What we know about Minnesota's connection to the Kenya mall massacre

A video released last month by al-Shabaab showed this photo of Kastigar, a young man who was recruited from Minnesota to jihad and martyrdom in East Africa.
A video released last month by al-Shabaab showed this photo of Kastigar, a young man who was recruited from Minnesota to jihad and martyrdom in East Africa.

On Sunday, reports circulated that two Somali men who recently lived in Minnesota may have taken part in al-Shabaab's massacre of more than 60 civilians at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

But later reports indicated the purportedly Shabaab-managed Twitter account that linked the Minnesota to the attack was a fake. Below the jump, we analyze what we know and don't know at this point about a possible local connection to the carnage.

What we know: English speakers were among the militants responsible for the attack. From the New York Times:

The plot was hatched weeks or months ago on Somali soil, by the Shabab's "external operations arm," officials say. A team of English-speaking foreign fighters was carefully selected, along with a target: Nairobi's gleaming Westgate mall...

Aleem Manji, a Kenyan radio announcer, remembered that as he uttered an Islamic prayer to save his life, the gunman threatening to kill him spoke fluent English.

His accent was "light," Mr. Manji recalled, saying it definitely was not Kenyan.

American officials -- who said they based their reconstruction of the plot on intelligence reports, witness statements and intercepted electronic messages -- say the Shabab may have recruited English speakers from the United States and possibly other Western countries so that they would be able to operate effectively in Kenya, where English, along with Swahili, is the national language. Some survivors, including a newspaper vendor who watched one militant mercilessly shoot a toddler in the legs, said other gunmen had been young and either Somali or Arab.

What we don't: Whether any of the English speakers were really from Minnesota. According to Al Jazeera, Kenya's foreign minister says a Minnesotan was indeed involved, but the following excerpt from a BuzzFeed report explains why there's skepticism about the initial claims of a local connection:

Each time al-Shabaab creates a new Twitter account, the terrorist group verifies its authenticity through emailed press releases or other statements to journalists, in order to combat scores of copycats. But on Sunday, it struggled to control one apparent copycat, @HSM_Press2, which began tweeting out names of several alleged gunmen within the mall -- including the two Americans from Minnesota.

These tweets were picked up by major news organizations like CNN and NBC News. But the al-Shabaab press office never verified that account, and a spokesman denied the names were legitimate to multiple journalists.

"The account that published the names is fake and the names are fake," an al-Shabaab spokesman reportedly told Al Jazeera English reporter Hamza Mohamed. "The names circulating have nothing to do with us."

Jason Straziuso, an Associated Press reporter, tweeted that his sources seconded that statement.

What we know: Reports have linked Twin Cities mosques with the sudden and unexpected relocation of dozens of young Somalis from Minnesota to Somalia over the past six years. From an in-depth 2009 New York Post report:

So: Who in Minnesota is recruiting these young men?

Suspicion, within and without the community, has fallen on local mosques - two in particular. There is the largest and oldest, Abubakar As-Saddique in Minnneapolis, and a smaller, newer one, the Islamic Da'wah Center of St. Paul...

It is from both Da'wah and As-Saddique that several of the men have disappeared, though both As-Saddique's Sheikh Omar and Da'wah's imam, Hasan Mohamud (also an adjunct professor at the local law school) say there is no way their mosque is promoting radicalization or Jihad.

"This is a witch hunt," says Mohamud, who is known in the community for making incendiary comments about suicide bombers (acceptable in the case of Palestinians doing it to the Jews) and America ("hell"). He is getting ready to conduct a lesson on whether technology is evil, via PowerPoint. "You will not find any fingerprints relating to this here. Zero. Unless it is a framing." He will concede that at least one of the boys who went missing on Nov. 4 was a member of his mosque. But, he says, "We don't know when they left and why they left." Pause. "Some of them left for health reasons. They have a type of mental illness, and, uh, here the doctors could not help, and that's why they take them to Somalia. Because they have an original way to cure that. He is coming back, by the way." The families aren't buying any of it. They are convinced that these places, institutions they trusted more than any other, have been brainwashing and radicalizing their young men.

What we know: Somalis recruited for jihad in Minneapolis have martyred themselves before. From a October 2011 NBC News report:

A man who blew himself up in an attack in the Somali capital on Saturday reportedly grew up in Minneapolis and was known by the FBI as one of 20 Somali Americans to have joined an al-Qaida-linked militant group...

According to The Minneapolis Star Tribune, [Abdisalan Hussein Ali] graduated from Edison High School and attended the University of Minnesota, where he was a pre-med student, The Times reported. He disappeared in 2008...

The young man in the tape had an American accent and mixed Muslim terminology with American slang as he urged Muslims to carry out attacks against non-Muslims around the world.

"My brothers and sisters, do jihad in America, do jihad in Canada, do jihad in England, anywhere in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in China, in Australia," the voice on the al-Shabab tape said. "Anywhere you find (unbelievers), fight them and be firm against them.

"Today jihad is what is most important thing for the Muslim ummah," he said, using a word for the Islamic community. "It is not important that you, you know, you you become a doctor or you become, you know, uh, some sort of engineer."

"We have to believe in Allah and die as Muslims ... Brainstorm," the youth said. "Don't, don't just sit around and, you know, be, be be a couch potato and you know, you know, just like, you know, just chill all day, you know. It doesn't, it doesn't, it will not benefit you, it will not benefit yourself, or the Muslims."

For more on this topic, also check out our blog post from last month, "Al-Shabaab recruitment video features men who traveled from Mpls to Somalia for jihad."

What we know: Twin Cities Somali leaders have condemned al-Shabaab's latest attack and are skeptical about the alleged local connection. From Al Jazeera:

On Monday, just after midday prayers at the Abubakar as-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis, leaders representing about 20 organizations condemned the Nairobi mall attack and defended their community.

"The perpetrators of this barbaric act do not share our Islamic values," said Abdi Salam Adam of the Islamic Civil Society of America. "In fact, extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliate al-Shabab have done more harm to Islam and Muslims over the years."...

As community leaders in Minneapolis attempt to stem recruiting by warning young people about the dangers of extremist ideologies, they are bracing for what the Nairobi attack could mean for their community.

"We are a very peaceful people. We are wonderful people," said Rahmo Omar, a Somali-American. "The scars and the wounds that we carry from Somalia have devastated us, and for us to be associated with terrible people like this, it affects me."

And from Public Radio International:

As suspicions fell that some of the Nairobi terrorists were from Minnesota, the community response was swift, according to Zuhur Ahmed, 28, a former host of a radio show for the Somali community in the Twin Cities. She said, "Somalia's religious leaders denounced and condemned the terror attacks and made it clear to the world that al-Shabab doesn't represent the Somalis and the Muslim faith."

Ahmed has doubts that members of the community were part of the Nairobi attack. In the past, she said, when someone from the Minnesota Somali community was involved in a terrorist act, word got around. There was nothing said this time, she said...

What makes these young Somali American men ripe for recruitment by groups such as al-Shabab, said Ahmed, goes back to "a sense of belonging. It's an identity crisis and there's this group that is somehow indoctrinating them, telling them you belong here. Their mission statement seems to be attractive to these lost young men."

-- Follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter at @atrupar. Got a tip? Drop him a line at [email protected]

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