The death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammad (also known as Fadil Harun), al-Qa`ida’s top commander in East Africa, at a Mogadishu checkpoint in June 2011 counts as another in a string of blows to the global terrorism network.[1] This rare good news story, however, was bracketed by a number of domestic setbacks in Somalia. A May 30 suicide attack carried out in part by a member of the Somali-American diaspora claimed the lives of two soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM),[2] and on June 10 the Somali minister of the interior and national security was killed by a suicide bomber in his home, who happened to be his niece.[3] The minister’s death came one day after the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) signed the Kampala Accord, extending the government transitional period an additional year.[4]

As recent statements and actions indicate, the United States increasingly views Somalia and the region as a critical front in the effort to defeat al-Qa`ida.[5] This places increased pressure on al-Shabab,[6] an organization that relies on support from the Somali diaspora.[7] Indeed, a number of Western Muslims, including Americans, have traveled to Somalia to fight with al-Shabab. Some of these Westerners became suicide bombers for the group. The Kampala Accord has, in an oddly positive way, provided the international community with additional time to press recent counterterrorism successes and set the conditions for a more stable Somalia. Engagement with the Somali diaspora is a crucial element toward any future stability.

The Somali Diaspora: Stakeholders in a Stable Future
Although some Somalis living outside of the homeland left as a result of civil war in the 1980s, the vast majority emigrated due to the cycles of famine and war that have characterized the failed state period since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991.[8] The Somali diaspora is estimated at 1-1.5 million people worldwide—150,000 of whom live in the United States, half of that number having arrived since 2000.[9] Many entered as asylum seekers, escaping war and famine only to cluster in Western urban areas high in poverty and crime.[10] Still, many others, such as Somalia’s recently ousted prime minister,[11] gain dual citizenship, attend universities, and enter into lucrative careers in their host countries. Importantly, irrespective of social or economic status abroad, the diaspora remains intimately connected and heavily invested in the homeland.

“You eat with your brother when he has money,” stated one member of the Somali diaspora who lives in London and supports four uncles and eight aunts in Somalia through remittances.[12] Last year, Somalis in the diaspora sent between $1.5-2 billion to people back home.[13] Remittances were largely private—sent directly to a person, family or local leader—but also included between $130-200 million sent for development purposes.[14] The diaspora has long relied on a system known as hawala[15] for transferring these funds from abroad back into Somalia quickly and at low cost. Hawalas came under intense scrutiny after 9/11, resulting in the closure of the industry leader, al-Barakaat.[16] The institution adapted, however, and Somalis have continued sending remittances. Only recently, during the global financial crisis in 2009, did remittances dip noticeably. They are now back on the rise.[17]

In stark contrast to continued political fragmentation and failure in Somalia, there are examples of economic cooperation and progress spurred by the diaspora. Somali businesses have created regional trade networks that defy traditional clan and territorial divisions.[18] Unregulated economic partnerships with groups in Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda, and Tanzania in many sectors such as finance, real estate, and retail services have highlighted that Somalis will seek non-violent avenues and law and order if it is more profitable to them.[19] Members of the diaspora are also better at monitoring their investments than the international community is at monitoring aid projects. The diaspora can tap into regional and local power brokers to ensure oversight and prevent corruption, where aid organizations have no such leverage.[20]

The dilemma, however, is apparent. The diaspora’s steadfast support has created a dependent society in Somalia. The statistics seem to confirm it: 80% of small business start-up capital is directly attributed to remittances,[21] and the financial network of hawalas is reportedly the number one private sector employer in Somalia.[22] Dependency breeds spoilers—those who seek to maintain instability for personal gain—and this is a major concern among the diaspora, who often give despite their own harsh circumstances.[23] For the poor and professionals alike, remittances are an investment as well as an obligation. They are heavily invested in one day returning to a safe Somalia to stay, and as such should be considered a motivated ally in efforts toward Somali stability.

