Terror Starts Small
In the first terrorism case here since 9/11, a St. Louis taxi driver hooks up with Al-Qaida.
Illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love
Mohamud Abdi Yusuf was 6-foot-1 and skinny, 145 pounds, with sloped shoulders, long limbs that bent at sharp angles, and an Adam’s apple bobbling in his dark throat. If he’d had less poise, he might have seemed awkward. But his dark, almond-shaped eyes met the world with measured calm, and the trait people remarked upon, as they came to know him, was his peacefulness. Yusuf greeted all news, good or bad, with the same equanimity. “Alhamdulillah,” he would murmur, his emotions never zagging too far above or below the still point. Alhamdulillah, all thanks to Allah.
He spent his days driving to and from Lambert–St. Louis International Airport with fares, some anxious about traveling, some cranky, some grateful. He chatted with them politely—his English was good—and whiled away the lulls between fares listening to world news on the radio; talking to the other Somali drivers; arguing a bit, as was their norm; and praying. He made between $1,500 and $2,000 a month, and he regularly sent money back to his wife, who was still living in a refugee camp in Kenya.
Evenings, Yusuf went home to Pear Tree Village Apartments, a bland complex in St. Ann. There was a pool on the other side of the complex, but his unit, at 10878 Pear Blossom, overlooked a cyclone fence and, beyond it, Interstate 70. To save on rent, he shared the two-bedroom apartment, with its beige-painted wood trim and parking right outside the door, with two other men. The only complaint neighbor Virginia Barnhart ever heard was that the Somali drivers parked their taxis at her end of the complex, not their own.
Yusuf’s daily routine never varied—until Monday, November 1, 2010. Early that morning, agents from the FBI’s local Joint Terrorism Task Force showed up at the airport and placed Mohamud Yusuf under arrest. An indictment had been filed 10 days earlier, under seal. He was charged with six counts, including conspiring to support—and providing material support for—
a terrorist organization.
By 10:30 a.m., the agents were ushering other Somali taxi drivers, one at a time, into small rooms at the airport. Do you ever send money overseas? To whom? What trips have you taken? What rumors are you hearing? Anyone we should be worried about? They were asked for their cellphone memory cards, their computers. Messages flew on the cabbies’ radios, with the scandal instantly translated into Somali terms: The FBI thinks your clan are terrorists. Several drivers, panicked, called James Hacking III, a civil-rights and immigration lawyer who is Muslim.
The calls shocked Hacking: He’d been Yusuf’s immigration attorney. Indeed, Yusuf’s had been the only rejected application in a batch of three-dozen clients; the rest were now citizens. The cabbie had come regularly to Hacking’s office, usually showing up after work in his black pants and white shirt. He’d remained patient, reasonable, and grateful when confronted by interminable requests for additional evidence. The official rejection had arrived in July 2010, without explanation.
Hacking’s head spun. Yusuf had always said he “wasn’t political.” Backing terrorists? And the other drivers were being questioned without lawyers present? After 9/11, Hacking had worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri to set up a Muslim Rights Task Force. He’d also worked with the FBI, when Somalis needed to be located after a terrorist threat was issued. He dialed, fast, trying several times to reach the agents out at the airport. This time, they weren’t taking his calls.
He called the ACLU. Its program director, John Chasnoff, publicly criticized law enforcement for acting “so rashly and harshly.” A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter wrote about the way the other drivers were “rounded up.” KSDK-TV received a statement, signed Concerned Muslims of St. Louis, calling Yusuf’s arrest “another trumped up case against an immigrant Muslim for sending money to relatives.” After noon prayers that Friday, Nurudeen, Yusuf’s imam, stood in front of his mosque—Masjid Umar, in the Mark Twain neighborhood—and spoke of Yusuf’s humility. He’d been a hafiz, someone who knows the Quran by heart, and he’d often led prayers there.
At Yusuf’s initial court appearance, public defender Nanci McCarthy tried to explain what sounded like a suspicious string of aliases: “Mohamud Abdi Yusuf, a.k.a. Sheikh Hassan, Hassan Dhunkaal, and Mohamoud Yusuf Dhunkaal.” Yusuf was known as Sheikh Hassan because of his religious training, she said, and Dhunkaal was a family name.
