, 03/05/2014 - 3:07pm

Thrilla in Minnesota: Al-Shabaab vs. The Somali Diaspora

Michael G. Dennis

On 21 September, 2013, members of the al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist group, al-Shabaab, stormed the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.  The attackers used automatic weapons to kill more than 60 unarmed civilians and inflict almost 200 injuries (Davey, 2013).  This attack bore a striking resemblance to the Mumbai, India attack performed by Lashkar-e-Taiba.  Although al-Shabaab is affiliated with al-Qaida, it can also be seen as a newer, less established terrorist group that was looking to make its first large international mark in the world.  After gaining that new confidence with the attack in Nairobi, it is possible that the group now has the confidence to attempt a much larger attack, or one in the West.  These two factors, the new confidence and a large Somali population in parts of the Midwest, could add up to a new threat to the Homeland. 

This possible homegrown threat is not unlike that which preceded the Boston Bombings in 2013 where an American citizen and a US Person both seemingly became radicalized and produced two working improvised explosive devices.  One large and concerning difference between the Boston bombers and any would-be attackers in the Somali population of Minneapolis is that the Boston bombers seemingly acted alone.  With al-Shabaab being formally made an arm of al-Qaida, a potential Somali attacker would conceivably have more resources available to them.  This subject is of interest to me because it is possible that the next al-Shabaab attack using Americans could be performed here in the United States.

While it has not been confirmed that any of the attackers came from the United States, according to CNN analyst, Peter Bergen, “’…We know Shabaab has recruited in the United States’” (Smith, 2013).  The same article stated that, “As early as 2008, the FBI warned that more than a dozen youths, some of them American citizens, had left Minneapolis, home to the largest Somali population in the United States” (Smith, 2013).  There are also parallels between other homegrown terrorist networks and al-Shabaab in Somalia.  In his book, Inside Terrorism, Bruce Hoffman contrasts the “new generation” of terrorists versus the “old generation” as being part of, “…far more amorphous, indistinct, and broad movements” without a larger hierarchy or command structure (Hoffman 2006, 271).   This quality among al-Shabaab is what would make finding the recruits so difficult before they were able to perform an attack.

Research Questions

What is the threat to the Homeland, if any, from al-Shabaab recruiting Somalis in the United States?  More specifically referencing Boston, if the Boston Bombers are the beginning of a new type of domestic terrorist, what might be the indicators of a similar threat from the Somali diaspora in the United States?

The literature for this topic reveals several different pictures of the potential for both good and bad to be done, as this is a mainly human topic.  With regards to the Somali diaspora itself, either specifically within Minnesota or just the United States at-large, Doug Rutledge gives an in-depth look at the Somali immigrant experience as well as many comparisons to the American psyche in his book The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away.  Much of this book is concerned with that very side-by-side comparison between Somali immigrants and native-born Americans in order to show various differences and similarities with regards to religion, family, values, and general mindset.  The experiences of the Somali community are researched more in-depth by Gregg Aamot in his book, The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees.  His book takes a look at many of the different immigrant populations that have settled in Minnesota to include Hmong, Ethiopians, and Hispanics as well as Somalis.  With reference to the Somalis, Aamot discusses both how the older and younger generations feel toward their new country as well as (for some) their homeland.  He also discusses the various inroads that these Somali immigrants have made into both the political system as well as American culture in Minnesota.  In light of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and the attack in Kenya mentioned above, there is a good deal of unrest within the Somali communities within the U.S. and probably the world. 

Monica Davey wrote an article this year in the New York Times entitled, “Somali Community in U.S. Fears New Wave of Stigma After Kenya Attack”.  Much of this unrest is due to a possible link between al-Shabaab and U.S.-based Somali communities and any increased scrutiny that would come from the possibility of al-Shabaab recruiting from those communities.  The fear is that both the scrutiny from an investigation as well as suspicion from the general populace could set relations back between the general populace and the Somali community.  

