The Baddest, Holiest Gang

How young Somali immigrants to the U.S. searched for belonging, and found jihad. First of a three-part series.



On Oct. 29 last year, Shirwa Ahmed drove a car full of explosives up to a government compound in Puntland, a region of northern Somalia, and blew himself up. The blast — apparently orchestrated by al-Shabab, an Islamic militant group with ties to al-Qaida — was part of a coordinated attack in two cities that killed more than 20 people. A BBC reporter described body parts flying through the air.

The attackers were “not from Puntland,” said Adde Muse, the regional leader. He couldn’t have been more right. For most of his life, the Somali-born Ahmed had lived in Minnesota, where he was more accustomed to frigid winters than to the dry, yellow sands of East Africa. The 26-year-old former truck driver with the fluffy beard — “as American as apple pie,” according to one acquaintance — was the very first American suicide bomber, and a harbinger of a looming crisis. Since Ahmed sneaked into Somalia in late 2007, potentially scores of other young Minnesotans have followed him.

By all accounts, Ahmed hadn’t come to Somalia to die. His motive was apparently to help Shabab defend Somalia against an invading Ethiopian army. The defense of Somalia was a popular cause among many Somalis living in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East — especially among young people. On the long, winding journey from Minneapolis’ streets and parks to Somalia’s bleached sand and searing sun, Ahmed’s original impulses had gotten tangled up with Shabab’s al-Qaida-style religious extremism.

But it’s possible that even the Ethiopian invasion was just the political cause that gave shape to Ahmed’s deeper desires. Many of the young men recruited by Shabab got their start in Minneapolis street gangs that mix Somali patriotism, religious fervor and an almost familial structure. The gangs give young men a sense of belonging they can’t find at home, at school or in the community. That belonging was a powerful and dangerous thing for Minnesota’s Somali recruits, for it cloaked a radical political sensibility that eased the men into jihad. Radical mosques perhaps only reinforced that indoctrination. “They’ve been disillusioned, indoctrinated and misled,” says Omar Jamal, a civil rights advocate in Minneapolis.

Read the rest at World Politics Review.

(Photo: Elliot Dodge deBruyn)