(Yusuf’s father was named Abdi Haussein. Somalis take the father’s first name as a middle name—Abdi—and the paternal grandfather’s first name as a third name. So Yusuf—Joseph, in English—would have been a paternal grandfather, but Dhunkaal could have been another relative.)
Self-possessed as ever, Yusuf said he was not guilty and quietly assured the judge, “In the beginning, I will try to hire my own lawyer.” He chose Douglas Forsyth, an experienced criminal-defense lawyer. As soon as Forsyth learned that the case rested on years of wiretapped phone conversations, he issued a legal challenge to the government’s use of secret surveillance.
On February 9, 2011, a Post editorial noted, “There was no great outcry of local concern, and for good reason. The amount involved was about $6,000, parceled out and wired abroad over at least 18 months… Most analysts believe al-Shabaab’s links to al-Qaida are weak… At worst, then, St. Louis may have been home to a relatively low-level operative who had been sending small amounts of cash to an Islamist group deeply committed to one side of a struggle for power in a failed state with no functioning government.”
Years of investigation, hundreds of hours of wiretapped phone calls approved by a special judicial panel, massive resources and time committed, questionable challenges to individual liberty, all over a few thousand dollars sent in a burst of patriotism? The government had probably spent 100 times that amount preparing this case—the first international terrorism case prosecuted in the Eastern District of Missouri since 9/11. Were the feds just posturing?
Mohamud Abdi Yusuf was born on the first day of 1980. When he was 5, his father, a merchant, died of an illness. When Mohamud was 11, his country broke into bits. Warlords of opposing clans overthrew a 22-year dictatorship and turned on each other. Clans fought in the streets, and Yusuf’s mother was fatally injured in a mob attack. After she died, Yusuf, his sister, and his brother set out by boat for a refugee camp in Kenya.
They arrived 15 days later, hungry, parched, and weak. The overcrowded, tightly circumscribed camp would be Yusuf’s home—indeed, his entire world—for the next 10 years.
He stayed close to his brother and formed a lasting friendship with a young man named Duane Diriye. At 20, Yusuf married a young Muslim woman named Nadia Osman Farah. At 21, he came to the U.S. ahead of his wife as a refugee. His brother and sister came, too. Diriye—who shares their Somali blood but is now a Kenyan citizen—stayed behind.
Once in the States, the siblings soon separated. Yusuf lived first in Kansas City, where an immigration officer suggested he wait for his citizenship before applying to bring his wife here. He worked on a loading dock and washed cars. In 2002, he moved to St. Louis and began driving for Express Airport Cab.
In 2006, as a permanent resident of the U.S., he applied for citizenship. Two years passed. In 2008, he hired Hacking in the hope of speeding his application.
“He didn’t talk much about Somalia,” Hacking remembers, “but he sorely missed his wife. She was mad at him because it was taking so long to get her here.” To Hacking’s knowledge, the couple had seen each other only once since Yusuf left Kenya, meeting in Djibouti in 2004. His solitude raised a few eyebrows. “Most people bring their wife here or go there,” explains a Somali-American, who, like almost all of his compatriots, did not want to be named in this story. “That’s what the religion says. It’s a sin if you are actually away from your wife.”
Yusuf waited. He greeted those around him with the serene, patient acceptance that Islam teaches—but he couldn’t relax into it. Recreation never seemed like an option; he always felt like he should be doing something.
He followed the news. The year he applied for citizenship, the Islamic Courts Union captured Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, and began to impose order—the order of Shariah. To like-minded Muslims sick of chaos, this meant sweet relief. To moderates and outsiders, the extremes were terrifying. Members of the band Mogadishu Stars were flogged with electrical cables for playing music at a wedding celebration—which was broken up because men and women were socializing together. People were arrested for watching videos, given 40 lashes for using marijuana. An Islamic court official announced that residents in his town who did not pray five times a day would be beheaded.
By the year’s end, Ethiopian troops had flooded the capital to help the shaky Somali government retake it. This enraged young Somalis; the Ethiopians were ancient enemies. Separated by religion and a disputed border, the two countries had traded crusades and jihads since the early 1400s.
Young Somali males, most of them still in their teens, formed a fierce military wing to the Islamic Courts Union. They named themselves al-Shabaab, “the Youth.”
In 2007, al-Shabaab joined other militants to fight government, Ethiopian, and African Union forces. Mothers and children were killed by the rebels’ land mines; journalists were shot. Doctors Without Borders reported that in Mogadishu, civilians hit by bullets or shrapnel during the night were bleeding to death, because they couldn’t get past the violence in the streets to reach a hospital. The Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre reported 5,960 civilians killed in 2007 in Mogadishu alone.
