The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)
Part III. THE DIASPORA
Chapter 13. The missing of Minneapolis
Twin Cities, Minnesota, September 2011
Ten years had passed since the attacks of 9/11, but it was as though they had only just happened at New York’s Newark airport, where I stopped to change planes for Minneapolis. A soldier in full combat gear was stationed at the main terminal entrance, his legs apart and his rifle cradled in his arms, an alert and aggressive reminder from the government to the people that America remained a country at war. The New Jersey Port Authority, apparently fearful that al-Qaida would mark the 9/11 anniversary with another Twin Towers-type strike, had plastered the terminals with posters exhorting the public to be vigilant. One of these depicted a hooded figure with a rucksack over his shoulder, slipping into a door marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, above the shouted headline ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ and a phone number to call.
There seemed, at least to my European eyes, to be quite a lot wrong with the picture. Wasn’t there enough paranoia in America’s airports already, without encouraging its citizens to spy on one another in this Orwellian way? It felt like an affront to civil liberties in this supposed Land of the Free. The Port Authority’s determination to avoid any accusation of racial profiling was also laughable. The figure in the poster’s foreground conscientiously phoning the cops was an indeterminate brown, while the suspect in the background was white. He looked to me less like a terrorist than a naughty teenager looking for somewhere to smoke an illicit cigarette.
But however exaggerated the reasons for fear and suspicion might have been, I knew they were not groundless. Support for al-Qaida – or for its affiliates, such as al-Shabaab – was real enough in the US, above all in the city to which I was headed. A Minneapolis Somali called Omer Abdi Mohamed had only recently pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiring to recruit fighters for the insurgency.1 The case of ‘Brother Omer’ had been cited by Congressman Peter King – who was fresh back in Washington from his address to British MPs, and about to chair another Homeland Security Committee hearing into extremism among American Muslims – as evidence that ‘jihadi sympathizers’ were still active in the Minneapolis community.
‘With al-Shabaab’s large cadre of American jihadis and unquestionable ties to al-Qaida, we must face the reality that al-Shabaab is a growing threat to our homeland,’ he said.2
In 2008 when the FBI launched Operation Rhino, as they called their investigation in the Twin Cities, they quickly discovered that many of the young men who had gone missing in Somalia had known each other, either because they had once been friends at the same school, or else because they had prayed together at the same south central mosque, the Abubakar as-Saddique Islamic Center. It was this last detail that really alarmed the FBI. Were the young men recruited by militant Muslims preaching at the Abubakar? If so, how had these preachers managed to operate in the heartland of America for so long, wholly undetected by the DHS, the vast, multi-agency Department of Homeland Security, which had been created a decade ago specifically to ensure that 9/11 could never be repeated? In the Twin Cities, it seemed, America’s worst nightmare was in danger of coming true.
Between 75,000 and 100,000 Somalis live in Minneapolis and St Paul, comfortably the largest concentration in the States, although it was not immediately obvious why. Minnesota’s legendary winters, where temperatures routinely drop to minus 15°C and snowfalls of eight feet have been known, are the planetary opposite of the desert heat of the Horn of Africa. It was, as the locals joked, a very cold place for a hotbed.
Their presence, I eventually discovered, was down to the Lutherans. Minnesota’s first settlers were farmers from Germany and Scandinavia, and Lutherans still run the state’s social services with an efficiency and generosity of spirit of which the Great Reformer himself would have approved. A number of voluntary Somali migrants, mostly professionals with ambitions to study or to set up businesses, had been drawn to the Twin Cities even before the civil war by the abundance of jobs and social housing on offer, at a time when the local economy was conspicuously booming. Word soon spread of the good life to be had in Minnesota, making the state the destination of choice when the main refugee exodus began in the early 1990s. The US Immigration Department had a policy of distributing new arrivals evenly around the country, but the Somalis, with their long nomadic tradition of scouting out the greenest pastures, seldom stayed put in a place that didn’t suit them, and a wave of secondary migration took place.*
There was no shortage of work for the newcomers, even when they didn’t speak English. Many of them began their life abroad on an assembly line at companies like 3M, a manufacturing conglomerate headquartered on the edge of St Paul, or at the IBM computer plant at Rochester, 90 miles to the south. Many others did as the first wave of Somalis had done, and set up their own businesses. By 2008 there were some six hundred Somali-run businesses in operation in the Twin Cities. It seemed, on the face of it, to be a remarkably successful immigration story. Where had it gone wrong?
I caught a cab from Minneapolis airport to the Holiday Inn, a hotel I’d chosen for its proximity to Cedar-Riverside, a district where so many Somalis lived that it was known as Little Somalia. My room overlooked the Riverside Plaza, a multi-coloured complex of six high-rise apartment blocks built in a 1970s brutalist style, and home to the densest concentration of Somalis in the US. The Plaza had a poor reputation among white locals, who nicknamed it Little Mogadishu, the Ghetto in the Sky or, worse, the Crack Stacks. Yet I saw nothing to fear on an exploratory stroll down Cedar Avenue. There was no change of atmosphere as I approached the Plaza, no sense that I had strayed over some invisible line. The precise boundaries of this ghetto were strangely hard to discern.
It was a warm Sunday evening and the local football team, the Minnesota Vikings, had just lost a home match to their old rivals, the Detroit Lions. Their pasty-skinned and purple-shirted fans, many of them noisily drunk, had spilled on to the pavement from a cluster of bars and restaurants where rock music blared at the junction of Cedar and Washington. Barely a hundred yards further on, a strip began that was dotted with Somali-run snack bars, hawala offices, a grocery called Afrik and a restaurant called Masha’allah. Somalis sunned themselves outside coffee shops or passed up and down the pavement, laughing into their mobile phones. It all looked and felt far more relaxed – more Americanized – than I had been led to expect. The proximity of the drinkers up the street apparently presented no cultural difficulty at all. Directly opposite the Plaza there was even a ‘world pub’ called the Nomad. Could such a city really be the West’s leading exporter of Somali jihadis?
The following morning I went to the de facto parliament of the Somali community: a Starbucks, fifteen minutes’ walk away at the bottom of Riverside Avenue. This was where older men came to discuss clan politics and the war back home. Their banter was often so impassioned that the staff were said to have bought a decibel meter to ensure the noise they made remained within the legal limit.3 It was still early in the morning when I arrived, so the noise from inside was not yet ear-splitting, although it was easy to imagine how it might become so. I was later told that fifty-six of the estimated 140 clans, sub-clans and sub-sub-clans were registered as resident in the Twin Cities.4Several dozen middle-aged Somali men were already congregated at Starbucks, with more joining them all the time, greeting each other with hugs and jolly slaps on the back. It was the nearest thing to a Mogadishu coffee shop that one could hope to find in America.
