Shabaab: from Mogadishu to Minnesota

Since last year’s reports of “more than twenty” Somali youths from Minnesota going missing, all presumed to have been recruited to fight in Somalia alongside the al Qaeda-linked Shabaab, several new cases involving other Somali-Americans providing assistance to or attempting to join the terrorist organization have kept the counterterrorism community on edge.

Indictments, superseding indictments, and few arrests have made the cases difficult to follow. On Aug. 5, Attorney General Eric Holder held a press conference to announce the four indictments recently unsealed, outlining charges against 14 people for their roles in either providing assistance to Shabaab or fighting in Somalia in the ranks of the terror group. The investigations in these cases have revealed the growing influence of Shabaab’s recruiting and fundraising capabilities in America, stoking fears that the terror group’s plots could widen to include targets at home.

The latest indictments

The four indictments recently unsealed are as follows:

1. Superseding indictment from Alabama charging Omar Shafik Hammami with providing material support to al-Shabaab.

2. Indictment from Minnesota charging Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan with raising funds for al-Shabaab.

3. Indictment charging 10 other men [listed below] with conspiracy to provide, or providing, material support to al-Shabaab.

4. Indictment from California charging Jehad Serwan Mostafa with providing material support to al-Shabaab.

Recent arrests

The latest defendants in the unsealed indictments are two Somali women who were arrested and charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, namely raising funds and directing them to Shabaab. Defendants Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan were in contact with financial representatives from the terror group who requested financial support. Ali and Hassan solicited funds door-to-door in Somali communities in America and Canada, sometimes under the guise of giving to the poor and needy. Although theirs was not a very sophisticated operation, it was relatively successful. The two were able to raise over $8,000 in less than a year (page 9 of the indictment itemizes the dates and sums raised).

The two women also held teleconferences that featured speakers who encouraged participants to donate to Shabaab’s cause. The indictment further states that seven unindicted conspirators in Somalia were in contact with Ali, one of whom went on to become Shabaab’s administrative governor for the Bay and Bakool regions following the seizure of these Southern Somali areas from pro-government forces in February 2009.

The investigation widens

A third superseding indictment unsealed in the investigation charges 10 men, all from Minnesota, with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, and injure persons outside of the United States, along with a litany of other terror-related charges. The defendants are:

Ahmed Ali Omar:

On or about Dec. 8, 2007, Omar traveled from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, with a final destination of Somalia.

Khalid Mohamud Abshir:

On or about Dec. 12, 2007, Abshir traveled from Minneapolis to Washington, DC, with a final destination of Somalia.

Zakaria Maruf:

On or about Feb. 23, 2008, Maruf traveled from Minneapolis to Washington, DC, with a final destination of Somalia.

Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan:

On or about Aug. 2, 2008, Hassan traveled from Minneapolis to Charlotte, with a final destination of Somalia.

Mustafa Ali Salat:

On or about Aug. 2, 2008, Salat traveled from Minneapolis to Charlotte, with a final destination of Somalia.

Abdiweli Yassin Isse:

On or about Oct. 5, 2009, Isse rented a car with a final destination of Somalia; it is unclear what route he planned to take.

Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax:

On or about Oct. 5, 2009, Faarax rented a car with a final destination of Somalia; it is unclear what route he planned to take.

Farah Mohamed Beledi:

On or about Oct. 5, 2009, Beledi rented a car with a final destination of Somalia; it is unclear what route he planned to take.

Abdisalan Hussein Ali:

On or about Nov. 4, 2008, Ali traveled from Minneapolis to Boston, with a final destination of Somalia.

Abdikadir Ali Abdi:

On or about Nov. 3, 2008, Abdi traveled from Minneapolis to Philadelphia, with a final destination of Somalia.

The first five of these defendants have been indicted or charged previously; the second five are newly added defendants in the investigation. None of these men have been arrested, and they are presumed to be fighting in Somalia. This brings the total number of defendants in Minnesota alone to 19. Of the nine other Minnesotan defendants, not named in this particular indictment, all have been arrested in the US or abroad, and five have pled guilty to terror-related charges.