On January 1, 2008—Yusuf’s 28th birthday—placid St. Louis couldn’t have seemed more remote. The day was cold and gray—weather he’d never seen growing up in the white light of Somalia, one of the hottest countries on earth. A skinny, contradictory strip along the Horn of Africa, Somalia is edged by ocean, yet parched for water. Instead of isolated farm families who stay put for 100 years, there are nomads who herd camels with their clansmen. Poverty is commonplace, but so are the gifts of kings: Myrrh grows on trees, and women burn frankincense after meals to perfume the air.
Yusuf rarely talked to Americans about his homeland. His friends here would have been jolted to hear his voice that day, as he talked to a Somali friend in San Diego about sending money to the “Kuni-Kuni children.” (The phrase was code for al-Shabaab, as were “the skull-breakers,” “the teeth grinders,” “the runts,” “the general cause,” and “the common purpose.”) Two weeks later, the friend put Yusuf in charge of fundraising efforts in Ohio, California, and Missouri.
In Yusuf’s indictment, this San Diego friend is not named. He is referred to only as UCC1 (unindicted co-conspirator No. 1). Others are mentioned only by initials, including I.D. and M.K. But an indictment filed a day later in San Diego charged a Somali taxi driver named Basaaly Saeed Moalin—along with a man named Issa Doreh and an imam sometimes known as Mohamed Khadar—with conspiring to support, and providing material support for, al-Shabaab.
According to the San Diego indictment, on January 20, 2008, Moalin spoke with Aden Hashi Ayrow, then commander of al-Shabaab. The following day, Yusuf’s San Diego friend said he’d spoken to “the gentleman”—code for Ayrow.
The U.S. believed Ayrow had sheltered al-Qaida members wanted for the 1998 bombings of American embassies, and he was now known as al-Qaida’s arm in Somalia. He’d also been accused of desecrating an Italian graveyard, killing a BBC journalist, and planning suicide attacks across Somalia. He had famously eluded one attempt after another to capture or kill him.
Yusuf warned his San Diego friend they should conceal support for al-Shabaab, “to avoid having the enemy rejoice.” In the (supposed) safety of their conversations, they could strategize.
Yusuf was about to become part of work that held deep meaning for him, that flowed out of his strong convictions, and that reconnected him with his clansmen. Supporting al-Shabaab would bring him close to the country he’d been forced to leave at 11. And it would quench his hatred—and no doubt, his dead parents’ hatred—of the Ethiopians who’d invaded time and again.
Five weeks after Yusuf took charge of fundraising in three states, the U.S. designated al-Shabaab a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Announced in a State Department press release, the news didn’t exactly make headlines. Did Yusuf even know? In the end, it wouldn’t matter. “You either have to know that the organization is on the list or you have to know that the organization is involved in acts of terror,” explains Richard Callahan, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri. Al-Shabaab’s track record of targeted assassinations, suicide bombings, kidnappings, use of land mines and automatic weapons, and threats slipped under the door at night—all intended to subvert Somalia’s transitional government—qualified as terrorism. And the wiretaps would show that Yusuf knew of the group’s violence and its intent.
By spring, he and his San Diego friend were talking about creating a team of “elites” to help fund al-Shabaab. Moalin, according to the San Diego indictment, had already begun sending money to Somalia—and on April 12, Ayrow told him, “It is the time to finance the jihad.”
Less than three weeks later, Ayrow was dead, killed in a U.S. missile strike. It was Yusuf who informed his San Diego friend that planes had targeted “Slim Limbs’ house”—meaning Ayrow, whom they would now refer to reverently as “the deceased father.”
In mid-May, Yusuf was told, “Fifty of the Ethiopians have been…eh…eh laid to waste in the forest.” With his usual restraint, he replied, “They are gone.” Two days later, listening to details of a firefight, Yusuf asked, “Are those the men who used to be led by Mohamed [Dhere]?” He was referring to the former warlord who became mayor of Mogadishu in 2007; he’d fought against al-Shabaab.
