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African Terrorist Group Recruiting In San Diego?

African Terrorist Group Recruiting In San Diego?
KPBS Investigative Reporter Amita Sharma joins us to discuss her report on the local Somali immigrant community, and the concerns that an African terrorist group could be recruiting in San Diego. Are the United States' asylum rules being manipulated by terrorists who aim to do our country harm?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When America's system of political asylum works correctly, people who have suffered terribly under repressive regimes can begin a safe new life in the U.S. for themselves and their families. But when that same system is manipulated, some fear political asylum can be used by dangerous people to enter the U.S. legally. KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma tells a tale of two kinds of refugees from Somalia and East Africa, and she joins us this morning. Good morning, Amita.

AMITA SHARMA (Investigative Reporter, KPBS): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I’d also like to welcome Seth Stodder. He’s adjunct professor of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security Law at USC. Professor Stodder, welcome.


SETH STODDER (Adjunct Professor, Counterterrorism and Homeland Security Law, University of Southern California): Thank you. Thank you. A pleasure to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: And my other guest is Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. He’s director of the Center for Terrorism Research for The Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Daveed, good morning.

DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS (Director, Center for Terrorism Research, Foundation for Defense of Democracies): Good morning. It’s great to join you.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Amita, now, you are doing a series of reports on Somali immigration in San Diego. Why does San Diego have such a large Somali immigrant population?

SHARMA: Well, San Diego already had somewhat of an established community by the time the Somali government of Siad Barre collapsed in the 1990s, which, because of the U.S. refugee program, brought in an influx of Somali refugees. But it should also be said that civil war actually broke out in Somalia in 1988, and it is the longest running civil war and complete state collapse in the post-colonial era. So we still have Somali refugees coming in using the political asylum process, and San Diego today has, I believe, the third largest Somali population in the country, anywhere from 18,00 to 20,000 Somalis live here.


CAVANAUGH: And during that kind of a situation for that amount of time, it sounds as if many of these immigrants must have endured terrible hardships at home. What kinds of challenges and hardships did they face along their journey?

SHARMA: Well, I interviewed several people who came here as refugees. One of the women I interviewed was Amina Farah. For her and for millions of other Somalis, this civil war meant massive displacement. Villages were pillaged. Armed gangs ruled the countryside. There was this violent lawlessness, so she, like millions of others, had to leave her home and she traveled by foot, with her four-year-old son, to Ethiopia. And this is how she described life after civil war broke out during this journey to Ethiopia.

AMINA FARAH (Displaced Somali): You saw dead bodies. You saw the injury. You saw no food. You saw the woman has a baby when we are traveling on the middle of that and no hospital, is no light, is no doctor, is no hygiene, no water, no – It is like very, very, very difficult time.

CAVANAUGH: So as the Somali immigrants come to the United States, come to San Diego claiming political asylum, what are some of the challenges that face them here as they try to begin a new life?

SHARMA: Well, language has been a huge challenge. A lot of these people came from rural areas and they did not know English. Culturally, there’s a big difference. I mean, these are of Muslim descent, I mean, they’re of the Muslim religion and they, you know, they have a different way of praying, believing, they dress differently. So when they came here, San Diego being the urban area that it was, was a bit of a shock for them. They also don’t have all the job skills that they need, so there was some training, some education that needed to take place. Many of them have large families so finding appropriate housing for them has been a challenge. And then, you know, the economy hasn’t been too good and so they are ending up in very, very low paying jobs or they’re unemployed. Unemployment within the Somali community in San Diego is between 40 and 50% but it should also be said that many Somalis have absolutely thrived in San Diego. They have bought homes, they’re raising children, they’re educating their children, they have bought businesses. They are living the American dream.

CAVANAUGH: In your feature, you describe neighborhoods in San Diego in the City Heights region and other neighborhoods, where the Somali culture has added to the culture of San Diego. You see people wearing different clothes and different kinds of shops, a whole new section of San Diego has developed because of these immigrants.

SHARMA: Oh, no doubt. When you go into the City Heights area, it is almost as if you’ve entered a different country.

CAVANAUGH: So how do Somali immigrants get here? Is there a standard sort of a route they take to get to the United States and San Diego?

SHARMA: Well, during the refugee program in the 1990s they basically flew here but today federal agents say that Somalis, most Somalis, are taking a very circuitous path to get here and that is what is raising concerns. Many Somalis are traveling from Somalia to Kenya. In Kenya, they take – they get a fake passport. On that fake passport, they fly to Cuba. From Cuba, they either travel by plane or by boat to Central America, usually Panama. From Panama, they meet up with human smugglers and they’re taken by truck to Mexico. Once in Mexico, they turn themselves in to immigration officials and the Mexican authorities hand them an expulsion document which has the picture and the name that these refugees gave them, and their fingerprint, and it is that—without verification, according to federal agents—and it is that document that these Somalis use as their identification when they fly to Tijuana and cross over into San Diego asking for political asylum.