I had come to meet Abdirizak Bihi, whose 17-year-old nephew, Burhan Hassan, was one of the al-Shabaab recruits who never came back. Burhan was not the first to vanish from Minneapolis, but he was the youngest – and it was his disappearance, in November 2008, that first awoke the Somali community to the scale of the problem in their midst.
Bihi was one of those who were convinced that the leadership of the Abubakar mosque, where Burhan had once worshipped, was complicit in the tragedy in some way. At an earlier round of Congressman King’s hearings into Muslim extremism, in Washington in March 2011, he had insisted that his nephew had been ‘lured, brainwashed, radicalized’ in Minneapolis – and he continued to repeat the allegation in the media whenever he could. Securing an interview with him had not been difficult, therefore. Over the years he had emerged as a kind of spokesman for the local families of al-Shabaab recruits, although no one had elected him to that role, and not everyone liked or agreed with him. He was so vociferous, and some of his allegations were so outlandish, that some people thought Burhan’s death had affected his sanity. But although he conceded his nephew’s death had come at great cost to him personally – ‘I never thought my life would go in this direction,’ he told me – I found him sane enough.
He was a slight man with a sensitive face, a salt-and-pepper moustache, and natty, black-top glasses that he repeatedly pushed up on to his forehead as he spoke. I wondered privately if his campaigning was driven as much by guilt as by anger at what had happened. Did he secretly blame himself for not having been a better uncle, who might have spotted the signs of trouble and intervened before it was too late?
Burhan’s story was certainly tragic. A quiet, bespectacled boy nicknamed ‘Little Bashir’, he was to outward appearances the most unlikely candidate for violent jihadism. He lived with his widowed mother Zienab, Abdirizak Bihi’s sister, in an apartment on the nineteenth floor of a Riverside Plaza tower block. He was a diligent student at Roosevelt High School, a short bus ride away, where he earned As for the calculus and advanced chemistry courses he took. He dreamed of studying medicine at Harvard.
But one day, Burhan did not come home from school. When Zienab searched his room, she found that his clothes, laptop and passport were missing. There was also a receipt from a local travel agency for an $1,800 air ticket to Nairobi. Burhan had no job, so could not possibly have afforded this. Who had paid for it? Three days after his disappearance, Burhan phoned home to say he was in Somalia and was safe, although he kept the phone call short and refused to give any further details. But it soon became clear that he had not travelled alone from Minneapolis. The word around town was that four other young Somali men, including two promising students at the University of Minnesota, had gone with him. Burhan’s family went to the police.
The week before Burhan left, five suicide car-bombers blew themselves up in a coordinated attack across northern Somalia that killed twenty-eight and injured dozens. One of the bombers, who ploughed into an office of the Puntland Intelligence Service in Bossasso, was identified as Shirwa Ahmed, 26, a graduate from Roosevelt High who had been among the first wave of Minnesotans who left for Somalia in December 2007. It was the first ever suicide bomb attack to be carried out by an American citizen. An investigation was already under way in Minneapolis because of Shirwa, but the news that a further five young Somalis had absconded from there sent the FBI into overdrive. Somali-Americans everywhere began to be stopped and questioned at airports, shopping malls, or in their homes. Former classmates of the missing boys were subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury. For the first time, the Minneapolis community came under national and then international media scrutiny.
At first, many of the young men in Somalia kept in touch with their friends back home. Burhan, however, rang his mother. On one occasion he told her that, while travelling on a boat to an al-Shabaab base somewhere in southern Somalia, he had been so violently sick that his glasses had flown overboard. His mother sweetly fetched his prescription and read it out to him, in the faint hope that he could find an optician to replace them.5 Burhan was not the only one struggling in the warzone. Others complained to their friends about the heat, and the malaria. They missed things like McDonald’s, and coffee. They were soft, city boys, lost in a land far harsher than they had expected it to be.6
In early May, Burhan rang home and asked: ‘If I come back to America, will they arrest me and put me in Guantanamo?’ Sensing he had had enough, his family wired money to a relative in Nairobi, who agreed to meet him at the border, take him to the US embassy and try to get him home. By now, however, Burhan was famous – and al-Shabaab, according to Bihi, had much to lose if he were allowed to return to the US. He would undoubtedly spoil their recruiting efforts abroad by telling the world how unhappy he had been in Somalia. He could also reveal names and other important details about the mechanics of transporting young men half way around the world in secret.
The precise circumstances of his death in June 2009, seven months after he left home, have never been made clear. According to one report, he was killed in Mogadishu by a random bullet. His uncle Bihi, on the other hand, was convinced that he was executed with a shot to the head when his al-Shabaab commanders learned that he intended to quit. However he died, the militants publicly described him as a ‘martyr’. The news came in an anonymous call to his mother, who threw her phone against a wall in her grief. Burhan died just two weeks before he was due to try to come home.
Bihi dismissed as ‘nonsense’ the idea that Burhan and the others had joined the al-Shabaab cause out of anti-Ethiopian nationalism. He said that more young Minnesota Somalis had gone back to fight after the Ethiopian withdrawal, in January 2009, than before it. Burhan and the others, he was sure, had gone to fight purely as jihadis. He was equally sure that they had absorbed the ideology necessary to do that in Minneapolis’s mosques.
‘Ninety per cent of the kids who have gone back to fight came from single mother homes,’ he said. ‘Without a father figure to guide him, Burhan was raised by imams. And they say they are not responsible? That’s baloney.’
His feud with the Abubakar mosque was as bitter as ever. In 2009, he claimed, the imam had preached a sermon suggesting that if any of the congregation had the chance, they should run Bihi over with their car. Then Bihi alleged that Hassan Jama, the mosque’s director, had personally met Burhan and the other new recruits at Nairobi airport when they first arrived from Minneapolis in 2008, and driven them to the Abubakar’s sister mosque in Eastleigh, Nairobi’s teeming Somali suburb, for onward transportation to the war.
This incendiary accusation was curiously detailed. If correct, it implied that the Abubakar, one of the largest mosques in the US, was a thinly veiled front for al-Shabaab – which, I almost had to remind myself, had been formally designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department since February 2008. Could it possibly be true?
‘Everyone in Minneapolis knows the truth about Hassan Jama,’ said Bihi, leaning back and pushing up his glasses. ‘Ask anyone. It’s an open secret in our community.’
‘But if it’s true, why haven’t the FBI investigated?’
‘Ah . . . the FBI,’ he said. ‘They have their own reasons. And they never tell you anything.’
I went to test this assertion a few days later at the FBI’s Minnesota headquarters, a striking glass and steel block on the edge of the downtown business district. Supervisory special agent E. K. Wilson was a short, sharp-faced man in a white shirt and dark tie. The previous evening, when I had told my contact on the local Star Tribune newspaper, Paul McEnroe, who I was going to see, he said: ‘Oh my God! It’s the Burnsville Flash!’