Also important with respect to the diaspora is an understanding of the age demographic and how different generations view remittances. In the United States, the Somali diaspora is relatively young, as compared to the general population.[24] Younger members of the diaspora are less likely to send private remittances to relatives they may not know well, but are more interested in contributing to community projects or traveling to Somalia to give their time and expertise.[25] This is a unique opportunity that host-nations should recognize because younger generations possess unique skill-sets and are often less bound to certain structures within traditional Somali society.[26]

Current Obstacle: Radicalization within the Diaspora
While the Somali diaspora’s role is mostly positive, it has also contributed some negative elements as well. Youth from the diaspora, radicalized for al-Shabab, have been responsible for multiple suicide attacks during the past three years: in October 2008, Shirwa Ahmed became the first American suicide bomber in an attack in Bosasso;[27] in December 2009, a member of the Danish-Somali diaspora attacked a medical school graduation ceremony at the Hotel Shamo in Mogadishu;[28] in September 2010, Danish-Somalis attacked the Mogadishu airport in a suicide operation;[29] and in May 2011 a member of the American-Somali diaspora attacked AMISOM soldiers in Mogadishu.[30] While not exhaustive, this short list is indicative of al-Shabab’s reliance on foreign youth to wage its suicide terrorist campaign. Al-Shabab looms as the primary spoiler to Somali stability, yet key weaknesses are evident.

The withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Somalia in January 2009 weakened al-Shabab’s narrative. Al-Shabab used the December 2006 Ethiopian invasion and subsequent occupation as a reason to break with the exiled Islamic Courts Union (ICU)[31] and vie for power as the main Somali opposition to the Ethiopians, whose army occupied Mogadishu. From its new position of power, al-Shabab introduced improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks to the Somali battlefield, earning a designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization from the United States in 2008,[32] and courting ties to al-Qa`ida and its regional affiliate, the Yemen-based al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).[33] While al-Shabab’s tactics may have been expedient in the face of Ethiopian occupation, their strategic move to partner with an international, Salafi-jihadi terrorist organization runs counter to many Somali citizens, as the practice of Sufism is widespread in the country.[34] Today, al-Shabab faces opposition from Somali clan-based organizations such as Ahlu-Sunna wal-Jama (ASWJ), which recently renewed its commitment to defeating al-Shabab in Somalia.[35]

Although some reports suggest that diaspora support for al-Shabab has receded since 2009,[36] radicalization clearly continues and al-Shabab has shifted focus to AMISOM targets. Farah Mohamed Beledi, the U.S. citizen involved in the May 30, 2011 attack in Mogadishu, did not depart the United States until October 2009,[37] some 10 months after the Ethiopians withdrew from Somalia. Analysis of diaspora communities, in general, suggests that their members tend to be very active when supportive of a certain cause.[38] In the case of disaffected youth in the Somali diaspora, al-Shabab has been able to capitalize on this feature, as well as the fact that these young people do not have to live with war on a daily basis, making them more susceptible to radicalization in a distant environment.[39]

The Importance of Engaging the Diaspora
President Barack Obama’s recently released “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” both recognizes the current threat posed by radicalization among the diaspora as well as underscores the importance of engaging diaspora communities as part of a comprehensive counterterrorism approach.[40] Improved relations between the diaspora and host countries, especially in the West, would prove significant in further weakening al-Shabab and would have the additional benefit of strengthening the diaspora’s ability to positively influence Somalia during this critical time. Moreover, it reduces the risk of radicalized members of the Somali diaspora being swayed by the more transnational propaganda of al-Qa`ida, an ominous development.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota area is home to the largest Somali community in the United States—a community that wrestles with poverty, crime, and radicalization.[41] Twenty young men from this diaspora community are known to have traveled to Somalia in 2007 and 2008 to fight for al-Shabab.[42] Outreach efforts by local law enforcement[43] as well as a visit earlier this year by Attorney General Eric Holder have been largely well received and stand as a model that should be expanded upon.[44] Somali youth groups, such as the one in St. Paul that organized Holder’s visit in May, should be the key demographic focus for efforts at combating radicalism in the diaspora.