CAVANAUGH: And in your reports, Amita, what kinds of red flags have been raised by this, as you call it, circuitous path to the United States?

SHARMA: Well, one of them is the fake documents that they’re using which I believe Professor Stodder can speak to because that’s not uncommon for refugees to use fake documents. But the other is the cost of the journey. It can be anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 and I believe the question that’s being raised is who’s financing this? Some people say, well, you know, Somalis are very good about raising money. Anybody needs money, you know, you get them all together and they will contribute to a common pot and that money is raised in a heartbeat. Or it could be nongovernmental organizations that are raising money. But other people like Chris Harnisch, who is a former research analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said that it does raise some concerns, the cost of this journey.

CHRIS HARNISCH (Research Analyst): Well, certainly somebody’s bankrolling it, right. Most Somalis, they’re earning under $2.00 a day. Most Somalis, especially the refugees, are not going to have the money to do this. What’s disconcerting about the issue of Somali refugees moving from Southern Somalia to perhaps Kenya, then the most frequent route is Cuba and then into Mexico and then up from Mexico into San Diego, is that al-Shabab may have identified that as a route in which it can send recruiters into the United States or it can smuggle operatives into the United States.

CAVANAUGH: And let me bring in my two guests here, Professor Seth Stodder, again, adjunct professor of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security Law at USC, and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is director of the Center for Terrorism Research for The Foundation for Defense of Democracies. And Professor Stodder, we heard al-Shabab in that quote. Tell us what is al-Shabab?

STODDER: Al-Shabab is a terrorist group that’s based in Somalia that is a participant in the civil war in Somalia. It is a group that is independent of Al Qaeda but it is certainly linked to Al Qaeda and trained by Al Qaeda, and some indications that it is hostile to the United States. It has also been involved in recruiting people in the United States to fight in Somalia’s civil war. There have been indictments in Minnesota and in other places where essentially Somalia elders from communities have been recruiting young Somalis to go to Somalia and fight for al-Shabab as well as raise funds for al-Shabab.

CAVANAUGH: And, Professor Stodder, when you hear the description that Amita gave about the route that federal agents say that some Somalis are taking to immigrate into San Diego and to the U.S., does that raise red flags for you?

STODDER: Sure. I mean, it certainly – I mean, it’s not surprising, a route like that especially with the suspension of the refugee program which, I believe, was in 2008, it was suspended, the refugee program from Somalia. So, I mean, there are any numbers of routes by which people, whether it be from Somalia or from anywhere around the world, that come to the United States, and this route is circuitous, it is clearly expensive, but it’s not shocking. That said, sure, it raises red flags and it’s probably – and they are red flags that are, you know, that would be raised to ICE officers determining whether or not to detain these people or parole them and also to U.S. CIS asylum officers, Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers, in determining whether they actually have a credible fear of persecution or whether they’re fraudulent claimants.

CAVANAUGH: Daveed, you are director for the Center for Terrorism Research for The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and I just want to establish that that foundation is described by some as a neoconservative think tank. Is that a fair description?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: It depends on who you ask. I mean, my own work is pretty straight down the middle. I do have people from different parts of the ideological spectrum. It does tend to have scholars who are right of center.

CAVANAUGH: So, Daveed, what happens to these Somali immigrants when they arrive in Mexico?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Well, what you described before is the route that occurs. I mean, they’ll turn themselves in. Once they have done so, it’s a question for immigration enforcement officials and others who, you know, CVP officials in determining whether as a matter of policy they can be admitted to the country or whether they should be excluded.

CAVANAUGH: And from the research that your foundation has done, what have you found are the kinds of opportunities available here if, indeed, some members of a group like al-Shabab were able to gain entry in this fashion?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Well, there are quite a few opportunities. The most important one is what Professor Stodder put his finger on, which is the opportunity for recruiters. The very interesting thing about the case of Somalia and Shabab is that it’s the only case in which there are active terrorist recruiters right now. Marc Sageman, in his 2008 book, “Leaderless Jihad,” compared the recruitment – or compared people going to terrorist camps in Pakistan as similar to applications for admission to Ivy League schools, that is many people want to go to those camps. Most of them end up getting turned away. Whereas, in the case of Somalia, you’ve had active recruiters, not just in the United States but internationally. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, you had people who went back to Somalia to liaise al-Shabab whose plane tickets were paid for and who had basically their travel taken care of by recruiters, which does not fit the normal pattern. Another thing is that if Shabab ends up expanding its reach and its targets beyond the borders of Somalia, which, you know, they already have in the case of Uganda, but they haven’t expanded beyond there, there’s a concern that they might try to send operatives into the United States to carry out a terrorist attack here. And that’s something I don’t think we should discount. As Professor Stodder said, they’ve certainly evidenced hostility towards the United States. You’ve had top leaders of al-Shabab such as Abu Mansour al-Amriki, who was born in the United States, his birthname is Omar Hammami, issuing documents, issuing statements saying that their religious methodology is the same as Al Qaeda’s. You’ve had other leaders talk about how they are aligned with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which makes concerns about carrying out a terrorist attack here, if not an immediate concern something we will at some point have to worry about.