Minneapolis, I was learning, was the sort of town where everyone knew each other. Paul and E.K. had once played hockey together in and around Burnsville, a southern suburb where E.K. was brought up. The nickname was a playful tease. E.K. was a determined player, according to Paul, and quick on his feet, yet he was somehow always being flattened by the other kids who were taller and heavier than him.
E.K. and I sat across a table from each other in a windowless interview room, where he explained how he had led the charge on Operation Rhino for the last three years. He sighed when I relayed what Bihi had said about Hassan Jama and the Abubakar mosque: he had clearly heard it often before.
‘There is no evidence that the Abubakar or any other mosque was responsible for the recruitment or radicalization of any of the kids,’ he said carefully. ‘That is not to say the recruiters didn’t use the mosque – they clearly did. And there was some level of organization – but not at the level of the mosque leadership.’
‘And Jama? Bihi says he is immune from prosecution because he’s providing you with information on extremists.’
‘Any supporter of a terror organization would be indicted whether or not they were providing us with information.’
It was plain enough that he thought Bihi’s allegation was nonsense. What was interesting was the care he took to avoid saying so specifically. In fact, his responses to all my questions seemed unusually diplomatic for a law enforcement officer.
‘There is always rumour in this very . . . communicative culture,’ he said at one point. ‘Rumours and allegations are constantly in motion. The challenge is to see beyond the misconceptions.’
In a sense, of course, E.K. was a diplomat – an envoy of America in Little Somalia – and like a regular ambassador abroad, he couldn’t afford to be seen to be taking sides. When the first wave of al-Shabaab recruits left, he recalled, none of their friends or family reported what had happened to the police, for fear they would end up in Guantanamo. It had taken his team years of difficult ‘outreach’ work, involving dozens of public meetings in conference centres, youth forums and, eventually, mosques, to persuade the community that the FBI was not anti-Somali or anti-Muslim, but anti-terrorist. The FBI’s mandate was to protect all US citizens – ‘Including Somali-Americans,’ E.K. emphasized – and he had worked out that the best and probably only way to do this was to win, and maintain, the trust and cooperation of all parts of the Somali community, regardless of their views. It was a delicate task and, as he acknowledged, still far from complete.
‘Operation Rhino will still be going long after I’m gone.’ He shrugged, philosophically.
He also frankly doubted that young American Muslims had stopped travelling back to fight.
‘I think we’ve slowed the flow down some, but it hasn’t stopped. It’s likely more underground now.’
E.K. was comfortable that the FBI’s response was proportionate to the reality of the terrorist threat. Although they had ‘no credible information’ about any al-Shabaab plot to attack America, he insisted this remained a possibility they couldn’t afford to overlook.
‘There are ten Minneapolis Somalis that we know about who are still fighting for al-Shabaab, an organization that has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida,’ he said. ‘The camp training they receive includes instruction on handling explosives. That is a threat to US interests – and it is illegal for a US citizen to provide material support to a terror organization.’
This last remark was a reference to the ongoing trial of two local Somali women, Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, who were accused of fundraising for al-Shabaab. The women had participated in interstate teleconferences dedicated to the Islamist cause, as well as going door-to-door in Minneapolis while pretending to be collecting for the poor. The sums involved were not great: at the end of one teleconference, the pair had recorded pledges totalling just $2,100. For this they faced a maximum penalty of fifteen years in prison for conspiracy.7
At their trial, Amina, the younger woman, distinguished herself by repeatedly refusing to stand for the judge, a gesture of defiance that earned her an additional fifty days in jail for contempt of court. It was classic Somali behaviour, the sort of self-destructive obstinacy I had seen for myself in Galkacyo, where the aunt-biting teenager Kafiyo preferred to go to jail rather than apologize. I remarked to E.K. by email that such behaviour was ‘hard to love, yet at the same time, impossible not to admire somehow’ – a paraphrase of Gerald Hanley – but E.K. was having none of it.
‘I’ll save my admiration for the persistence and tenacity of other community leaders,’ he shot back.
Amina and Hawo were far from the only American Somalis accused of fundraising for terrorists. The FBI had been investigating the phenomenon for more than two years, and were in the process of bringing to court twenty similar cases. The Burnsville Flash, it seemed, was as dogged on the trail of al-Shabaab as he had once been in pursuit of a suburban hockey puck.
The FBI had concluded that the al-Shabaab recruitment process in Minneapolis had no ‘mastermind’ but was, as E.K. put it, ‘a very lateral, peer-to-peer organization’ – which was another way of saying that the recruits had talked each other into it. This might have happened at the Abubakar mosque, but that did not mean the mosque was complicit. In fact, the Abubakar’s leadership was closely focused these days on reaching out to young people to keep them on the right path and away from al-Shabaab. Indeed, the mosque worked so closely with the FBI that some Minnesota Somalis felt an ill-defined sense of betrayal.
Two months previously, a young Somali attending Friday prayers disagreed so vehemently with the peace-inclined sermon of a visiting scholar that he attacked the mosque director, Hassan Jama. The episode made the local papers, and had been cited by Congressman King in Washington as yet more evidence of radicalism in the Minneapolis community. The attack was defended afterwards by a website called Somali Midnimo – ‘Somalis United’ – which was run by Abdiwali Warsame, a student and part-time cab-driver. He was at the wheel of his cab when I interviewed him.
‘Some people think I am . . . controversial,’ Warsame acknowledged, with a hint of pride he could not quite conceal.
Warsame’s attacks on the Abubakar’s leadership had become so virulent recently that he had been banned from the mosque’s premises. Somali Midnimo had quite a high profile online, so it was a surprise to discover that the website had a staff of one – him – and that it didn’t have a business address of any kind.
‘People think I run my operation out of a big office somewhere, but actually – this is it,’ he laughed, nodding at the laptop sitting on the grimy front passenger seat of his cab.
The thrust of Warsame’s complaint was that the leaders of the Abubakar mosque were hypocrites. Back in 2007, he asserted, they had collectively sung a different tune, preaching against America for its backing of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. He said that many young Somalis, Burhan Hassan and Shirwa Ahmed among them, had been encouraged by this to return to Somalia to fight the invaders. The Minneapolis community was understandably confused now: why had the mosque leaders abandoned their previous position? This, he explained, was what the attack at the mosque two months previously had been all about.
As Warsame described what had actually happened, however, I began to see that the ‘attack’ on the mosque director was not so much an expression of radicalism as an outbreak of hot-tempered fisticuffs. The visiting scholar, Mohamed Idris Ahmed, had used his Friday address to urge worshippers to focus on their lives in Minneapolis, and not to be distracted by the destruction and fighting back in Somalia, which he blamed equally on the TFG and al-Shabaab. At one point he asked: ‘Who destroyed Mogadishu?’
