Terrorism Within the United States: The Middle East Connection
Patrick S. Poole
MERIA – 2010-03-01
A great deal of study and analysis goes into the effect of U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East, but the issues and conflicts in the region also have an effect within the United States, which acts as an extension of those matters. With the dramatic developments of September 11, 2001, revolutionary movements and terrorism struck America directly. This article explores recent developments in that interaction by analyzing terrorist plans or attacks originating in the Middle East but being aimed at activities on U.S. soil. What is particularly striking is that 2009 was the year with the highest number of such incidents. Thus, while “September 11″ is now a historic event from almost a decade ago, the strategic themes initiated then are continuing and even arguably intensifying.
When Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a Muslim convert born Carlos Leon Bledsoe, pulled up to an Army-Navy Career Center in Little Rock, Arkansas in June 2009 and began opening fire at soldiers standing outside with a SKS assault rifle, this “homegrown” jihadist’s path had already wound from Tennessee to Yemen, where his attorney later claimed he had been radicalized. Army Private William Long was killed and Private Quinton Ezeagwula was seriously injured in Muhammad’s attack.
The year 2009 was simply without precedent in terms of the number of terror plots and cells exposed and disrupted directed at the United States. The Little Rock recruiting center shooting was just one of the many incidents last year where supposed “homegrown” terror had roots or ties to the Middle East. This international nexus to domestic terror plots or attacks directed at Western targets seen both recently and historically has been rule rather than the exception.
Even in cases of so-called “self-radicalization,” one sees the influence of recruitment videos produced by foreign terrorist organizations and the incendiary teachings of Islamic clerics overseas targeting Muslims in the West. This was true in the case of Abdulhakim Muhammad, who told police after his attack on the Little Rock recruiting center “that he recently viewed a video pertaining to subversive activities which spurred him to commit this act.” Yet the groundwork for Muhammad’s radicalization seems to have occurred long before watching the video that ultimately incited his attack. News reports indicate that he had traveled to Yemen in 2007 to attend a school known as a hub for radicalized Western converts, including “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh.
The attempted bombing on Christmas Day (December 25) 2009 of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab bears some similarity to Muhammad’s case. While not a Westerner, he came from a wealthy Nigerian family and had attended an elite British international school in Togo and University College London. It was in London that Abdulmutallab was apparently radicalized, where he attended lectures by Yemen-based cleric Anwar al-Awlaki at an East London mosque. This connection to the U.S.-born al-Awlaki prompted him to enroll in a three-month language course at the al-Eman University in Sana’a, Yemen in 2005, where al-Awlaki taught until his 2006 arrest by Yemeni authorities. The university was founded by Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a close ally and mentor of Usama bin Ladin and who is also designated as a global terrorist by the U.S. government. Abdulmutallab later returned to Yemen in August 2009 to attend a language institute, but quickly dropped out and traveled to Shabwa Province, a stronghold of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), where he presumably was trained and tasked for his attempted Christmas Day airline bombing. Al-Awlaki has also claimed to have been in contact with Fort Hood shooting suspect, Maj. Nidal Hasan, whom he had met while serving as an imam at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia before returning to Yemen.
In January 2010, another potential domestic terror threat coming out of Yemen was revealed in a report on al-Qa’ida published by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The report stated that as many as 36 former prison inmates from New York had moved to Yemen, like Abdulmutallab ostensibly to study Arabic or Islam, with some having dropped off the radar of U.S. intelligence agencies and possibly having connected with AQAP, where they could be training for future terror attacks. The Senate report stated that the U.S. government was on heightened alert due to “the potential threat from extremists carrying American passports.”
AL-SHABAAB RECRUITMENT IN THE UNITED STATES
The same Senate Foreign Relations Committee report observed another potential domestic terror threat from Somalia. Since November 2008, the FBI has been engaged in a massive counterterrorism investigation–one of the largest since the September 11 attacks–looking into recruitment in several Somali-American communities across the United States by the al-Qa’ida-linked Somali terror group, al-Shabaab. Media reports indicate that several dozen young Somali men have left the United States to travel to Somalia to join up with al-Shabaab. As many as five of these Somali-Americans have been killed while fighting with al-Shabaab.
U.S. authorities are concerned that much like those “Afghan Arabs” who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, helped shape the international Islamic terror networks during the 1990s, and now lead many Islamist terror groups (e.g. Osama bin Laden’s leadership of al-Qa’ida), so the young Somali men–mostly U.S. citizens–who have trained in al-Shabaab’s terror camps could easily return to the United States to engage in acts of terror.