The recent focus on Somalia as a key frontier in the fight against al-Qa`ida increases pressure on al-Shabab and could provide a key ingredient in emboldening Somalis to reduce support for the group. Popular opposition to al-Shabab within Somalia will be important as Somalis elect a new government in August 2012 and seek to take control of their own country. In the year ahead, vigorous and constructive dialogue between host countries and their Somali diaspora community must accompany lethal counterterrorism efforts as a critical element in weakening al-Shabab and paving the way toward a more stable Somalia.

Major Josh Richardson is an officer in the United States Army and a General Wayne Downing Scholar, currently pursuing an M.A. in International Relations and International Economics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

[1] For more on Fazul Mohammad, his death, and Somalia’s reaction, see Abdi Sheikh, “Somalia Vows to Defeat al-Qaida After Killing Fazul Abdullah Mohammed,” Reuters, June 12, 2011.

[2] The suicide attacker from Minnesota, 27-year-old Farah Mohamed Beledi, left the United States for Somalia in October 2009. For more, see Amy Forliti, “FBI Confirms 1 Suicide Bomber in Last Week’s Attack in Mogadishu, Somalia, was Minnesota Man,” Associated Press, June 9, 2011.

[3] Rashid Nuune, Mohamed Odowa, and Yusuf Hagi, “Blast Kills Interior Minister: Minister’s Niece is Alleged Suicide Bomber,”, June 10, 2011.

[4] The accord acknowledges that Somalia is not stable enough to hold national elections in 2011, and includes a declaration from Ugandan President Museveni to oversee the extended mandate.

[5] Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Expands its Drone War into Somalia,” New York Times, July 2, 2011.

[6] Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, also known as al-Shabaab or “the youth,” is descendent of al-Itihad al-Islami (AIAI), a Somali militant group from the mid-1990s. For more, see Claude Heller, “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1853 (2008),” United Nations, March 10, 2010, pp. 14-16. For a listing of al-Shabab suicide operations from 2006-2009, visit

[7] This is especially true for its suicide operations. See Bill Roggio, “Shabaab Suicide Bomber was Danish Citizen,” The Long War Journal, December 9, 2009.

[8] Khadra Elmi, “Distant Voices and the Ties that Bind Identity, Politics and Somali Diaspora Youth,” Accord 21 (2010).

[9] Laura Hammond et al., “Cash and Compassion: The Role of the Somali Diaspora in Relief, Development and Peace-Building,” UNDP Somalia, January 2011, pp. 1, 29.

[10] Ibid., pp. 29-30.

[11] As stated in paragraph 4.c. of the Kampala Accord: “within 30 days of the signing of this agreement, the Prime Minister will resign from his position; and the President will appoint a new Prime Minister.” Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s forced resignation caused widespread protests in Mogadishu. Many Somalis noted that he was the only honest politician in the country; they attributed his ouster to backroom politics, and they fear that rampant corruption will return with his departure. He was living and working in the United States before returning to Somalia to take the position of prime minister. See Jeffrey Gettleman, “Somali Prime Minister Resigns as Part of a Political Deal,” New York Times, June 19, 2011.

[12] Anna Lindley, “The Early-Morning Phonecall: Remittances from a Refugee Diaspora Perspective,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 35:8 (2009).

[13] The World Bank estimates that $325 billion were remitted globally in 2010. Hammond et al., pp. 3, 13; Dilip Ratha and Ibrahim Sirkeci, “Remittances and the Global Financial Crisis,” Migration Letters 7:2 (2010).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hawala means “transfer of debt.” For more on this system, see Anna Lindley, “Between ‘Dirty Money’ and ‘Development Capital’: Somali Money Transfer Infrastructure Under Global Scrutiny,” African Affairs 108:433 (2009).