‘Gaalo!’ called out a young man in the crowd. ‘Foreigners!’
Two other young men in the congregation murmured their agreement, but Ahmed tutted and shook his head.
‘Tell me: who destroyed it?’ he repeated, before answering himself: ‘Somalis destroyed Mogadishu.’
The first young man was agitated by this and wanted to argue the point. But this is not done during a Friday address, any more than it is acceptable in the West to interrupt the vicar in the middle of a sermon on a Sunday. The mosque director asked the young man to pipe down and to put his question in writing, at which point the young man lost his temper and tried to punch him. The confusion was heightened when someone turned the lights out: the act of an ‘accomplice’, according to some reports. Amid shouts and catcalls, the trouble-makers were ejected from the building.
The significance of all this had been wildly exaggerated. Disagreeing with a visiting cleric about who was responsible for the destruction of Mogadishu was hardly evidence of jihadism, as Congressman King claimed. Nobody was hurt, apart from the mosque director who sustained a slight cut to his lip. Warsame, furthermore, was no jihadi. I told him some of the stories I had heard, about mutilations and beheadings and death threats towards foreigners, and he conceded them all.
‘Shabaab ideology is all bullshit,’ Warsame said. ‘They are confused. It is not Islamic to kill innocent people – journalists, aid workers trying to help. Al-Shabaab say they are spies. Maybe it was justified in the nineteenth century, but not now.’
What he liked about al-Shabaab was that they had defended the homeland and successfully resisted the infidel Ethiopian invaders.
‘But the Ethiopians have left Somalia now, haven’t they?’ I asked.
‘Physically, yes. But they are still very influential in Somalia – and we are still under foreign occupation. I am against the African Union. Their foreign troops kill Somalis all the time with their rockets and shells. They should get out of our country.’
‘But if they weren’t there, al-Shabaab would be running the government now,’ I said. ‘You wouldn’t want that, would you?’
‘Maybe al-Shabaab are better than occupation by the African Union. The areas they control are all peaceful. Anyway . . . what’s your book going to be called?’
He frowned when I told him, and fell silent, looking out at the traffic-clogged freeway with a disapproving air.
‘I don’t think your title is true,’ he said eventually.
‘Well you’re not living there, are you?’ I observed.
‘That’s true. But I could if I wanted to.’
Warsame had lived in Minneapolis for eight years, and hadn’t been in Somalia since he was child. He looked at me wide-eyed when I told him I’d been in Mogadishu the previous month, and immediately asked if he could interview me for his website. He was typical of other diaspora Somalis I had met, in that his knowledge of current affairs back home was often second-hand. In Minneapolis, it was evidently so rare to come across anyone with recent experience of Mogadishu that even a gaalo’s impressions had value.
He was, in the end, an armchair nationalist, whose patriotism seemed badly misplaced. His view of the homeland had been sentimentalized and distorted by time, distance and the internet; perhaps especially by the internet. I suspected he would quickly change his mind about al-Shabaab if he ever went back to Somalia and saw for himself how they operated. He reminded me, rather, of NORAID, and all those green-spectacled Irish-Americans in the 1980s who outraged British public opinion by putting money in a bucket for the IRA during St Patrick’s Day parades in New York. It was highly ironic that one of the best-known IRA supporters in those days was none other than the Irish-American congressman Peter King. The self-appointed champion of homeland security had rather more in common with the likes of Hassan Warsame than he perhaps realized. I glanced again at the laptop on the passenger seat next to Warsame, and was struck by the absurdity of taking anything he said too seriously. It seemed another measure of America’s paranoia that anyone did.
E.K. Wilson thought that Minneapolis’s al-Shabaab volunteers had recruited each other. In order to understand what was going on in their minds at the time, therefore, it followed that all I needed to do was to ask their old school friends. The friends, however, turned out to be as mystified as everyone else.
Nimco Ahmed attended Roosevelt High with several of the volunteers. Shirwa Ahmed, the first suicide bomber, was one of her best friends.
‘He was the most quiet, humble kid you could meet – clever and responsible, not troubled at all. He loved to live life to the full. I was devastated when I heard . . . I never thought he’d hurt a fly.’
Nimco was the personification of Somali diaspora success: 28, demurely beautiful, and a career Democrat party worker, whose office walls were plastered with photographs of her arm-in-arm with Barack Obama. She worked downtown at City Hall as a policy advisor to a senior councillor, Robert Lilligren, a liberal politician with a flamboyant ponytail who liked to boast that his aide had the president on speed-dial.
She took me to a coffee shop in a nearby mall where the barista – young, female, white – shyly told Nimco that she liked her headscarf. It was difficult to tell if she understood that the scarf was not, or at least not primarily, a fashion item. Nimco in any case accepted the compliment with a filmstar’s grace. Once we had sat down she revealed that she had only been wearing it for a year.
‘I only used to cover my head during Ramadan, but after the New York mosque affair,* I wanted to show that I’m not afraid of letting people know that I’m Muslim . . . I am very political,’ she added with a smile.
She said there had been nothing Muslim at all about Shirwa’s appearance when they graduated from Roosevelt High together in 2000.
‘He wore cool clothes in those days: sneakers, saggy jeans, you know . . . He was big into basketball. He was just a regular dude.’
They both got their first jobs out at the airport: she worked in a gift shop, he as a wheelchair pusher for NorthWest Airlines.
Sometimes he made the girls laugh, at work, by flipping up the collar of his porter’s uniform and affecting a goofy swagger.8
‘We used to leave work early on Fridays and go for a movie at the Mall of America, or eat dinner, or just hang out together,’ said Nimco. ‘He was fun to be around.’
For a moment I felt almost sorry for the people responsible for security in the city’s public places. Shirwa went on to become the first American suicide bomber, but no amount of profiling would have picked him out back then.
Soon after graduating, though, Shirwa began to change. He started to pray regularly, five times a day, including at the Abubakar mosque. He grew a beard and wore a kufi cap. The sagging jeans were replaced by shalwar, the baggy, pyjama-like trousers worn in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Shirwa wore his shalwar short, above the ankle, the style favoured by traditionalists because, it was said, that was how the Prophet had worn them. He didn’t hang out at the mall with Nimco any more. Sometimes she saw him on the street, preaching to other Somalis and encouraging them to pray. Had someone radicalized him?
‘Radicalized?’ said Nimco. ‘The Feds are always asking that for their profiles. I still don’t know what the word means.’ She paused, thinking about it. ‘What I would say is that Shirwa found God, and that he was in a good place. The hugs stopped; he wouldn’t even shake hands with a girl any more. But he always acknowledged me when I saw him, even without my headscarf. And he never preached to me.’
