x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Fighters from America drawn to the Somalia war

For two years, young Somali-American men have been abandoning their homes and families in the US Midwest to enlist in al Shabaab, the radical Islamist movement fighting for control of Somalia. Three of the men have been killed including one who became America's first known suicide bomber after dying in an attack in northern Somalia. The latest to die was killed in Mogadishu this weekend.

Eight months after disappearing from his Minneapolis home in the US Midwest, Jamal Sheikh Bana is thought to have been killed as al Shabaab Islamist fighters closed in on the presidential palace in Mogadishu, Somalia this weekend. The 20-year old Somali-American was one of more than 20 young men who left the US over the last two years to enlist with the Islamist group in its fight, first against Ethiopian forces until they withdrew early this year, and since then against the embattled Western-backed Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu. Last month, Mr Bana's cousin Burhan Hassan was shot in the Somali capital. In late October, Shirwa Ahmed who had left Minnesota in late 2007, became America's first known suicide bomber after dying in attack in northern Somalia. "Like many families of men who left unannounced for Somalia, Bana's mother had been regularly searching the Internet for any information about her son in Somalia, according to [a spokesman for the family, Abdirizak] Bihi," Fox News reported. "She came upon a series of photos on a Somali website, purporting to show an Afghan or Pakistani fighter who was killed during a fight in Mogadishu on Saturday. But, Bihi said, Bana's mother knew instantly that the gruesome photos - depicting a person with a bloody gunshot wound to the head - were that of her son. " 'He doesn't look Somali. He has very light skin,' Bihi said. 'So they thought he is a foreign jihadist from Afghanistan or Pakistan.' "Bihi said the Somali government took the photos to show the world that they had killed a foreign fighter. He said most of the photos were taken inside the Somali Presidential Palace, after Bana's body was removed from the streets of Mogadishu." In an extended report on the Somali-Americans who have enlisted in al Shabaab, The New York Times said: "For years, it seemed that 'homegrown' terrorism was largely a problem in European countries like Britain and France, where Muslim immigrants had failed to prosper economically or integrate culturally. By contrast, experts believed that the successful assimilation of foreign-born Muslims in the United States had largely immunised them from the appeal of radical ideologies. "The story of the Twin Cities [Minneapolis and St Paul, Minnesota] men does not lend itself to facile categorisations. They make up a minuscule percentage of their Somali-American community, and it is unclear whether their transformation reflects any broader trend. Nor are they especially representative of the wider Muslim immigrant population, which has enjoyed a stable and largely middle-class existence. "Even among the world's jihadists, the young men from Minneapolis are something of an exception: in their instant messages and cellphone calls, they seem caught between inner-city America and the badlands of Africa, pining for Starbucks one day, extolling the virtues of camel's milk and Islamic fundamentalism the next." The civil war began in 1991 when Somalia's last functioning central government collapsed. War continued without respite for 15 more years. "In 2006, an Islamist movement swept through Somalia and seized control, giving the country its first taste of peace in a generation. "The group, known as the Islamic Courts Union, promised to end 15 years of internecine violence by uniting Somalia's clans under the banner of Islam. Key ports were reopened, and order was restored to the capital, Mogadishu. "In Washington, officials of the Bush administration saw a threat to East African stability. Hard-line factions of the Courts were thought to be sheltering Qa'eda operatives and had declared a jihad against neighboring Ethiopia, a predominantly Christian country. In December 2006, Ethiopian troops crossed the border and routed the Islamist forces with intelligence support from the United States, beginning a two-year occupation. "These events triggered a political awakening among young Somalis in Minneapolis. They had long viewed their homeland's problems as hopelessly clan-based, but the Ethiopian campaign simplified things. Here was an external enemy against which young Somalis could unite.[...] "While Somali nationalism had initially driven the men, a friend said, their cause eventually took on a religious cast. They became convinced that Somalia's years of bloodshed were punishment from God for straying from Islam, the friend said. The answer was to restore the Caliphate, or Islamic rule. " 'They saw it as their duty to go and fight,' the friend said. 'If it was just nationalism, they could give money. But religion convinced them to sacrifice their whole life.'[...] "For many older Somalis in Minnesota, the deepest mystery is why so many young refugees would risk their lives and futures to return to a country that their parents struggled to leave. "The mother of Burhan Hassan had been trying to persuade him to escape to the United States Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, said the uncle, Osman Ahmed. "The boy had been calling from Somalia, telling her that he was 'fine' and that he missed her cooking. 'There is no future for me in America anymore,' she recalled him telling her. 'If I come back they'll send me to Guantanamo.' "But he finally agreed to leave, and in late May his mother wired him about $800, [his uncle] said. Ten days later, on June 5, she picked up the telephone to learn that her son was dead. "He had been shot in the head, a stranger on the phone told Mr Hassan's mother. Some of the boy's relatives suspect that he was killed to prevent him from cooperating with the American investigation. FBI officials have declined to confirm Mr Hassan's death." As a trickle of Somali-Americans have been joining the fight a stream of young men heading the opposite direction. "More and more of the thousands fleeing fighting in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, are young men trying to avoid being conscripted into the various militias, locals told IRIN. "Many have been pouring into Dobley, near the Kenyan border, some 630km south of Mogadishu. "Faisal Mohamed, a resident of Dobley, said between 8,000 and 15,000 displaced people had arrived in the town since early May. " 'Every day a fresh group of IDPs [internally displaced people] arrives,' he said. 'Most of them move toward the Kenyan border hoping to cross. Not a day passes without new arrivals. " 'In the past we used to get mostly women and children, but now the new arrivals are mostly young men,' he said. "Abdulkadir Ali, 19, said he had arrived in the town on 6 July, a week after escaping Mogadishu. Originally from the Shangani area, north Mogadishu, Ali told IRIN many Mogadishu youth were fleeing because they were afraid of being conscripted into the militias. " 'They either use force to [make you] join them or accuse you of belonging to the other side,' he said. 'I don't want to join any army.'"

pwoodward@thenational.ae