By Beverly Lwenya
In the clandestine recruitment efforts of foreign terrorist groups, al-Shabaab remains a major recruiter of U.S. citizens. A state that is high on the radar for U.S. counterterrorism efforts against the al-Qaeda affiliate is Minnesota, where the Department of Justice recently launched a pilot program to “bring together community representatives, public safety officials, religious leaders, and United States Attorneys to improve local engagement; to counter violent extremism; and – ultimately – to build a broad network of community partnerships to keep our nation safe.”
One man, Mohamed Ahmed, is also doing his part in the counter-messaging effort, offering an alternative view of what really happens when someone joins a jihadist group. Based in Minneapolis, Ahmed sees the main problem as a public relations loophole that recruiters are exploiting to gain access to Somali young men. I spoke with him about his initiative and what can be done about terrorist recruiters:
“People don’t know how to talk to Muslims,” he said. “In America here, there’s a separation between church and state. Someone has to bridge the gap. I saw an opportunity there.”
Ahmed sees a failure by the United States government to adequately counter violent extremist propaganda targeting Muslim communities in America. This PR “gap” as he calls it is what terrorists can exploit. Describing himself as a “blue collar worker” and father of four, Ahmed started a company called Wareya, which puts out culturally relevant (and sometimes humorous) animated videos via the website Average Mohamed. The videos are aimed at the 8-to-16-year-old age group, warning about listening to the propaganda that jihadists spew. Said Ahmed:
“I want to put out 12-24 messages in the kids minds before a recruiter comes to them. I want to make their job very difficult. My job is a long-term program. Whenever I can save some money I put it towards the videos. Nine out of ten kids did not know suicide bombing is not Islamic theology.”
Ahmed may be right about competing for young people. One video believed to be created by al-Shabaab compares waging jihad to a trip to Disneyland. According to the FBI, a “terrorist pipeline” exists that begins in Minnesota and lands right in the middle of terrorist training camps.
“They will kill 100,000, and they will recruit another 100,000,” said Ahmed. “It’s become a revolution now, no longer terrorism. We need today’s tools for today’s battles.”
According to him, indoctrination begins in the United States and full radicalization happens once the recruits arrive in the terrorist camps. They are indoctrinated first for approximately six months and then sent off to fight.
What is unclear is just who the recruiters are and how they are gaining access to potential recruits. But what could possibly make becoming a jihadist and facing death attractive? A possible vulnerability for a would-be recruit in Minnesota is probably the same ingredient that would stir British Pakistanis to fight in Kashmir or even the Tsarnaev brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon: alienation. In a statement before the House Committee on Homeland Security earlier this year, my fellow Security Debrief contributor Dr. Erroll Southers cited alienation as one of three components that can lead an individual down a path to terrorism. (The other noted components are a legitimizing ideology and an enabling environment.)
Whereas the government cannot produce counter-messaging of a religious ideological nature, recruiters might be tapping into a deep-seeded need for identity and belonging. For Somali young men, not quite fitting into the American mold while at the same time being alienated from their ethnic culture, allows for recruiters to be able to present the “legitimizing ideology” that lures them in.
“The problem with fighting extremism is that we’ve tried everyone’s solutions but the Muslim solutions to achieve the objective of countering this ideology,” said Ahmed, underscoring the significance of using religious undertones in counter-messaging.
The third component, an “enabling environment,” is perhaps where there is the greatest room for leverage through local means and where Ahmed is seeking to assert influence. As written about previously on Security Debrief, community resilience (i.e., an adaptive, knowledge-based form of counter-terrorism) keeps one step ahead of terrorist recruitment efforts.