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Border & Immigration

Somali Terror Group Targets US For Recruitment

Armed fighters from the al-Shabab terrorist group travel on the back of pickup trucks outside Mogadishu in Somalia on Monday Dec. 8, 2008.
Farah Abdi Warsameh
Armed fighters from the al-Shabab terrorist group travel on the back of pickup trucks outside Mogadishu in Somalia on Monday Dec. 8, 2008.

Third in three-part series

Somali Terror Group Targets U.S. For Recruitment
The Somali terror group al-Shabab has made no secret of its desire to recruit operatives from the U.S. In the final installment of a three-part series, KPBS Investigative Reporter Amita Sharma takes a look at the Al-Qaeda-linked group's strategy to attract Americans fighters. It's an effort that's already allegedly claimed one of San Diego's own.

Federal prosecutors won't say whether San Diegan Jehad Mostafa was recruited locally to join al-Shabab. But his last known home was in the county. Today, he is believed to be in Somalia fighting alongside al-Shabab insurgents.

"Al-Shabab is right now perhaps one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world," said Chris Harnisch, an al-Shabab expert, formerly with the American Enterprise Institute.


"One of the reasons is that they do make a concerted effort to recruit Westerners and they do have a number of Americans within their ranks," he said.

At least 20 young men have left Minnesota for al-Shabab in recent years. Some have also traveled from Columbus, Seattle and now San Diego to fight for al-Shabab which in Arabic means "the youth." Many recruits are of Somali descent but others like Mostafa are not. Mansur al-Meriki is a top commander in al-Shabab. He was born in Alabama of a Baptist mother and a Muslim father.

Al-Shabab expert Harnisch says recruiting Americans to serve in the terrorist group is advantageous because Americans can travel widely on their passports.

"These Americans, they are also force multipliers," Harnisch said. "They themselves can serve as recruiters."

In every American city where al-Shabab has recruited, the families left behind wonder what drew their sons to Somalia, especially when thousands of Somalis languish in squalid refugee camps with dreams of emigrating to America.


Former FBI agent Erroll Southers says the answers are as varied as the individuals. But there is a common thread, their Muslim faith.

"They all agree that there is a war on their religion," Southers said. "They all agree they have a responsibility to take up arms in defense of their religion and that's what they're doing."

The motivation may be ancient but the recruiting techniques are out of the 21st Century. The group has its own news channel with English subtitles. Al-Shabab recruiters hold workshops, issue news releases. They even have a rap song.

Somali leaders in San Diego like Abdi Mohamoud say they know of no young Somalis swayed by these sophisticated efforts.

"The Somali society in general, they abhor al-Shabab and what they stand for," Mohamoud said. "You know, look the whole country is burning because of them. They offer no solution. They are not even shy about burning the Somali flag and saying we're going to replace it with our own."

But he says the community is being vigilant.

"Time will tell if we are successful," Mohamoud said. "It's a work in progress."

Mohamoud says parents and mosque leaders watch youth for signs of radicalization like anger and isolation.

But federal agents say the mosques are fertile ground for recruitment, not through sermons but through quiet conversations following prayers.

After prayers at a City Heights Mosque recently, Somali Abdul Qadir Aden challenged that assertion.

"We all pray to have a safe homeland," Aden said.

Aden says al-Shabab is unlikely to find sympathizers locally.

"Anybody who carries a gun doesn't have any solution," he said. "That does not represent our community. We don't support dying or fighting. That's why we came here."

And that sentiment has been put to music by some young Somali men who've come up with their rap song condemning al-Shabab.