The severity of this potential threat can be seen in the suicide bombing conducted by one Somali man from Minneapolis, Shirwa Ahmed. On October 29, 2008, Ahmed was one of two men to drive trucks laden with explosives into a government intelligence headquarters in the northern Somali city of Bosasso, killing 28 and injuring dozens more. FBI Director Robert Mueller later claimed that Ahmed had been radicalized at a mosque in the United States, emphasizing that, “It raises the question of whether these young men will one day come home, and, if so, what might they undertake here.” That potential threat was punctuated in September 2009 when another Somali man from Seattle, Omar Mohamud, drove a stolen U.N. car into an African Union peacekeeping base, detonating the explosives inside and killing 21 people. Shirwa Ahmed and Omar Mohamud are the first known successful American suicide bombers. The prospect of dozens of al-Shabaab-trained operatives all armed with authentic U.S. passports rightfully raises serious concerns.
Yet how exactly was the connection between Somali-American communities and al-Shabaab operating in Somalia established? In late 2007, prior to the disappearances of these Somali men, the current author was the first to report on foreign officials tied to al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups that were traveling across the United States raising money and conducting recruitment to fight the Ethiopian troops (which were then occupying Somali that had ousted the extremist Islamic Courts Union warlords that had taken over the country). This author specifically noted a fundraiser held in November 2007 in Minneapolis featuring Zakaria Mahmoud Haji-Abdi, the deputy chairman of the Eritrean-based Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), headed by U.S. designated terrorist leader Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys. During Abdi’s keynote speech at the event, he called on recruits to join the jihad against the Ethiopians, promising training. Officials now believe that this event was the tipping point for radicalization in the Minneapolis Somali community, from where most of the missing men left. Abdi was also featured at events in Canada and Washington D.C.
This is just one example of domestic recruitment and material support for al-Shabaab. During 2009, 14 suspects were charged in connection with helping the Somali men link up with al-Shabaab and providing financial and travel assistance. One such man charged, Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax, had traveled to Somali and fought with al-Shabaab, where he was wounded in the leg. According to the indictment, sometime in the fall of 2007, Faarax appeared at a meeting at a Minneapolis mosque, where al-Shabaab officials in Somalia spoke via telephone to the participants encouraging others to join them in fighting the Ethiopians. He later spoke at a home with a group of potential recruits, where he told them about how he had experienced true brotherhood while fighting with al-Shabaab and encouraged others to join the “jihad.”
It is not only young Somali-American men who have been lured by al-Shabaab’s call to jihad. In September 2009, Fox News revealed that an American man who has appeared in a number of al-Shabaab recruitment videos and is now a top leader in the organization known as “Abu Mansour al-Amriki,” is in fact a 25-year-old man from Daphne, Alabama, Omar Hammimi. His father is originally from Syria and his mother a natural-born American who raised Omar as a Southern Baptist.
A profile of Hammimi published in the New York Times Magazine provides an in-depth glimpse of how this popular and Westernized American student became radicalized and landed in the ranks of al-Shabaab in Somalia. His identification and indoctrination into radical Islamism began after the September 11 attacks, when he began associating with a group of fellow Western converts that practiced and preached the Salafi form of Islam. He quickly adopted the Salafi-style dress and austere moral code. Unhappy with the Islamic community in Southern Alabama, he followed another member of the group to Toronto, where he worked among the large Somali community there and later married a Somali woman. He and his friend eventually moved their families to Cairo, Egypt, and he became acquainted with another American living in Cairo, Daniel Maldonado, whom he met through an online Islamic forum. Maldonado was later captured with al-Shabaab fighters along the Kenyan border, was returned to the United States by Kenyan authorities, and was later convicted on charges of material support for a terrorist organization and sentenced to ten years in federal prison. Hammimi later followed Maldonado to Somalia, where he joined up with al-Shabaab, which he admired for its attempt to establish an Islamic state and impose Shari’a (Islamic law). Technologically savvy and fluent Arabic, al-Shabaab leaders recognized Hammimi’s leadership qualities, which they have put to work in their attempts to recruit Western fighters to their cause through a series of propaganda videos.
While Ethiopian troops were occupying parts of Somalia from December 2006 until January 2009, many counterterrorism analysts believed that al-Shabaab would contain its ambitions to strictly national interests. However, with the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, their attentions have turned international, including Western targets. They have also forged a close alliance with al-Qa’ida, professing loyalty to Usama bin Ladin and becoming another front in the global jihad. This rightfully has American authorities concerned that U.S. interests–and even the homeland itself–could become targets for al-Shabaab. One Western intelligence official recently told Time Magazine, “There’s no longer a risk that southern Somalia could become a jihadi operational deployment facility. It already is.”
Unfortunately, this is hardly a uniquely American problem….
Patrick S. Poole is a counterterrorism consultant to the U.S. military and law enforcement.