Attorney General Eric Holder, right,
announces charges of
terrorism violations against 14 people for
providing resources to the
foreign organization al-Shabaab.
At left is Assistant
Attorney General for National Security
By Sharon Schmickle
To aid the
militant Somali insurgent group called al-Shabaab is to invite major
legal trouble if you do it in Minnesota or any other U.S. state. That
much, federal authorities have made clear with a string of indictments
that grew considerably longer last week.
What's less clear is whether the crackdown here deals any real blow to
al-Shabaab's operations in Somalia.
Unfortunately, say some observers, the answer is no.
"So far as I
understand, it does not have much of an impact," said Michael Weinstein,
a political science professor at Purdue University and an analyst for Garowe
Online, which is based in the Puntland, a self-governed region in
Of course, there are other major reasons for the crackdown. Not the
least of them is to prevent Minnesota from becoming a recruiting
headquarters for what the United States says is a terrorist
organization. Authorities say that fighters trained and radicalized in
Somalia could seed a movement of home-grown militants here.
Still, the question of the impact on al-Shabaab is important for tens of
thousands of law-abiding Somalis in Minnesota, for the stability of East
Africa and for U.S. national security.
all but insurmountable challenge
It defines a challenge that is all but insurmountable for the United
States. There are no easy solutions to the problems posed by Somalia in
general and al-Shabaab in particular.
Since 2006, this upstart group has created an African beachhead for
Islamist militancy in utter defiance of attempts by the United States,
the United Nations and the African Union to secure Somalia's
Transitional Federal Government. It also has shown a chilling ability to
reach around the world — indeed, all of the way to Minnesota.
But many of the steps outsiders have taken to thwart al-Shabaab have
"Experts strongly caution that there is little the United States can do
to weaken al-Shabaab," said
a backgrounder on the
organization by the Council on Foreign Relations.
The State Department's latest country by country
report on terrorism describes al-Shabaab as a militant force that
"has used intimidation and violence to undermine the Somali government,
forcibly recruit new fighters and regularly kill activists working to
bring about peace through political dialogue and reconciliation."
The violence has included stoning people to death, chopping off hands,
slaughtering foreign relief workers, forcing children into military
service and staging suicide bombings.
But other descriptions by independent analysts say al-Shabaab also has
given to the poor, listened to the concerns of clan leaders in southern
Somalia and won favor in some quarters by standing up to foreign forces.
Since the United States designated al-Shabaab a terrorist group in 2008,
its leaders have seemed to swagger under that label. They have expressed
allegiance with al-Qaeda and publicly praised Osama bin Laden. For
example, last September they released a video titled "We are at your
Now, the State Department says, foreign al-Qaeda operatives are working
in Somalia under al-Shabaab's protection. The highly unstable country,
it said, is "a permissive environment for terrorist transit and
month, though, al-Shabaab's attacks seemed focused on Somalia alone.
Then, in July, bombs tore through crowds watching soccer's World Cup
finals in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Seventy people were dead. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility.
And the once rag-tag Somali group was a player on violent jihad's world
While the action had been local in Somalia, al-Shabaab's recruiting arm
reached into Minnesota at least three years ago. Some 20 young men, all
but one of Somali descent, disappeared from the Twin Cities area and
turned up in Somalia, where they trained with al-Shabaab, the
FBI reported. One, Shirwa Ahmed, drove an explosives-laden Toyota
truck into the office of the Puntland Intelligence Service in a suicide
Last year, authorities began arresting and indicting more than a dozen
people who had helped recruit the men and finance their trips to
Then last week, U.S.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced 14
indictments in Minnesota, Alabama and California. They alleged terrorism
violations mainly connected with providing money and other support to
interesting of the latest cases are charges that two Rochester, Minn.,
women — Amina Farah Ali, 33, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, — went
door-to-door soliciting funds under the pretense of helping needy
Somalis. In fact, the authorities allege, they sent more than $8,600 in
money transfers to al-Shabaab.
"The indictments unsealed today shed further light on a deadly pipeline
that has routed funding and fighters to the al-Shabaab terror
organization from cities across the United States," Holder said at a
"While our investigations are ongoing around the country, these arrests
and charges should serve as an unmistakable warning to others
considering joining terrorist groups like al-Shabaab — if you choose
this route you can expect to find yourself in a U.S. jail cell or a
casualty on the battlefield in Somalia," he said.