SHARMA: And intelligence officials were concerned that al-Shabab might try to disrupt the inauguration festivities when Barack Obama was sworn in and as Daveed mentioned, you know, Mansour al-Amriki was born in Alabama of a Baptist mother and a Muslim father. He is now a top commander in al-Shabab. And there, as Professor Stodder mentioned, you know, 20 people, at least 20 young men, have traveled from Minnesota to fight for al-Shabab. Other men have – young men have traveled from Columbus, from Seattle and now San Diego. San Diego has a guy, Jehad Mustafa, an indictment was released against him last August and he’s accused of fighting alongside al-Shabab. Prosecutors do not know where he is. They believe he’s in Somalia. His last known address was in San Diego County.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Stodder, as I said in the beginning of this interview, there – the situation in Somalia is still awful for many people and there are still – most of the people coming over are legitimate refugees. But some of the people who come over are apparently using the stories of legitimate refugees to try to gain access and in some cases gaining access into the United States. So how do immigration officials tell the difference?

STODDER: Well, that’s, I mean, and that’s true, and I’m sure that’s true. I think the reality, though, is that that’s – you could, you know, swap out any number of other countries and insert that country. I mean, in any flow of people anywhere, and certainly into the United States, there are legitimate people coming to the United States and there are illegitimate people coming to the United States and it’s the job of the immigration authorities and the Department of Homeland Security as well as the State Department overseas to sift out essentially the needles from the haystack. And that’s – that was the case with regard to the Iraqi refugees, some of whom could have been Al Qaeda operatives, some of whom were legitimate refugees escaping the civil war in 2006-2007 in Iraq, and it’s the case anywhere. So, in that sense, so when people come to the United States, I mean, certainly on asylum claims, I mean, it’s essentially a sort of a sieve that they have to go through in the sense that they have – they will be first encountered by Customs-Border Protection officers. I mean, if they’re coming through a port of entry, they’ll come – they’ll be inspected by a CBP officer or if they’re coming between a port of entry, they’ll be ideally apprehended by a Border Patrol officer. They, at that point, if they claim asylum, they will be referred ultimately to a asylum officer who’ll interview them and the asylum officers work for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to determine if they actually have a credible fear of persecution. And in that context, under U.S. law, the presumption is in favor of detaining asylum seekers pending the resolution of their claims. And they’re detained by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration – U.S. Customs and Immigration – ICE, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


STODDER: So they’re detained and they will be detained under U.S. law and under ICE policy and they won’t be paroled into U.S. society unless ICE determines that they’re no flight risk and they’re no risk to the community of U.S. national security and also they take – they present a credible fear of persecution though there is a process for adjudicating whether or not somebody can come into the United States and seek asylum or anybody else come into the United States, ultimately.

SHARMA: So federal agents acknowledge that. They say, yes, there is process but they’re also saying that that process is flawed, that, yes, these people are taken into custody and, you know, officials try to determine the fraudulent claims from the legitimate ones but some are released after being in detention and they’re told to come back for their asylum hearings and they’re not returning. And they’re disappearing into the system, and the U.S. government, they say, these federal agents say, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is not doing a good job of tracking them, that they don’t know where they are.

CAVANAUGH: Daveed, what would you be suggesting that the federal government do to change its policies to perhaps close that loophole if, indeed, there is a loophole in not tracking people who are supposed to show up for asylum hearings?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Well, I think it’s – there are several kind of common sense things that can be done. For example, when you have a criminal trial in which there’s a concern that the individual could be a flight risk, sometimes they’re asked to have an electronic bracelet that ensures that they don’t end up leaving the jurisdiction. I think in this case, using simple security measures like that, like electronic bracelets to try to keep track of people while their immigration status or the refugee status is still pending would be a good step to take. I mean, it’s a system that really is a mess and there’s a lot of things that need to be done to it. But that would at least be a simple process that would solve an immediate problem that we face.