Nimco was still struggling to bridge the gap between the friend she had known – including the later, Islamicized version – and the Shirwa who blew himself up in Bossasso.
‘Someone must have told him some gibberish to make him do that,’ she said.
But she also remarked, as Abdirizak Bihi had done, that the majority of the Minneapolis recruits had been raised without a father, an upbringing that she thought ultimately made young men more vulnerable to manipulation.
‘Men have egos, so they won’t go looking for help or advice when they need it. But they will respond if a mentor approaches. Girls are different.’
A ‘mentor’ didn’t have to be someone they actually knew. Online jihadist propaganda, she was sure, had played a crucial role. The sermons of the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki were ‘legendary . . . And Al-Amriki – that half-Lebanese guy from Mississippi? He’s clever. Everyone has seen his videos. He’s one of the guys who made al-Shabaab.’
Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, the nom-de-guerre of Omar Shafik Hammami – actually half-Syrian, and from Alabama, not Mississippi – had joined al-Shabaab not long before Shirwa, and had risen through the ranks to become one of the insurgency’s best-known commanders. He was famous for the rap lyrics of his recruitment videos which were aimed directly at all young American Muslims, not just Somali ones.
You can’t find someone more happy than a shaheed
He got everything but one thing he requests and pleads
To come back and fight, and fight and be killed
And keep coming back and getting killed if only Allah willed
But we don’t need that, the youth are coming and bold
Every martyr being replaced by a hundred fold
I was already familiar with the narrative of Shirwa’s short life, from ‘regular dude’ to suicide bomber. Counter-terrorist experts had analysed every detail of it, hunting for the shove that pushed him down the slippery slope towards Islamic martyrdom. The clues to the tragic outcome were all discernible in the beginnings of the story. Fatherlessness was a clue. A youthful attachment to rap music, and the gang culture it celebrated, was another. Both spoke to a deep-seated crisis of identity caused by the trauma and dislocation of war.
Zuhur Ahmed, another twenty-something graduate of Roosevelt High, was a specialist in the psychology of young Somalis. For the last four years she had presented a local radio show called Somali Community Link,9 which had emerged as one of the most important forums for the discussion of youth issues. Her recording studio was almost across the street from the Riverside Plaza.
‘In Somalia, the parenting style is to rely a lot on the extended family, but that doesn’t work so well in America,’ she said. ‘A lot of kids end up with guardians or very loose foster parents, and eventually get kicked out and, often, made homeless. There’s a lot of neglect out there – a lot of depression and mental illness. I talk to them all the time on my show.’
Like Nimco, whom she knew well, Zuhur had been at school with many of the al-Shabaab recruits. One of them, Abdillahi Farah, was still fighting for al-Shabaab. She recounted how she had gone on holiday that summer to Burao, Somaliland’s second city, to stay with relatives, and had been astonished to receive a Facebook message from Farah the moment she arrived.
‘I was freaked,’ said Zuhur. ‘I was like: how did he know I was there? I didn’t tell anyone I was going.’
She added, rather primly, that she had since ‘defriended’ him from her list of Facebook friends.
She was naturally more in touch than Nimco with the darker side of the Somali youth community, a seedy world of drugs and gangs and violent crime. In her experience, the line between joining a street gang and signing up with al-Shabaab was a fine one: a conclusion that the rap-recruiter Al-Amriki had obviously drawn too.
‘They’re just street boys who want to belong somewhere,’ she said. ‘Of course al-Shabaab looks attractive to some of them.’
This was also almost exactly what Abid Raja, the SO15 officer, had told me in London.
Zuhur had the facts to back her theory. In October 2007, she had interviewed Zakaria Maruf who, in the 1990s, had dropped out of college to become a founding member of a Somali gang called the Hot Boyz. But then he found God, repented, became a shelf-stacker at Walmart and, eventually, a youth leader at the Abubakar mosque. Like Shirwa Ahmed, he was often seen in the streets around Riverside Plaza, preaching to other young Somalis, offering himself as an example of redemption. Zuhur still had a recording of Maruf describing the neglect he once suffered at home, and how Allah had saved him from sin and a life of crime. Two months after this interview he vanished, along with Shirwa: part of the first wave of al-Shabaab recruits from the city. He later became notorious for his attempts to persuade others to join him in the jihad by telephone from Kismayo. He particularly targeted young Somalis who prayed at the Abubakar, many of whom he used to drive to weekly football practice. He was reported killed in July 2009.
Zuhur had watched Minneapolis’s gang culture mutate over the years. At Roosevelt High in the 1990s, she explained, the prevailing culture was ‘African-American: all saggy pants and “wassup” slang’. The Somali boys tried to copy them, but the African-Americans couldn’t stand that, and there was constant fighting. The first Somali gangs such as Maruf’s Hot Boyz were, she said, formed for self-protection against the African-Americans. Like other street gangs, the early Somali groups were often involved in petty crime and drug-dealing. By 2006, however, some of them had developed into serious and often violent criminal enterprises. Indeed, Zuhur had set up her radio show in response to the FBI’s busting of a thirty-strong Somali sex-trafficking ring. Girls as young as thirteen were being abducted from mosques and schools, and sold to Somali men in Columbus, Ohio and as far away as Nashville, Tennessee.
‘This was something very shocking for us . . . it was such a very un-Somali thing to do,’ Zuhur said.
Street gangs were obviously as central to the Somali story in the Twin Cities as they were in London, a critical part of the radicalization jigsaw. And so a few days later I was pleased when I met Abdulkadir Sharif, who had been a gang leader for twelve years. Fortunately for me, no doubt, he had turned his back on street crime when he found God in 2007. These days he helped out at the Islamic Da’wah Center in St Paul, sandwiched between a Cash-‘n’-Pawn shop and an auto-repair business on one of the city’s main arterial routes. I found him marshalling traffic in the mosque parking lot which, it being a Friday, was filling fast with cars full of Somalis come to attend the Jumu’ah prayer service.
‘Zakaria Maruf? Yeah, I remember Zak,’ he rasped, when I asked. ‘He was a pussy, man.’
Sharif’s nickname was Chino, on account of his high cheekbones and narrow eyes. His Damascene moment had come when he was stabbed in the neck during a street fight and almost killed. The damage to his voice box meant that he would for ever speak in a hoarse whisper.
‘If I’d known he was planning to go and fight for al-Shabaab, I’d have tried to stop him. Those guys are just so lost . . . What Shabaab are doing? That ain’t Islam.’
I had been directed to Chino by the imam at the center, Sheikh Hassan Mohamud, who liked to hold him up as proof of the redemptive power of Islam. He was an exceptionally tall man of thirty-two, who moved about the car park with a rolling, loose-limbed swagger. There was a raw, barely suppressed energy about him, like a coiled spring. His hands moved ceaselessly as he described his former life.
