Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Al-Shabaab's American allies

By Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst, and David Sterman, Special to CNN
updated 7:38 AM EDT, Tue September 24, 2013
Relatives of Johnny Mutinda Musango, 48, weep after identifying his body at the city morgue in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, September 24. Musango was one of the victims of the Westgate Mall hostage siege. Kenyan security forces were still combing the mall on the fourth day of the siege by al Qaeda-linked terrorists. Relatives of Johnny Mutinda Musango, 48, weep after identifying his body at the city morgue in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, September 24. Musango was one of the victims of the Westgate Mall hostage siege. Kenyan security forces were still combing the mall on the fourth day of the siege by al Qaeda-linked terrorists.
HIDE CAPTION
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: Of al Qaeda's affiliates, Al-Shabaab has had deepest links to the U.S.
  • He says 15 Americans have died fighting for Al-Shabaab, including suicide bombers
  • Bergen: Ethiopian invasion of Somalia has played a role in stirring recruitment
  • He says FBI, Justice Department have cracked down on American support

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." David Sterman is a graduate student at Georgetown University's National Security Studies Program.

(CNN) -- Of all al Qaeda's affiliated groups, the Somali terrorist organization Al-Shabaab has over the past several years had the deepest links to the United States. Some 15 Americans have died fighting for Al-Shabaab, as many as four of them as suicide bombers in Somalia, and an American citizen even took up a leadership role in the group.

Al-Shabaab has also found supporters in places as diverse as Seattle, St. Louis, San Diego, Minnesota, Maryland, Ohio and Alabama.

Al-Shabaab had particular success recruiting Somali-Americans to its cause after the Ethiopian army invaded Somalia in 2006, which Al-Shabaab cast as Somalia being taken over by a "crusader" army. Ethiopia is a majority Christian nation.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

The largest group of American citizens and residents who have provided manpower and money to Al-Shabaab reside in Minnesota. According to a count by the New America Foundation, 22 residents of Minnesota have funded or fought with Al-Shabaab during the past four years.

Opinion: How Al-Shabaab picks its targets

Three of them provided funds to Al-Shabaab, and 19 have been indicted for traveling to fight in Somalia or have died in the war there.

The story of Minnesotan support for Al-Shabaab began in late 2007, when Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax, an American citizen of Somali descent in his early 30s, and several other men met at a Minnesota mosque and discussed traveling to Somalis to fight for Al-Shabaab.

Faarax told the group that he had "experienced true brotherhood" while fighting in Somalia and that "jihad would be fun" and they would "get to shoot guns," according to the U.S. Justice Department.

That meeting resulted in seven men traveling from Minnesota to Somalia to fight for Al-Shabaab in late 2007.

A deeper look at Al-Shabaab
Victims of the Kenya attack remembered
Behind the Kenya mall massacre
Escaping the Nairobi massacre

One was Shirwa Ahmed, a 26-year-old naturalized American citizen. Ahmed became the first American to conduct a suicide attack when he drove a truck loaded with explosives toward a government compound in Puntland, northern Somalia, blowing himself up and killing 20 other people in October 29, 2008. He is buried in a cemetery in Burnsville, a suburb of Minneapolis.

Other American suicide attackers would follow. In early June 2011, Farah Mohamed Beledi, 27, of Minneapolis detonated a bomb, becoming one of two suicide attackers responsible for killing two African Union soldiers in Somalia, according to the FBI.

The third American to conduct a suicide attack was Abdisalan Hussein Ali, a 22-year-old from Minneapolis who took part in a strike on African Union troops in the Somali capital of Mogadishu on October 29, 2011.

There may even have been a fourth American suicide attacker in Somalia. On September 17, 2009, two stolen U.N. vehicles loaded with bombs blew up at the Mogadishu airport, killing more than a dozen peacekeepers of the African Union. The FBI suspects that 18-year-old Omar Mohamud of Seattle was one of the bombers.

For those Americans who have traveled to Somalia to fight for Al-Shabaab, it has often proved to be a one-way ticket. A 2011 report by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security found that at least 15 Americans had died while fighting for Al-Shabaab (as well as three Canadians).

Opinion: What threat do foreign jihadists pose?

Some of the young men who volunteered to fight in Somalia had grown up in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, which is one of the poorest places in the United States. In recent years, Somali-American family incomes there averaged less than $15,000 a year, and the unemployment rate was 17%.

Al-Shabaab's American support network also extended well beyond Minnesota.

Basaaly Saeed Moalin, a cabdriver in San Diego who was in contact with an Al-Shabaab leader, was convicted of sending funds to the group along with three co-conspirators this year.

In St. Louis, Mohamud Abdi Yusuf pleaded guilty in 2012 of providing funds to Al-Shabaab.

A resident of Ohio, Ahmed Hussain Mahamud, was indicted in 2011 for funding Somali-Americans traveling to join Al-Shabaab.

Al-Shabaab's support network in the United States has reached beyond the Somali-American community. Ruben Shumpert, an African-American convert to Islam from Seattle, was killed in Somalia in 2008.

A former U.S. soldier, Craig B. Baxam, 24, of Laurel, Maryland, was arrested by Kenyan authorities in December 2011 as he tried to make his way to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab, which he told FBI agents he considered to be a religious duty.

Omar Hammami of Daphne, Alabama, grew up Baptist and converted to Islam when he was in his teens. In a lengthy autobiography that Hammami posted online last year entitled "The Story of an American Jihadi," he explained his long journey from growing up Christian in a small town in Alabama to fighting on the front lines in Somalia with Al-Shabaab.

The journey began with a life-changing trip to Syria, the homeland of his father, when he was 15 that sparked his interest in Islam. Hammami wrote in his autobiography (PDF), "when I came back from that vacation, I had become a different person."

Over the past several years, Hammami rose up the ranks in Al-Shabaab, becoming an important leader. Disputes with other Al-Shabaab leaders led him to split off from the group. He was killed this month, probably by members of Al-Shabaab, according to Islamist websites.

In the wake of many of these developments, for the past three years, the Justice Department and the FBI have engaged in a serious effort to crack down on U.S. support for Al-Shabaab, in particular in Minnesota, in an effort codenamed Operation Rhino.

This seems to have had some success, as the number of Americans indicted for supporting Al-Shabaab on the front lines or with their wallets has dropped sharply since the launch of Operation Rhino.

Al-Shabaab breaks new ground with complex Nairobi attack

Over the weekend, Al-Shabaab issued a list of nine names it claimed were among the attackers who carried out its deadly assault on the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Al-Shabaab alleged that three of the attackers were from the United States. The FBI is looking into whether these claims are true.

Whether or not any Americans played a role in the massacre in Nairobi that has claimed 62 lives, there is a deadly history of American support for Al-Shabaab.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT