Thursday, May 21, 2009

Al-Shabaab and the U.S. Military: Gangs of a Feather Flock Together

Listening to NPR this morning, I heard a story about my hometown of Minneapolis. Minneapolis has the largest Somali population in the United States. Since the mid-1990s, when I first left Minneapolis for college, the Somali community went from non-existent to more than 10,000 individuals. An area of the city once known as Seven Corners is more usually called, now, Little Somalia. In the last few years I have had a chance to know and even work with amazing Somali men and women that are looking to build a strong community and sense of home thousands of miles from war torn Somalia. As a former member of the board of directors of the Headwater Foundation for Justice, I was able to fund and support the work of the Somali Action Alliance—a social justice organization focused on building positive community strength in the Twin Cities Somali community.

Thus, I was totally caught off guard this morning when I heard that Somali youth in Minneapolis, many of them U.S. born Somalis, are being recruited by a Somali jihadist organization called Al-Shabaab...a fundamentalist group that is actively committing acts of violence against the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia. At least 27 Somali youth from Minneapolis have gone missing since March. They are thought to be in Al-Shabaab training camps. Their parents have no idea where they have gone and are terrified. And none of this is helped by the fact that last October, a 27 year old Minnesotan Somali by the name of Shirwa Ahmed killed himself in an Al Shabaab suicide bombing act killing more than 30 people.

In a report given to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Andrew Liepman, Deputy Director of Intelligence, of the National Counterterrorism Center shared seven pages of testimony. In that testimony Deputy Director Liepman stated that:

Compared to most Muslim immigrants to the US, many Somalis—seeking refuge from a war-torn country—received less language and cultural training and education prior to migration. Despite the efforts of Federal, State and local government and non-governmental organizations to facilitate their settlement into American communities, their relative linguistic isolation and the sudden adjustment to American society many refugees faced has reinforced, in some areas, their greater insularity compared to other, more integrated Muslim immigrant communities, and has aggravated the challenges of assimilation for their children.

According to data from the most recent census, the Somali-American population suffers the highest unemployment rate among East African diaspora communities in the United States, and experience significantly high poverty rates and the lowest rate of college graduation. These data also suggest that Somali-Americans are far more likely to be linguistically isolated than other East African immigrants.
(11 March 2009, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, page 4)

Basically, due to abject poverty and feelings of isolation, Somali youth are vulnerable to recruitment. Two other groups I can think of target the poor and the isolated for recruitment: Gangs and the U.S. Military.

I was surprised when I heard the report this morning on NPR. I was surprised that some of the students recruited were from Roosevelt High School, a school that was less than two miles from where I last lived in Minneapolis. ( anyone that heard the report this morning...the reporter referred to Roosevelt as being in the is not. It is in the heart of South Minneapolis). But, after reading the Senate testimony my surprise faded to dull anger.

Roosevelt High School, since I was a student in the Minneapolis Public Schools in the early to mid-90s, has been an economically depressed, highly segregated, and high violence school. While I love the Minneapolis Public Schools, I can not understand why Roosevelt has been allowed to continue down a road of under achievement and poverty and racial segregation while, for example, my own high school, Patrick Henry, has enjoyed a renaissance and is now one of the top public high schools in America. We know that gangs target these communities, so why are we surprised, in this growing global world...that an immigrant population with a homeland in turmoil would not be vulnerable to international recruitment.

When crazy white Americans convert to radical Islam and join Al-Qaeda, how can we suppose that our Muslim youth, trapped in isolation and feeling despondent, will not turn to whoever will give them hope and a sense of matter how ultimately destructive that acceptance turns out to be.

And when poor students of color and poor rural whites in the United States feel they have no other option than to join the U.S. military or are actively recruited by the military using the exact same media and Internet tactics that Somali militants are using to recruit Somali can I have been surprised.

In this moment, there is no moral high ground for us. We readily sacrifice our poor and brown/black/red/yellow young people on the altar of the Oil Wars. The difference between the recruitment of these Somali youth and the recruitment of poor black Americans into the U.S. military is only that the Somali youth are being recruited into an independent militia without state power behind it. Let me be clear...U.S. Military recruitment tactics are only differentiated from Islamic militant recruitment tactics because they are state sanctioned. Just like these Somali recruiters, who use the Internet, media, and real time recruiters to appeal to the Somali's sense of duty, honor, commitment, patriotism, and sense of self worth to get them to sign up for do the U.S. military recruiters use the Internet, media, commercials before movies, financial incentives, and patriotic and duty appeals to recruit those that also see themselves as isolated, without much of a future, and no ability to see a way forward.

Whether recruiting young American Somalis for Al-Shabaab or young black men for the Marines, both groups are recruiting what is fast becoming or already is cannon fodder. Both Al-Shabaab and the U.S. military are offering up our young as sacrifices to a set of ideals that have nothing to do with the prosperity and welfare of their people...they are sacrifices made on the altar of power in a quest for dominance.

I do not in any way blame those that sign up for either cause. I support my little brother and my sister. They did what they believed they had to do in this world that gave them few options. Their stories are their own to tell, but I can promise you that those stories would break your heart...that for both of them...they put themselves in harms way for reasons that had nothing to do with glory and power but realities and limited possibilities.

I lay blame on the recruiters, on Al-Shabaab, and on the U.S. military industrial complex and the government that benefits from it.

It is my fervent hope that the city of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Public Schools, the state of Minnesota, and the U.S. government take this as a wake up call. Understand that the racism and economic disparity upon which our grand U.S. society is built is the reason that our youth continue to be shipped overseas or recruited overseas to die.

The Senate report stated that there is no proof that Somali youth are being recruited abroad with intentions to return back to the U.S. to execute acts of violence. If we act now to systemically address the fundamental justice and inequality issues that make recruitment possible, we will eliminate any possibility of Somali youth turning their anger and isolation back on the U.S.
In so doing, we will save our youth from needless wars that eat our young without sating our hunger for power, wealth, natural resources and world dominance.

(The report mentioned in this post can be read here.)

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