For the past year or so, Somalia has been in the headlines largely because of piracy. Probably the most well known incident (in America, at least) was the April 2009 seizure of the Maersk Alabama when U.S. Navy SEALs (SEa, Air and Land) killed three pirates who were holding Captain Richard Phillips hostage (a fourth pirate was captured). Now Somalia is in the news because fourteen people (at least half of whom are U.S. citizens) have been charged as part of a "deadly terror pipeline" to Somalia "providing money, personnel, and services to the foreign terrorist organization al-Shabaab."
One concern raised by the four indictments in federal courts in Minnesota, Alabama, and California is the phenomena of homegrown radicalization. In the aftermath of 9/11, we were largely concerned with foreign terrorists trying to get into the United States. But the July 2005 London tube bombings raised the specter of terrorism originating from inside our borders. According to Sean Joyce, the FBI’s executive assistant director for the national security branch, terrorist organizations such as al-Shabaab radicalize and recruit U.S. citizens and others to train and fight with them. One of the Minnesota indictments alleges that two Somali women made direct appeals for "financial contributions to support violent jihad in Somalia."
Domestic radicalization and homegrown terrorism are legitimate concerns. Thankfully, however, none of those indicted have been charged with fomenting terrorism or plotting a terrorist attack in the United States. So – from a strict, U.S. national security perspective – you have to ask how any of these people are a terrorist threat to the United States (which is different than whether they are guilty of a crime, i.e., supporting a foreign terrorist organization). They may be threats to Somali security, but U.S. security is not dependent on Somalia.
Another concern raised by the indictments is so-called jihadist pop star, Omar Hammami (also known as "al-Amriki" or "The American"). It’s not so much that Hammami represents homegrown radicalization – he is a U.S. citizen who grew up in Alabama, had a typical American childhood, and attended the University of Southern Alabama (he enrolled in 2001 but left in 2002), only to embark on a journey that led from Canada to Egypt and eventually Somalia, where he joined al-Shabaab. Rather, it’s that Hammami represents a new breed of foreign fighter recruiter with an easy appeal to Western youth – using hip hop and YouTube to extol the virtues of jihad, making it cool and accessible.
But what isn’t being talked about much is America’s role in the rise of al-Shabaab. In 2006, al-Shabaab was a fundamentalist Islamic movement with very little support among Somalis. But then the United States decided to back secular warlords (not the Somali government) against Islamic groups for control of Mogadishu – despite being warned by the transitional government that such a decision was shortsighted and dangerous. They were right. U.S. interference (ostensibly to prevent Somalia from becoming an al-Qaeda safe haven) made al-Shabaab more popular as a symbol of resistance against a foreign power (kind of how bin Laden and al-Qaeda gained traction amongst Muslims in the first place). Because that was such a good idea, the United States then decided to support the invasion of Somalia by neighboring Ethiopia in December 2006 – which made al-Shabaab even more popular (hey, if you don’t get it right the first time, just try again!)
But it doesn’t end there. What was originally a relatively small local threat in Somalia is now formally allied with al-Qaeda (in a case of déjà vu all over again, this is exactly what happened in Iraq when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi decided that his al Tawhid group should join forces with al-Qaeda). Operationally, the al-Shabaab group probably isn’t a direct terrorist threat to America (just as al-Tawhid in Iraq wasn’t). But, once again, U.S. policy (and it’s worth noting that the Obama administration’s policy towards Somalia isn’t significantly different than the Bush administration’s – so much for change we can believe in), has allowed al-Qaeda to use the suffering of seven million Somalis to advance the politics and language of radical Islam and global jihad. We continue to help write the narrative that the United States is a foreign infidel invading and occupying Muslim countries. Blowback in spades.