As stated above, the literature on this subject spans both the good and the bad.  To understand the possibility of al-Shabaab recruiting in the U.S.-based Somali communities, one must understand al-Shabaab as well as its ties to al-Qaida.  Stig Jarle Hansen lays out the history of al-Shabaab in his book, Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012.  This book details the creation of al-Shabaab, their tactics, motivations, alliances, and attacks almost into the present.  While Somalia was not in the general public eye until the events depicted in Black Hawk Down (the book and the movie), Hansen’s study delves into just what makes al-Shabaab al-Shabaab.  Many of the tactics, techniques and motivations of terrorists in general are also explained by Bruce Hoffman in his book, Inside Terrorism.  This book not only defines terrorism, but also tracks what he calls “contemporary terrorism” (Hoffman 2006, 43) as well as gives possible forecasts for how terrorism might look in the near future.  Hoffman also details the organization structures of various terrorist organizations and compares them to each other.  

In dealing specifically with Islamic terrorists in the U.S., Steven Emerson’s book, American Jihad begins with his recollection of the research he did prior to a 1994 broadcast he made called “Jihad in America”.  This broadcast detailed the openness and ferocity with which some Muslims in America discussed violent jihad.  The book then goes on to further investigate just how deeply seeded the hatred is, which groups here in the U.S. are advocating this kind of violence and the leaders of international terrorism.  The book also details those whose voices for peace are being drowned out or ignored and the struggles that they too are facing in being heard.  In order to know whether there may be a possible new trend in American terrorists, it is necessary to understand where the trend might have started.  Dave Remnick wrote an article in The New Yorker magazine entitled, “The Culprits” where he researched much of the histories of the Boston Marathon bombers; Tameralan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as well as their family history and their cultural history.  While there is no good reason for the violence that took place that day, Remnick’s article does a good job of explaining how the culture that the bombers came from might have lead them to those acts of violence.

In researching ffor this paper, I thought of a strategy put forth by Robert Clark in his book Intelligence Analysis where he states, “One fairly simple but often over looked approach to evaluating the probability of success is to examine the success rate of similar ventures” (Clark 2007, 247).  If one could see the risk analysis of the Tsarnaevs as a “venture” then examining them as a case-study for future possible attacks would be apt.  The research was performed in a manner that paints two potential pictures of the Somali communities in the U.S.: one that wants nothing but to succeed and thrive in a new country while holding on to his or her own culture, and one that seeks to threaten both communities with hatred and violence.  Thankfully, the former is in the overwhelming majority, but it still only takes a very small group of the latter to cause havoc and destruction.  Given much of the Somali diaspora in the U.S. would have the access to the same resources that the Tsarnaevs had to both self-radicalize and build a make-shift bomb, as well as the possibility that a resurgent al-Shabaab recruits here in the U.S., there is very much the possibility of a threat to the Homeland.  There are also a few differences in this study that should be mentioned.  One difference is the size of the populations of the two potential outcomes.  Since the Chechen diaspora in the U.S. was not researched, a full comparison cannot be made between that and the Somali diaspora in the U.S.  The main purpose was to determine if there was to research the Somali community in order to see if that same kind of discontent could be gleaned.  Another difference is that the general knowledge of the Boston bombers shows that they were not directly recruited before the attack.  This could change with further investigation into the lives and travels of the Tsarnaevs.  Again, the purpose of this paper is to discuss whether or not the motivation is there, or the potential that it could be there, in order for a large group to be recruited by al-Shabaab for an attack here in the U.S.

While the official origin of al-Shabaab is somewhat vague, it is generally believed that it began much in the same way that al-Qaida and the Taliban did: among the mujahdin that fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets during the Cold War.  From this crucible, the veterans then returned to Somalia with a new solidarity and the new concept that a Caliphate, or Muslim state, must be established (Hansen 2013, 20).  With this common idea and origin, it is no small wonder that al-Shabaab and al-Qaida would form an alliance.  Once back in Somalia, according to Hansen, “…Al-Shabaab emerged from a small sub-group of AIAI [Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya], a sub-group dominated by the group of Afghanistan veterans described earlier…” (Hansen 2013, 20).  This new group proposed a more violent version of jihad in Somalia and fought U.S. forces in Mogadishu during the United Nations’ expanded military intervention.  These were the events depicted in Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden.   Then in 1996, Ethiopia took matters into its own hands against the AIAI and defeated them.  But as with many violent terrorist organizations, there are usually some that wish to carry on the fight.  The state of affairs in Somalia in 1998 was fractured and warlords kept much of the country in a state of disarray.  It was the emergence of the Sharia Courts that provided al-Shabaab a means of both authority and fear.  Just pre- and post-9/11, resources owed to al-Shabaab and Al-Qaida in East Africa (AQEA) were used in attacks in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam.  By 2005, al-Shabaab had a stable base in Mogadishu and could begin actively recruiting from within the country (Hansen 2013, 20-28). 