‘I was a top dog,’ he said. ‘The Feds couldn’t catch me. No one could stop me. Only God did that – know what I’m saying?’
He pushed back the hood of his anorak, revealing a grubby kufi cap, and tilted his head, inviting me to look more closely at the scar that curved around the side of his neck to his throat.
‘Give me some skin!’ he said suddenly.
I gave him some skin; and he grinned at me with his mouth full of bad Somali teeth.
‘You from London,’ he said. ‘They have gangs in London?’
‘An’ they got guns, or knives?’
‘Mainly knives, I think.’
‘Yeah that’s what I heard!’ he said, flicking his fingers in delight. ‘Here, we got guns. I got me a rack of them: Uzi, M-16, AK, nine mil – everything. You come to my place, I could show you. I keep them in a special closet.’
‘You’ve still got them?’ I said, confused. ‘Don’t you think you should . . . hand them in or something?’
‘Um, yeah . . . I have been meaning to.’
Chino looked around contemptuously as a pair of police cruisers howled past on University Avenue. His rehabilitation suddenly seemed an uncertain thing. This ex-gangster top dog reminded me of a rescue greyhound my family once owned, a graceful but mercurial animal that we never quite managed to house-train. Years of unknowable abuse had damaged the puppy’s psyche so deeply that the risk of recidivism in the adult had become permanent.
I had been in the Twin Cities interviewing Somalis for a week now, long enough that I recognized one or two of them as they arrived for the Friday service. I said hello to Omar Jamal, in his trademark tweed fishing hat. He had two small children in tow, with hair combed and braided, their clothes clean and pressed for mosque. Jamal was, incongruously, the First Secretary of the Somali Mission to the United Nations. I nodded, too, at Mohammed Hassan, a planning official at Hennepin County Council, who held the interesting theory that it was not just the youth in exile but the Somali nation as a whole that was suffering an identity crisis. Traditional Somali culture, he had observed to me, was steadily being subsumed by an Arab one. It was a source of private regret to him that his father had named him Mohammed rather than giving him a traditional Somali name, like Warsame or Diblawe or Roble, as he was sure he would have been in his grandfather’s time.
‘At least Mohammed is a Muslim name,’ he said. ‘A lot of Somali girls these days are named after Saudi pop stars like Aseel or Waed, names that have nothing at all to do with our culture.’
Chino had certainly split with Somali tradition. Zuhur had described how some of her contemporaries tried to copy the black street gangs. Chino had gone a step further and actually joined one of them. He was originally from Beledweyne in central Somalia. His father had sent him and one of his sisters to America in 1996, when Chino was seventeen; his mother, he said, was dead. The Immigration Department settled him and his sister, unusually, in North Dakota, but the two fell out, and he left soon afterwards for the bright lights of Minneapolis, where he lived on the street. One night he was attacked by an African-American gang known as the Vice Lords.* Chino fought back with a tenacity that so impressed its leader, ‘Mr Rico’, that he was recruited on the spot.
‘By 1997 I was one of their gunmen,’ he said, miming a pistol with his hands. ‘I went to war for them in Chicago: bam! Bam!’
What I had at first taken as a blemish on Chino’s cheek was, I now saw, a teardrop tattoo: an indication, in America, that the wearer has killed someone, although it can also be a sign of mourning for a slain gang comrade. I doubted whether one teardrop was enough in Chino’s case. He was quite open about killing people, something he claimed to have first done not for Mr Rico, but back in Beledweyne when he was just fourteen. He told his story with startling brevity.
‘This clan militia broke into our house and raped my two sisters, right in front of me. I knew who they were. So I borrowed a gun from a soldier in the market and killed all five of them. I killed one a day for, like, a week.’
By 1998 in Minneapolis, this boy killer had set up his own Somali-dominated faction known as the Conservative Vice Lords. He rolled up a sleeve to prove it: ‘CVL’, in large medieval script, was tattooed all down the length of one arm. What began as a neighbourhood cocaine- and heroin-dealing operation quickly grew into a business with Colombian and Mexican connections in New York. As it expanded, it split into half a dozen sub-gangs with names like the Riverside Rs and Murda Squad. But Chino remained the boss of all of them, feared by everyone and known as Lord Chino.
‘I’m not a god. God’s above me,’ he explained, his face hard and serious again, ‘but I am a leader of people.’
The gangs were organized like an army: every member was given a rank. He had private doctors and nurses on his books – ‘I ain’t never been to hospital in my life,’ he said – and even, he claimed, three policemen, to whom he slipped $10,000 a month.
‘I was rich, man. I had a Mercedes, a BMW. I made $200,000 a month, easy. I once made $50,000 in one day.’
He said he didn’t miss the money because he served God these days, not Mammon; although not, apparently, to the point where he wished to be martyred for his faith. He said he had no wish ever to go back to Somalia. If he did, he thought, he would certainly be hunted down by the vengeful relatives of the Beledweyne rapists he had killed. The threat of this, he said, was one of the reasons he had to leave Somalia in the first place.
I wondered how much of Chino’s story was really true. What he said happened in Beledweyne seemed almost too vivid to be real, like the blood-thirstiest scenes from a Quentin Tarantino movie. A little later, in a small office off the Da’wah Center prayer hall, I repeated what Chino had told me to the man responsible for keeping him on the path of righteousness: the orange-bearded imam, Sheikh Hassan Mohamud.
‘Yes, well . . . A lot of bad things happened during the civil war,’ was all he would say about Chino’s childhood.
The Da’wah Center served both as a mosque for the general public and as a religious school for around 150 college and high school students, to whom he offered classes on how to be a good Muslim in America. From the way that members of his flock kept popping in to ask his advice or simply to kiss his hand hello, it was obvious that Sheikh Hassan was a dedicated and popular leader of his community. He was a trained lawyer who went by the nickname Jaamici (‘the Educated’): an articulate, cerebral conservative, and the kind of man who tended to speak his mind. In the past he had apparently argued that suicide bombing was justified (albeit only in Palestine). He had also spoken in a fundraising video of ‘the hell of living in America’, and had publicly defended the right of Somali taxi-drivers to refuse to accept passengers carrying alcohol or dogs.10 These views had made him something of a target for the right-wing media, where he had been identified by some as a potentially dangerous radicalizing influence, so he was wary of me to begin with, insisting that our interview be recorded. But he relaxed soon enough; and when he was called away to officiate at the Jumu’ah, he invited me to come back afterwards for a further chat. I found him clever, honest and thoughtful, and ended up spending much of the day there.
As an imam, he saw himself as a kind of social lightning conductor.
‘I absorb a lot of anger in the community, and try to neutralize it through engagement and debate,’ he said. ‘I sit on the police advisory board. I do whatever I can to reduce violence in the Twin Cities.’
