Yesterday, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced the arrests of six individuals who conspired to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State (or the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq…or in the Levant…or Daesh…or whatever we’re calling them now). Four men in Minnesota and two in California worked together to find a way to leave the United States with ill intent. The announcement of the arrests was particularly compelling because fellow Security Debrief contributor Dr. Erroll Southers and I recently concluded a fieldwork project for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, researching ISIS recruitment tactics in Minneapolis and what community-led programs are available to counter the terrorist group.
For years, the Somali al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab was the driving force behind recruitment in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali diaspora population in the United States, and al Shabaab targeted young people in this community by offering a message of religious belief and nationalistic zeal for Somalia, which is why those who were recruited by al Shabaab traveled to Somalia (as opposed to somewhere else). Today, however, things have changed. Recruitment in Minnesota continues, except now, the young people departing to join a terrorist group are traveling to Syria to join ISIS. This abrupt shift in destination began in 2014 and continues today. The question is, why the change?
It’s a question Southers and I heard from the people we interviewed in Minneapolis. Members of the Somali community loath the terrorist groups targeting their young people, but some could see a glimmer of twisted logic in a young person’s decision to travel to Somalia. After all, that is their mother country, one devastated by war and famine, one the Somali diaspora wants to stabilize and rebuild. Al Shabaab has been completely rejected by the community, but the desire to support Somalia is something the community could somewhat understand.
But Syria? Somalis have no traditional, historical or social ties to Syria. The community wonders (desperately), why are young people going there? What is the attraction?
In his press conference, USA Luger noted something dubbed “peer-to-peer” recruitment, with young people pushing one another, sharing ideas, conspiring to depart the United States. It’s an interesting idea, and Luger was careful to note that this is one way young Somali-Americans are being recruited, not the only way. Indeed, the recruitment landscape in Minnesota is messy. The line between foreign recruitment and peer-to-peer recruitment is basically non-existent.
For example, Luger mentioned Abdi Nur as a part of the peer-to-peer recruitment. Nur left Minneapolis in May 2014 to join ISIS, and he made it all the way to Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State. As with others who left to join a terrorist group (be it ISIS or al Shabaab), foreign fighters become de facto recruiters, staying in touch with friends and family. Since Nur is now with ISIS, is he a foreign recruiter, a peer, or something in between? This is part of why ISIS has been successful in recruiting an untold number of Somali-Americans (well-above 10 people since 2014). ISIS has no Somali-nationalistic message, but ISIS does have Somali foreign fighters (like Nur). These people are the mysterious link that can make a group like ISIS attractive to a small number of Somali-Americans.
Even as the conspirators may have encouraged one another, there was some direct collaboration with ISIS. Each of the accused had $1,500 deposited into their bank accounts, which is a confirmed part of the ISIS recruitment process. Thus, friends may encourage friends, but that amount of money must have come from somewhere outside the peer-to-peer network.
There is another important point to make regarding Luger’s statements. He consistently referred to the recruitment threat to young men, encouraging community members to talk with their sons, brothers and friends. Unlike al Shabaab, ISIS is attracting women as well as men. In one of the most powerful and tragic interviews I have ever conducted, Southers and I sat with the family of a young woman who had left Minnesota to join ISIS. I won’t soon forget the evident heartbreak, the deep sadness the young woman’s mother expressed for her child’s absence.
“It’s like missing a limb,” she said. “I don’t expect my daughter to ever come back.”
To be sure, ISIS will take men and women alike, and their appeal is equally effective for both genders. What the world is dealing with here is a snowball becoming an avalanche. The more people who travel to Syria, the more recruiters ISIS has, in turn expanding its potential to recruit even more people. There is simply no question that ISIS presents an enormous threat to U.S. security.
It’s not just that they are perverting and recruiting our young people, not just that they are destabilizing a region where the United States has interests. They will increasingly send these recruits back to the United States to conduct terrorist attacks. In February, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, a 23-year-old from Columbus, was arrested as he returned from Syria after receiving training from ISIS. He was preparing to conduct an attack in the United States.
This is troubling enough, but what is worse is that many people in our government just don’t seem to get it. After speaking with colleagues in several three-letter agencies, it is clear that while there are some professionals who understand just how dangerous ISIS is, there are many who do not. Some of the questions being asked behind government doors are laughable for their simplicity. There is a distinct absence of a sense of urgency. And the Administration’s overall strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS” needs a lot more meat on its bones. What is it going to take for us to get serious about defeating ISIS?
We need to wake up and fast. There are lives at stake.