Moving forward to today, al-Shabaab has made its presence known both in Somalia and Kenya with suicide bombings, IED bombings, and small-arms attacks.  The most publicized of these being the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.  The group has also become an international organization, but without the far reach of al-Qaida in its prime.  Thus far, much of the group’s actions have been contained to East Africa.  Bruce Hoffman writes about a common cellular structure of most modern terrorist groups in saying that, “…many of these newer movements are more loosely connected or indirectly linked through networks comprising both professionals (e.g., trained full-time terrorists) and ‘amateurs’ (hangers-on, supporters, sympathizers, and would-be terrorists who may lack the expertise or experience of their better-established counterparts)” (Hoffman 2006, 271).  In other words, while the organization is farther reaching, it is also potentially more loosely organized with much of the same ideology.  This is not to say that its ideology could not be spread, nor its motives or tactics.  Some in the U.S. Somali diaspora could be vulnerable to this ideology if they fall victim to “radicalization theory” where feelings of, “…relative deprivation, the feeling of not getting what you believe you are entitled to” may drive people to feel disenfranchised from society (Hansen 2013, 11).   This same feeling was exhibited by Tamerlan Tsarnaev who was quoted as saying, “‘I don’t have a single American friend…I don’t understand them’” (Remnick, 2013). 

In looking at the Somali community in Minnesota, this fear is also tangible.  Aamot recounts the shooting by police of a Somali youth who was threatening them with a machete.  The youth was later determined to have been mentally ill and not have a full grasp of the English language.  When the police officers were not found guilty of any wrongdoing, the Somali community was in an uproar and protested the verdict (Aamot 2006, 56-7).  He also told of how after the 9/11 attacks, the government closed several money-transfer offices because they were believed to be used to fund terrorists as opposed to relatives in Somalia (Aamot 2006, 58).  These incidents as well as others that generally happen with the integration period of any immigrant population can lead to members of that population feeling like second-class citizens.  The feeling of isolation among the inhabitants of a strange land could lead to further insolation among the immigrant population. 

There is, however, cause for optimism.  When faced with the feeling of disenfranchisement, many in the Somali community opted for engagement in the system.  At first, there was the Somali Justice Advocacy Center.  This center evolved from a place to seek help and assistance with the basics of settling into a new community to a sounding board for protest and political expression.  This gave rise to new lines of communication between the Somali community and the Minneapolis police department, including the officers that patrolled sections of that community attending training about Somali culture and customs (Aamot 2006, 62-3).  This interaction between the Somali community and the local community highlights the choice to take part in educating both groups and to not be isolated.  This organization of the Somali community would be slow-going at first.  One of the hurdles that many would have to overcome is the perception of government taught to them by their experiences in their homeland.  Aamot put it this way, “Civil war and political corruption in their homeland had left them wary of authoritarian government and hungering for the democratic kind” (Aamot 2006, 67). 

Another means by which the Somali community chose to both be engaged and to break with old clan rivalries was to elect their own council that would represent them anywhere in Minnesota.  It was an effort to help them see eye-to-eye with one another as opposed to fracturing by clan as they might have in Somalia (Aamot 2006, 71-2).  One of the major debates among this council, and the Somali community in general, was how to bring peace to Somalia.  But instead of just debating, the Somalis attempted to get the issue addressed at the federal level through Congress.  Again, whether or not this engagement is ultimately successful, it is still an engagement in the political system and represents an active choice. 

Some have already made the choice whether to stay in the U.S. or return to Somalia at some point.  Aamot also details the different views of Somalis according to age with regards to this decision.  While many of the older generations of Somalis long to return to their homeland someday, many of the younger generation are much more ambivalent about it because they have grown up in the U.S.  In their minds they are Minnesotans and Americans.  They may be first-generation U.S.-born which would make this their homeland.  The older generation may still feel very passionate about what is going on in Somalia, but the younger generation is much more distanced from it (Aamot 2006, 82).   