SHARMA: And, Maureen, I should say, you know, I’ve spoken to Somalis, local Somalis, about this, Somali leaders, about the political asylum process and they, you know, they say, look, these folks who are coming here are so desperate to leave these squalid refugee camps that they are taking any route they can get and, yes, they’re probably traveling on false documentation, and that al-Shabab is uniformly hated by these folks. I mean, they’re trying to get away from them so why would they be coming here as recruiters? Why would they be coming here as operatives? And they also say that the political asylum system is very rigorous and that people have to prove who they are. And I spoke with one of the gentlemen is Abdi Mohamoud, who runs the Horn of Africa Community Center, and here’s what he said.

ABDI MOHAMOUD (Executive Director, Horn of Africa Community Center): You have prove your identity of who you really are and, in most cases, these are probably people that have fled and they cannot go back. It would be people that are – that have been tortured, would be people that if they go back home their life is in danger. It’s highly, highly unlikely if Shabab is trying to take people from here that they would be sending people here.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Stodder, it sounds like one of the fundamental problems here was shutting down the refugee program that brought in the first waves of Somali refugees to the United States. Why was that shut down?

STODDER: You know, I’m not – I’m actually not entirely familiar as to why it was shut down. I think it was mostly because of fraud concerns and also I think, you know, somewhat because of concerns of al-Shabab. But, I mean, the reality, though, is I think that the refugee resettlement program wouldn’t necessarily solve this issue because, I mean, it’s the same problem that was faced in Iraq, during the civil war there earlier in the decade in the sense of, you know, even if you’re going to have a refugee resettlement problem, you still need to sift out the needles from the haystack. And whether you do that in a refugee camp in Somalia or Iraq or whether you do it at the U.S. border or in a detention facility here in the United States or in the context of an immigration court, you still have to do it. And, you know, the reality is you can’t eliminate the risk of dangerous needles coming to the United States. I mean, the immigration agencies will do the best that they can and draw upon the best intelligence that they had – they can but at the end of the day, the United States remains an open society and in the asylum and refugee context under U.S. law as well as international law, the United States has to be a welcoming place for people who actually face a credible fear of persecution or torture.

CAVANAUGH: And, Daveed, how seriously are U.S. officials taking this possible threat, that is, from al-Shabab?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: They’re taking it seriously. That’s something I know for a fact talking to multiple U.S. officials who are involved in safeguarding ports of entry, including at quite high levels. And exactly what Professor Stodder says, which is the U.S. does have to be a welcoming place but the sad fact is that you’ll have both good people and bad people trying to enter the country and it’s extraordinarily difficult trying to separate the two. And part of that gets to how we gather intelligence. The United States is very dependent upon what’s called SIGINT, or signals intelligence, looking at electronic communications and the like. The NSA is very famous for what it does in that regard. We’re very much less attuned to HUMINT or human intelligence, that is placing people within Somalia, within other places in which we could get wind of who specific operatives are. Now given that a lot of what Shabab is doing is not going to be through electric – electronic communication—and don’t get me wrong, they do have electronic communication—but a lot of what they’re going to be doing is going to be offline, which makes having very good intelligence on this a little bit difficult. I mean, personally, you know, I generally do security work. I also have done some work on asylum cases, in one case, testifying as an expert witness on behalf of an asylee who was fleeing from Shabab in a New Jersey immigration court. So it’s something where I understand the concerns on both sides of the issue, and there are both humanitarian concerns and real security concerns that are at play here. It’s one of those areas where drawing a perfect balance is extraordinarily difficult.

CAVANAUGH: Amita, is the local Somali community doing any outreach efforts to try to counteract al-Shabab’s possible recruiting techniques or the whole idea that, you know, these people are entering the U.S.?

SHARMA: They are. You know, community leaders are talking to parents, they’re talking to mosque leaders and urging them to be vigilant in looking for signs of alienation or isolation or just free-flowing discussion about jihad. It’s – But, you know, there are challenges, too, because, well, federal agents tell me that some of the recruitment, they believe, is happening at the mosque, not in, you know, not during a sermon but after, quietly, during discussions…


SHARMA: …private discussions.

CAVANAUGH: …any evidence that members of the Somali community here have gone back to Somalia to participate in any of the al-Shabab activities back in the native land?

SHARMA: Well, community leaders say so far they’ve been lucky that that has not happened. And intelligence officials won’t say.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you all for speaking to us today. I want to thank Professor Seth Stodder, thank you so much.

STODDER: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, thank you.

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Good to join you.

CAVANAUGH: And KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma, thank you for being with us today.

SHARMA: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: If you’d like to comment, go online, Coming up, the First Amendment gets a workout in a variety of California legal cases. Our legal update is next as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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