The Minnesota women pleaded not guilty before a U.S. magistrate in
Minneapolis on Monday, the
Associated Press reported.
For all of the commotion, al-Shabaab has caused in Minnesota and around
the world, much about the organization remains a mystery.
The group's precise numbers "are unknown," said the State Department
report. Some members may have trained and fought with al-Qaeda in
Afghanistan, it said, but that isn't clear either.
Even experts can't agree on the organization's status.
Some analysts say that al-Shabaab is torn by infighting. They also say
its insistence on enforcing a harsh interpretation of Islamic law is
increasingly unpopular with the Somali people.
The upshot is that al-Shabaab is "on the defensive and feels
beleaguered," said a
briefing published in May
by the International Crisis Group.
"The movement is forced to fight on many fronts and to disperse its
assets and combatants through broad swathes of hostile territory," the
briefing said. Further, it said, Al-Shabaab's "military troubles have
been compounded by the steady erosion of its popularity and
From that view, pressure applied to al-Shabaab's support in Minnesota
would seem to make a difference.
But other analysts debate that point of view.
sources of funding
Al-Shabaab has diverse sources of funding, said Weinstein, at Purdue
University. And the sums allegedly collected in Minnesota would be
comparatively small. The most important source is other Muslims who
support so-called Salafist — or, violent — jihad, he said.
"They are not getting most of their money from the United States,"
Weinstein said. "They are getting their money mostly from Arab Salafist
networks throughout the Islamic world."
Money also comes from port operations in the southern city of Kismayo,
where al-Shabaab gained control in 2009. And al-Shabaab has devised
other fundraising schemes such as demanding payment for allowing
humanitarian aid to move through regions it controls — something the
U.S. State Department dubbed a "terrorism tax" and refused to pay.
That is not to say that the Somali diaspora is not an important funding
source. But most ex-patriot Somalis do not live in the United States —
even given the tens of thousands who now call Minnesota home. Most of
them live in Kenya, the United Kingdom, Canada and scattered Arab
What's true for money also is true for fighters recruited from
Minnesota. Whatever al-Shabaab's numbers are, a few dozen from this part
of the world wouldn't make that much difference on the ground in Somalia
— except, perhaps, to parade them as American converts to al-Shabaab's
to stabilize Somalia
If anything, this Minnesota connection stands as a powerful reminder
that we live in a very small world where trouble festering in one place
can race around the globe.
So this might be a better way to state the key question: What, if
anything, can be done to help stabilize Somalia, to help ease its
desperate poverty and build some new order from the wreckage of a failed
After ignoring the question for much of the 1990s, the U.S. strategy was
to prop up the beleaguered transitional government in Mogadishu with
outside troops — first by supporting Ethiopian forces and now with
African Union troops acting as embattled peacekeepers.
Time is running out for that strategy. The transitional government
controls only a portion of the capital city, and some of its members
have quit, been fired or even defected.
Good riddance, say some analysts. If anything has bolstered al-Shabaab,
they say, it has been the presence of foreign troops on Somali soil.
back one troop buildup after another, there are better ways for the
United States to prevent the rise of terrorist groups in Somalia, said
Bronwyn Bruton, a former international affairs fellow at the Council on
Foreign Relations, in a
New York Times opinion piece.
"A strategy of "constructive disengagement" — in which the international
community would extricate itself from Somali politics, but continue to
provide development and humanitarian aid and conduct the occasional
special-forces raid against the terrorists — would probably be enough to
pull the rug out from under Al Shabaab," Bruton said.
"The only way Al Shabaab can flourish, or even survive in the long term,
is to hold itself up as an alternative to the transitional government
and the peacekeepers," Bruton said. "If the Somali public did not have
to face this grim choice, the thousands of clan and business militiamen
would eventually put up a fight against Al Shabaab's repressive religious
edicts and taxes. (Somalia's sheer ungovernability is both its curse and
its blessing.) And without a battle against peacekeepers to unite it, Al
Shabaab would likely splinter into nationalist and transnational
Sharon Schmickle covers international affairs, science and other topics.
Source: MinnPost, Friday, Aug. 13, 2010