[16] Lindley, “Between ‘Dirty Money.’” For more on legislation, see H.R. 3162, USA PATRIOT Act Section 373, “Illegal Money Transmitting Businesses,” October 24, 2001, p. 178. Also see the Financial Action Task Force, “Terrorist Financing,” 2008, p. 24, for their reference to “alternate remittance systems (ARS)” as remittances intended for terrorist purposes.

[17] Hammond et al., p. 43.

[18] Lee Cassanelli, “Private Sector Peacemaking: Business and Reconstruction in Somalia,” Accord 21 (2010).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Hammond et al., p. 20.

[21] Hassan Sheikh and Sally Healy, “Somalia’s Mission Million: The Somali Diaspora and its Role in Development,” United Nations, March 2009.

[22] Hammond et al., p. 44.

[23] Lindley, “The Early-Morning Phonecall:  Remittances from a Refugee Diaspora Perspective.”

[24] Within the U.S. Somali diaspora, fewer are under the age of five or over the age of 44 than the national average. See “Counting the Franklin County Somali Population (CRP data byte no. 2),” Community Research Partners, 2009, available at Also see Hammond et al., p. 29.

[25] Hammond et al., p. 40.

[26] Cindy Horst et al., “Participation of Diasporas in Peace-Building and Development: A Handbook for Practitioners and Policymakers,” Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), February 2010.

[27] This was a key event that led to the revelation that 20 young men from the Minneapolis area in the United States had traveled to Somalia to fight for al-Shabab. See Heller, p. 31.

[28] Bill Roggio, “Shabaab Suicide Bomber was Danish Citizen,” The Long War Journal, December 9, 2009.

[29] Alisha Ryu, “Suicide Bombers Attack Mogadishu Airport,” Voice of America, September 9, 2010.

[30] Sheikh, “Somalia Vows to Defeat al-Qaida after Killing Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.”

[31] The ICU came to national prominence in June 2006 by defeating U.S.-supported militia elements in Somalia. The group was popular among Somalis, but following the December 2006 invasion by Ethiopia it was swiftly defeated and reformed in exile in Asmara, Eritrea. While away, al-Shabab, a more militant wing, broke ranks and rose to power in Somalia. For more, see Ken Menkhaus, “Stabilisation and Humanitarian Access in a Collapsed State:  The Somali Case,” Disasters 34 (2010).

[32] Ibid.

[33] Al-Shabab reportedly formed connections to al-Qa`ida in 2009. See Heller, p. 14. Somalia’s neighbor, Yemen, is home to the al-Qa`ida surrogate al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). For more on al-Shabab/AQAP linkages, see Sally Healy and Ginny Hill, “Yemen and Somalia: Terrorism, Shadow Networks, and the Limitations of Statebuilding,” Chatham House, October 2010. More recent connections are discussed in the June 28, 2011, U.S. “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” as well as Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Expands its Drone War into Somalia,” New York Times, July 2, 2011.

[34] Sufi Islam is more moderate, described as “a veil lightly worn.” For more on Sufi Islam and Somalia, see Al-Qa`ida’s (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2006).

[35] “Ahlu Sunna Group Threatens al-Shabaab in Central Somalia,” Shabelle Media Network, June 17, 2011.

[36] Heller, p. 25.

[37] Sheikh, “Somalia Vows to Defeat al-Qaida After Killing Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.”

[38] Horst et al., p. 19.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Barack Obama, “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” U.S. White House, June 28, 2011.

[41] U.S. Census data from 2010 shows that 60,000 Somalis live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. This information was drawn from Hammond et al., p. 29.

[42] Heller, pp. 31-32.

[43] Rupa Shenoy, “Somali Community, Law Enforcement Try to Keep Open a Dialogue,” Minnesota Public Radio, June 11, 2011.

[44] James Walsh, “Attorney General Holder Reaches Out to Somalis, Hears from Protesters,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, May 27, 2011.

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