Homegrown Jihad

Why are young Somali men leaving their homes in Minnesota to die in the name of Allah?

| May-June 2010

One morning in October 2008, a 26-year-old American named Shirwa Ahmed drove an SUV packed with explosives toward the office of the local intelligence service in Bossaso, a port city in the Somali state of Puntland. The sun was rising rapidly in the cloudless sky and a breeze from the Gulf of Aden blew across the rooftops and minarets of Bossaso’s skyline. Shirwa prayed and mumbled “Allahu Akbar” as he neared his target.

Meanwhile, 360 miles to the west in the city of Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland, three other young men had enlisted for a similar mission. The modern-day kamikazes gripped the steering wheels of their speeding truck bombs and raced toward their targets: the presidential palace, a United Nations compound, and the Ethiopian Trade Office.

Somalia, which is predominantly Muslim, and Ethiopia, which is predominantly Christian, are historical rivals. In the years after 9/11, the United States allied closely with Ethiopia while Somalia festered in chaos. Ethiopian tanks rolled into Somalia in December 2006 to topple the standing regime, an Islamist government known as the Union of Islamic Courts. A loose network of local sharia courts extending throughout the country, the Islamic Courts transcended clan divisions and was the closest thing to a unified government the country had had in 15 years. But it also enforced a strict, Taliban-like interpretation of Islam and harbored international terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda. The United States backed the Ethiopian military with weapons and logistics, and by the end of the year the Ethiopians had overrun Mogadishu, Somalia’s largest city and the nation’s capital.

But the swift military victory would prove deceptive. The Islamic Courts soon splintered; its political wing absconded to the nation of Eritrea, while its militant wing, known as al Shabaab or “the youth,” pledged to wage guerrilla war against the Ethiopians and the “transitional federal government” they had propped up. Al Shabaab framed its war as a nationalist struggle against foreign invaders, a religious battle against Ethiopia’s mostly Christian army, and a colonial campaign against what they perceived as a U.S. conspiracy to control the Islamic world. Armed with this palette of anthems, al Shabaab and its supporters combed the Somalian diaspora for young men willing to fight. Shirwa Ahmed was among those who answered the call.

In late 2007, Shirwa, a naturalized U.S. citizen, left his home in Minneapolis to wage jihad in his birthplace of Somalia. Fifteen years earlier, his family had fled Somalia to escape a civil war, hoping to give Shirwa a plethora of opportunities they hadn’t had for themselves. But he shunned their American dream and decided to take part in the same prolonged civil war that his mother had rescued him from.

Shortly before 10:30 a.m. that October morning in 2008, Shirwa’s SUV plowed into Bossaso’s intelligence office. The blast killed at least five people. Another 25 died in the wreckage from the three suicide attacks in Hargeisa.

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