Shabaab’s top recruiters

Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax and Abdiweli Yassin Isse are named in complaints outlining the recruitment and fundraising plots that assisted the “more than twenty” young Somali-Americans in reaching Somalia, at least four of whom are reported to have been killed since June 2009. Among those Somali-American youths who traveled to Somalia to join Shabaab was Shirwa Ahmed, who became the first known American suicide bomber when he carried out an attack in Northern Somalia in October 2008.

Perhaps the most influential American to take up arms for Shabaab is Omar Hammami, or Abu Mansour al-Amriki. His long road from Daphne, Ala., to Somalia has been well documented. Hammami was included in the indictments recently unsealed by the Attorney General’s office. The indictment charges that Hammami, from about February 2008 has provided material support, including his own services, to Shabaab. Since joining the terrorist group, he has risen in the ranks and has become their greatest asset when it comes to recruiting young men, particularly Westerners. In March 2009 he appeared in a Shabaab recruitment video that featured him leading a platoon of fighters to ambush pro-government forces, with jihadi rap playing in the background – a recent trademark in Hammami’s recruitment messages.

The fourth unsealed indictment announced by the Attorney General’s office charges Jehad Serwan Mostafa, from San Diego, with knowingly providing material support and resources, including himself, to a foreign terrorist organization, as well as conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction outside of the United States. The indictment also charges that since about Feb. 26, 2008, he “provided personnel including himself to work under al-Shabaab’s direction and control, and to organize, manage, supervise, and otherwise direct the operation of al-Shabaab.” Like Hammami, Mostafa has also established himself as reliable in the field, at one point serving as a lieutenant under the senior al Qaeda and Shabaab commander Saleh Nabhan, who was killed by US forces in a strike last year and is believed to have played a key role in the 1998 embassy attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Shabaab’s activity in the US

So far in 2010, a number of other plots that involve Somali-American citizens providing or attempting to provide support to Shabaab have been discovered:

August 2010: A 26-year-old Chicago man was charged with intending to use a weapon of mass destruction and aiding a terrorist group. Shaker Masri told an FBI informant of his plot to travel to Somalia to fight with al Qaeda. Masri asked for money to buy arms once in Somalia and said he hoped to become a martyr.

July 2010: Zachary Chesser, a Virginia native, was arrested for aiding a terrorist organization and his connections to Shabaab. Chesser had planned to travel to Somalia to join them in fighting. He turned up on FBI radars after threatening the creators of “South Park” on his radical website, RevolutionMuslim.

June 2010: A flight was denied access to US airspace after details emerged about a passenger with terrorist ties. Abdirahman Ali Gaal is being held in Canada, suspected of being a member of Shabaab as he tried to enter the US via Mexico.

June 2010: Anthony Joseph Tracy told authorities he helped facilitate the travel of 270 Somali immigrants into the US through Cuba. Tracy ran an illegal smuggling ring in Kenya before, but the details of his wrongdoing in this case have been kept very secretive. He served about four months (time served) in Virginia.

June 2010: The FBI arrested two New Jersey Muslims who were attempting to travel to Egypt to link up with Shabaab in Somalia. Mohamed Haoud Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte were detained while boarding flights at Kennedy International. Both men have been under observation by the FBI since 2006.

May 2010: The Department of Homeland Security warned Texas authorities that Mohamed Ali, who is affiliated with the Shabaab terror network based out of Somalia, is attempting to enter the US via the Mexico. Law enforcement officials have discovered a large human smuggling operation, facilitating the travel of Somalis linked to terror cells into the US via Mexico.

This steady stream of Shabaab supporters attempting to assist the group shows how pervasive the terror group’s influence is within Somali-American communities. The cases of Jehad Mostafa and Omar Hammami represent the greatest danger, in terms of American-bred fighters, but there appear to be plenty of willing participants to take their places should US or African forces manage to apprehend or kill them.

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