But he was also a political operator, evidently still deeply involved in the affairs of his homeland. He blamed the social anger he had to deal with in Minneapolis squarely on US policy in Somalia, especially Washington’s decision to back the Ethiopian invasion of 2006.
‘Mogadishu has been destroyed as a result. Thousands have been killed, two million people displaced, yet no government has yet mentioned human rights violations . . . the young are angry at the silence of the world.’
He had little time for the ‘untrustworthy’ TFG, or for the African Union troops who supported them. The Ethiopians might have left physically, but their influence was still felt in Mogadishu: ‘No president or prime minister can be appointed without Ethiopian approval.’
The answer, he thought, was fresh elections. He described himself as ‘democratic by nature’, and was convinced that genuinely ‘free and fair’ new elections would produce a moderate Islamic government with a constitution based on Sharia law. Such a regime, he insisted, would pose no security threat to the West.
‘Al-Shabaab would never be elected now. The vast majority of Somalis are moderate by nature,’ he said.
The problem, in his view, was America’s inability to see that a preference for Sharia and support for al-Shabaab were entirely different things. He cited a recent debate on Universal TV, which he said showed 95 per cent support among Somalis for a constitution based on Sharia.
‘The Constitution of Medina and the UN Charter are 80 per cent the same document. But how do I explain to the US that Sharia is workable? I want to form a bridge between the two worlds I live in, but I can’t!’*
The news that morning had been dominated by a sensational development in Yemen: the killing, by an American drone-launched missile, of the famous al-Qaida ideologue (and US citizen), Anwar Al-Awlaki. Sheikh Jaamici, however, had been too busy that morning to listen to the news, and his eyes widened when I asked what he thought about it. He was genuinely shocked.
‘Well,’ he said eventually. ‘I think – and I don’t care if you are recording this – I think that is very sad. Many Muslims here love Awlaki. His scholarship was extraordinary. Ask anyone. Haqim, have you heard this news?’
His portly young assistant, who had appeared in the doorway, affirmed that he had. I had spoken to Haqim earlier and learned that he had been a student in Birmingham, that he still had a sister living in Chingford in east London, and that his favourite food in the world was fish and chips.
‘And what do you think of Awlaki?’ said Jaamici.
‘He recorded the best series of talks on the life of the Prophet,’ said Haqim.
‘You see?’ Jaamici said. ‘This is a big loss to America. Awlaki was misunderstood. He was never the problem: it is like shooting the messenger! And killing him will do no good. It will only create more anger and more radicalism. You will see.’
He had to break off then, to lead the Jumu’ah in the carpeted prayer hall across from his office. The shoe rack by the entrance was already overflowing. In the corridor I swam upstream against an incoming tide of worshippers, a couple of hundred of them at least, and went out to the parking lot to talk to Chino again. By the time Jaamici and I resumed our conversation, the corridor was empty once more apart from the warm smell of breath and old socks.
‘I had to say something about Awlaki,’ he confided as soon as we sat down. ‘Two people came up to me just now, and said: “We are so angry about this” . . . As their imam, I had to give a statement. I told them that his killing won’t help. You are not Fox News – but they would turn this!’
The gap between his world and Washington’s had just yawned wider. Obama had been on television all morning, explaining how Awlaki had taken the lead in ‘planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans’ and boasting that his death was ‘another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates’. Sheikh Jaamici, by contrast, thought Awlaki ‘one of the most moderate imams in the world . . . Based on his teachings, I don’t think he’s even al-Qaida.’ Awlaki, he pointed out, had unequivocally condemned the attacks of 9/11 soon after they happened.* The Yemeni-American’s eloquence and ability to reach out to young Muslims via the internet, Jaamici implied, could and should have been Washington’s most powerful weapon against radicalism. It was tragic that instead, in the intervening decade, Alawki had turned into America’s Public Enemy No. 1.
Jaamici returned to his theme that American foreign policy was responsible.
‘The US targets those who are angry with them, but it never stops to try to find out why they are angry.’
What was desperately needed, he thought, was more civil and less military engagement, or as he put it, ‘more debate, fewer drones’. US strategy, disastrously, was under the control of military ‘extremists’ who were unwilling, or unable, to countenance an alternative approach.
‘Obama may be in office, but Bush is still in power. America is still cowboy country! But there are moderate imams in Somalia. There are even relative moderates within al-Shabaab.’
The US had failed to recognize that al-Shabaab’s decision to embrace al-Qaida and its goals had not been taken unanimously. Obama had instead lumped the moderates and hardliners together, the Robows with the Godanes, and seemed intent on expanding his drone war rather than exploring paths towards reconciliation.* If Obama didn’t reverse that strategy, Jaamici added, then Somalia risked ‘turning into another Pakistan’.
He was unequivocal in his message that al-Shabaab’s interpretation of Sharia was wrong, and had even led a demonstration against the movement in Minneapolis in 2009, footage of which was still viewable on YouTube.
‘Al-Shabaab do not like me,’ he said.
And yet his condemnation of the movement was not total.
‘The fact is that al-Shabaab’s areas are more peaceful than the government areas. They are more organized, and corruption is never reported there. This must be put into the balance.’
His brother, he said, had chosen to return to live in al-Shabaab-controlled Elesha Biyaha, just west of Mogadishu, because he felt his family were safer there than in the capital. Jaamici compared the situation to Kabul in 1996 when the Taliban, despite the harsh social restrictions they imposed, were welcomed because of the security they brought to the streets. To a populace as tired of violence and lawlessness as the Afghans then were, security counted more than anything – and peace was just as much a priority now for Somalis.
Jaamici knew how ambivalent he sounded. His voice was lower, telling me things I was sure he would never say to Fox News.
‘I still send $50 each month to my brother in Elesha. I send it the same way everyone else does – by one of the hawala money transfer companies. But Amaana are taxed by al-Shabaab. Such taxes form a big part of their income. It means that, technically, the US could accuse me of providing material support to a terrorist organization. But what am I to do? There is no other way to send money, and I cannot let my brother starve.’*
It was, to say the least, not easy being a Somali in America, where the lead weight of suspicion had dropped over them all. Their case wasn’t helped by a national public awareness campaign launched in 2011 by the Department of Homeland Security called ‘If you see something, say something’. At Minneapolis’s privately owned Mall of America – the largest shopping mall in the US and, as the Twin Towers once were, a conspicuous symbol of the country’s economic might – security guards had responded to the DHS campaign with frightening zeal. According to the guards’ own ‘suspicious activity reports’, hundreds of customers had been confronted for the tiniest aberrations in what they considered ‘normal’ behaviour.
One man was stopped – and detained, and questioned in the basement for two hours – because he ‘wasn’t holding his video camera “like a typical tourist would do”’. Another customer was accosted by a guard who thought he was looking at him ‘oddly’ and walking ‘nervously’. He turned out to be an insurance company manager looking for a SpongeBob SquarePants watch for his son.
