The Baddest, Holiest Gang, Part Two
How young Somali immigrants to the U.S. searched for belonging, and found jihad. Second of a three-part series.
by DAVID AXE and JOHN MASATO ULMER
When 26-year-old Shirwa Ahmed, a Somali-born immigrant living in Minnesota, blew himself up in Puntland, Somalia, on Oct. 29 last year, he became the very first American suicide bomber, and a harbinger of a looming crisis. Ahmed sneaked into Somalia in late 2007, followed by potentially scores of other young Minnesotan Somali-Americans.
Since the first wave of “travelers,” as they are known, left America, Minnesota has become a quiet battleground. The miniature, homegrown war on terror has pitted government authorities and their allies in the Somali community against fiery youths, hardline mosques and angry, alienated Somali immigrants.
Both sides claim to represent the voice of Minnesota’s roughly 70,000 Somalis. All agree, however, that the issue has its roots in broken families, neglected kids, alleyway bullying, and many Americans’ all-too-casual racism and xenophobia. In our post-9/11 world, Somali immigrants’ race and faith “pushed those buttons of fear,” says Dr. Peter Rachleff, a professor specializing in immigration, labor and African-American history at Macalester College, in St. Paul. And the backlash that fear created has contributed to a sense of alienation among many Somalis that sometimes results in desperate actions.
In America, Somali immigrants represent a minority within a minority within a minority. They’re black. They’re native Africans. And they’re Muslims. “Somalis face language and cultural barriers,” explains Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali community organizer and uncle of one of the travelers. Bihi’s 17-year-old nephew Burhan Hassan sneaked into Somalia in November, and reportedly died of a gunshot wound seven months later.
Many young Somali-Americans live in broken homes — their fathers either dead or working abroad. “We have the highest [number of] single-mom households in this community,” Bihi says. “It’s very bad, especially for the boys. They need a mentor.”
(Photo: Elliot Dodge deBruyn)