In conclusion, an answer to the question of, “What is the threat to the Homeland, if any, from al-Shabaab recruiting Somalis in the United States?” is that there is a potential for a threat but no more than there was the potential for a threat in the Boston community before the Boston Marathon bombings.  The research shows that while it is not exhaustive, overall the Somali population in the U.S. is taking advantage of what the U.S. has to offer in terms of safety, freedom, and the opportunity for prosperity.  It is not perfect in that there will always be issues between an immigrant population and the local community.   But the fact that that immigrant population has chosen to become involved in the workings of the local, state, and even federal government speaks to their willingness not to be co-opted by outside groups that preach violence as a means to an end.  I assess the threat as Low.  The potential is there, but not definite.

To answer the question of, “If the Boston Bombers are the beginning of a new type of domestic terrorist, what might be the indicators of a similar threat from the Somali diaspora in the United States?”, the answer would be multiple possible triggers.  One such trigger would be another major U.S. military action in Somalia.  Even if it were as a “peacekeeping” force, such an action could be seen as an invasion of their homeland much like the Ethiopian invasion of 2006, which they protested (Rutledge 2008, 136).  A similar scenario would be positive U.S. support of another country invading Somalia. 

Another possible trigger on the domestic front could be a flash-point issue.  Much like the one previously mentioned about the mentally ill Somali youth being shot and killed by the police, another incident that is seen as more grievous and/or more specific to the Somali population could be used as motivation for an attack.  Likewise, if there were an incident that turned the local populace against the Somali community, an aspiring jihadi might see performing an attack as instead acting in self-defense.   

All of these hypothetical situations have the possibility of allowing al-Shabaab to recruit someone or a group of Somalis inside their community to perform an attack.  The harsh reality is that if someone was mad enough, if they felt as though something was the last straw, they will take action against whomever they feel is to blame.  As for al-Shabaab, I believe that they can still recruit even without any of these scenarios.  The good news is, as was shown by the Monica Davey article, that the Somali community at-large is as abhorred by acts of violence and terrorism as any other civilized community.  I believe that the best way to possibly prevent the isolation and disenfranchisement is what the two communities are currently doing: engaging.  If the two communities are learning more about each other, then there is less of a rift between them that can be exploited.  If they are becoming more engaged in the political system, then they will be better represented.  As the old saying goes: You get out of it what you put into it.


Aamot, Gregg. 2006. The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees. Minneapolis: Syren Book Company.

Clark, Robert M. 2007. Intelligence Analysis: A Target-Centric Approach. District of Columbia: CQ Press.

Davey, Monica. “Somali Community in U.S. Fears New Wave of Stigma After Kenya Attack”. The New York Times, September 28. (accessed 15 December, 2013).

Emerson, Steven. 2002. American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us. New York: The Free Press.

Hansen, Stig Jarle. 2013.  Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012.  New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

Hoffman, Bruce. 2006. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Remnick, David. 2013. The Culprits.  The New Yorker, April 29, 2013. (accessed 15 December, 2013).

Rutledge, Doug. 2008. The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

About the Author(s)

Michael Dennis is an Intelligence Analyst for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  He is completing his Master's Degree in Intelligence Analysis with the American Military University.  This research paper was written as part of his Threat Analysis course.


Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 10:33am

Thought of this SWJ article as I read the following:

<blockquote>A public records search traced McCain’s youth back to the Twin Cities in Minnesota and to Robbinsdale Cooper High School, which is the same school attended in the same time period by Troy Kastigar. Kastigar’s image appeared in news reports around the world in 2009 after he was killed fighting with jihadist group in Somalia, this one an al Qaeda affiliate called al-Shabab.</blockquote>…

Not diaspora.

And I'm just playing around with the next link. I don't really mean anything by it:

<blockquote>Anyone driving past the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport may have done a double-take over the massive jetliner from the United Arab Emirates that has been parked there for days.

There is a bit of airline intrigue surrounding the 747, which has been sitting alongside the Delta Airlines hangar for all to see. Turns out, it belongs to a crown prince from a very wealthy country in the Persian Gulf which borders Saudi Arabia.

The airport's commission confirmed those details, adding that the large jet apparently flew to Minnesota with members of the royal family and their entourage.

Rumor has it, the group headed to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for some kind of extended medical care. Meanwhile, the plane belonging to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, which bears the nation's flag painted on the tail, has been sitting at the airport for more than a week.

YouTube video found online shows the 747 landed in front of a small crowd on June 28.

Sources tell FOX 9 News it had dropped members of the royal family to the Mayo Clinic before the pilots brought the empty aircraft to MSP-International for long-term parking.</blockquote>…