No Somali was immune from suspicion in so fevered an atmosphere, where racial profiling had become the norm. Minnesota Public Radio, who broke the Mall of America story, found that nearly two-thirds of the shoppers stopped were ‘people of color’, in a state that was 85 per cent white. And yet the mall’s management felt little need to apologize.
‘Unfortunately the world has changed,’ said Maureen Bausch, the mall’s vice president. ‘We assume you’d want your family and friends to be safe if they are in the building. And we simply noticed something that we didn’t think was right.’12
Every Somali I spoke to had their story. Sheikh Jaamici recalled how a group of imams had once been arrested at a gas station simply for praying; they had earlier been attending a counter-terrorism conference in Minneapolis dedicated to improving community relations. Laura Yuen, a Minnesota Public Radio reporter, told me how a Somali policeman, Mohamed Abdullahi – ‘one of only two Somali beat cops in the whole state’ – was once detained for two hours at the airport where he was repeatedly asked if he was a Muslim. Yuen added that the affront to his badge hurt him so much that he cried. Nimco Ahmed told me that she too had been detained recently as she returned through the airport from Nairobi. Not only was she well known locally: this was a woman who sat on the DHS advisory panel that actually initiated the ‘If you see something, say something’ campaign.
‘The security guards knew exactly who I was.’ Nimco shrugged. ‘Sometimes the US is a very weird place.’
Nimco was phlegmatic about Somalis’ place in American society, but the despondency of Yousef Firin, a 31-year-old limo driver with a boyish face and a tufty beard who plied his trade outside the Holiday Inn, struck me as rather more typical of the mood in Minneapolis. Yousef’s family had escaped Mogadishu in 1992 when he was eight. They settled in Washington, but moved to Minneapolis in 2001 on the recommendation of friends: a classic example of secondary migration. Minnesota had been very kind to them: ‘Like a love affair,’ he said, although the love affair was over now. The recession meant that many Somalis could no longer find work. He knew of several families who, like the nomads they were, had recently packed up and left in search of pastures new. Minnesotans, he feared, were out of patience with their Somali guests. The ‘missing kids’ story had damaged the state’s reputation, and Somali-related gang crime was perceived to have made the city unsafe.
He told me the sorry story of Ali Omar, the teenage nephew of a close friend, who the previous month had been stabbed to death in a fight in north-east Minneapolis. Yousef had had to identify the body at the coroner’s office, an experience from which he had yet to recover.
‘I told him, two weeks before he was killed, that he should do something with his life, get off the streets, maybe join the army, or he’d get into trouble – and look what happened. I had to bury the poor kid. It was really sad.’
The police’s unwillingness to investigate the murder was, he claimed, all too typical these days.
‘He was in a flat with three other Somalis when he was killed. Everyone in the community knows who did it, but the police just say they have no suspect. Their attitude is, “If you’re killing each other and you can’t sort it out yourselves, why should we get involved?” People just don’t want to know any more.’
Reading the comment thread beneath an online news story about the murder later on, it was hard to disagree.13
‘It’s not good old Nordeast anymore down there,’ wrote one contributor. ‘Drive near Central and Lowry just about any time of the day. It is sad to see.’
‘Fightin over that last crack hit at 2am,’ wrote another.
‘Cut me another big ol’ piece of that diversity pie!!!!’ remarked a third.
Minnesota, it seemed, was beginning to regret its reputation for charity. For all the community work done by the imams, a significant number of Somali youth still felt lost and alienated in their adopted country, and they were angrier than ever. Despite three years of painstaking investigation, the FBI, by their own admission, had failed to dismantle the underground railway that led young Somalis into terrorism.
In October 2011, a month after I left America, another young Somali-American blew himself up in Somalia. He was the third suicide bomber from the Twin Cities since Shirwa Ahmed in October 2008. Abdisalam Ali, 22, had gone missing from his home in north-east Minneapolis the previous month. He had lived in America since he was a baby, and had become a promising student at Thomas Edison High School (motto: ‘Belong, Believe, Become’) where he had lifted weights and sold shoes out of his locker in order to support his family. His friends called him Bullethead.14
At least ten people died during his attack on an AU outpost in Mogadishu. Shortly before the operation, Bullethead – or his al-Shabaab handlers – uploaded a recorded message that once again urged Somalis in exile to take up the jihadist cause, a message that sounded all the more persuasive for being unscripted.
‘My brothers and sisters, do jihad in America, do jihad in Canada, do jihad in England, anywhere in Europe,’ he said. ‘It is not important that you, you know, you become a doctor or you become, you know, uh, some sort of engineer. We have to believe in Allah and die as Muslims . . . Brainstorm, don’t just sit around and, you know, be a couch potato and you know, you know, just like, you know, just chill all day, you know. It doesn’t, it doesn’t, it will not benefit you, it will not benefit yourself, or the Muslims.’
In the Twin Cities, the long war against Islamic extremism was not about to end any time soon.
* In their excellent account of the Somali-American experience, The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), Doug Rutledge and Abdi Roble recount a story told to them by Mariam Mohamed, the wife of Ali Khalif Galaydh, the former prime minister of Somalia (and founder of Khatumo state). Mariam’s mother-in-law came to visit them in upstate New York, where her husband was teaching at Syracuse University. One morning, she looked out of the window to find the ground covered in snow. Turning to her daughter-in-law she asked, sharply: ‘So who scouted Syracuse?’
* The plan of the American-Egyptian imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, to build a Sufi Community Center two blocks from Ground Zero ran into intense opposition in New York in 2010.
* This was the local franchise of a US-wide African-American gang network, originally called the Almighty Vice Lord Nation, that was established in Chicago as long ago as the 1950s.
* The Constitution of Medina, drawn up by the Prophet Mohammed in 622, was the basis of the future Caliphate and effectively founded the first Islamic state. Like the UN Charter, ratified in 1945, the Medina Constitution was specifically intended ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’.
* In an interview with Brian Handwerk and Zain Habboo for National Geographic News, 28 September 2001, he said: ‘There is no way that the people who [attacked the Twin Towers] could be Muslim, and if they claim to be Muslim, then they have perverted their religion.’
* The first US drone strike in Somalia came in June 2011 near Kismayo. The target was thought to have been the al-Shabaab leader Ibrahim al-Afghani, although his death was still unconfirmed at the time of writing.
* In December 2011, the US government briefly outlawed money transfers to Somalia under anti-terrorism legislation, but later lifted the ban following lobbying by aid agencies. ‘Through remittances, American Somalis provide a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of people,’ said Daniel Wordsworth, president of the American Refugee Committee. ‘With famine and drought already impacting families throughout Somalia, the cessation of bank transfers [would] be devastating on a national scale.’11