Told these were indeed Dhere’s men, Yusuf asked how many had been shot. When the other man said that both Ethiopians and Somalis had been involved in the clash, Yusuf said, “They are the same. There is no distinction between the two,” presumably meaning that any Somali who sided with the government was no better than the enemy. “Don’t let them sleep,” he urged the other man, who assured him, “The operations are progressing. Every day is a new job.”
Later in May, Yusuf and his old friend, Diriye, talked about al-Shabaab’s resolve to shoot anyone who noticed triggers to their buried land mines or improvised explosive devices. Diriye said that al-Shabaab had been fighting Ethiopian, Ugandan, and government troops, and at least four government soldiers and one civilian had been killed in Mogadishu. In another call, he reported triumphantly that the “skull-breakers” had a new technique for destroying armored vehicles. If it worked, they would finally be taken seriously.
Throughout May, Yusuf talked often with a man in Minneapolis, Abdi Mahdi Hussein, about ways to send $5,000 anonymously to Somalia. Hussein worked for a hawala called Qaran Financial Express. People use hawalas (the word means “trust”) to send money to Somalia, which hasn’t had a national bank since 1991. Loved ones can go to a hawala; identify themselves by name, clan, and relatives; and claim the money. There’s little official record-keeping, making this an ideal way to fund terrorism—although Callahan points out that “to some degree, transfers of money can be traced. Also, you have people coming forward.”
Since 9/11, the U.S. has cracked down on the money flow, so Yusuf and Hussein were strategizing: The money would have to be broken into small transfers, each less than $3,000, with various names used for senders and recipients.
On May 21, Hussein confirmed three transactions in code—“25 shillings” ($2,500), “17 sweaters” ($1,700), and “eight shirts” ($800). “Add the sum of the numbers,” he told Yusuf, “and let the work begin.”
The next day, Yusuf traveled to Minneapolis and met Hussein and another man at Karmel Square, an old warehouse rehabbed into a souk, bright with Somali fabrics and gift shops. There was a food court, a barbershop, a pool hall—and Qaran Financial Express.
More false-name transactions followed that meeting, as did transactions in the name of a Somali woman in Tennessee. Yusuf had called her and begged permission to use her name for “the common purpose.” He told her that if anyone asked, she should say that Diriye was her son.
On Memorial Day weekend 2008, Yusuf talked to his San Diego friend—and it was this conversation that began Yusuf’s undoing. The U.S. government lets most of its wiretapped investigations go unprosecuted, because their main purpose is national security, and because taking them to trial is extraordinarily difficult. But this case was different: Yusuf was about to give them not only evidence that he was funding terrorists, but also evidence that he knew exactly what use those terrorists would make of his money.
He talked repeatedly about raising $5,000 so al-Shabaab could buy a vehicle. Two weeks later, his San Diego friend told him that al-Shabaab was involved in intense fighting against the Ethiopians, and a vehicle would be used to transport 25 fighters, hide equipment, and complete tactical operations. They discussed supporting al-Shabaab because al-Shabaab could inflict the most pain. Diriye, in a separate conversation, described how al-Shabaab fighters jump out of their vehicle, kill their targets, get back in, and flee, because the vehicle can blend in with surrounding traffic.
Yusuf was becoming a player. Diriye introduced him, by phone, to Sheikh Saaid, who led a group of al-Shabaab soldiers. Yusuf sent money, this time using a different hawala, Mustaqbal, run by North American Money Transfer. Some of the money he’d raised from other Somalis in Missouri, but some was his own. One wonders whether his wife knew, and whether she approved of his commitment. Al-Shabaab certainly did; Diriye reported that the organization was pleased with Yusuf and would congratulate him. For a quiet man, orphaned at 11, with no high-school diploma and only his passengers’ tips as praise, it must have been heady validation.
In early July, Yusuf spoke again with Sheikh Saaid and urged him to convey Yusuf’s regards to the young men who were fighting. Saaid was to promise them that Yusuf would continue raising money for them. In July, Yusuf said he wanted to send $2,000 to support al-Shabaab and other insurgents and care for wounded fighters and civilians. His San Diego friend provided his brother’s Bank of America account. (The indictment gives the brother’s initials, W.S.M., which would match Moalin’s surname.) Yusuf went to Bank of America in Missouri and deposited $2,000 into that account. Two days later, the money was withdrawn in San Diego.
On July 18, Moalin and a co-conspirator reportedly discussed the need to “lay low” and keep sending money under the “pretense” of helping the poor. On July 23, according to his indictment, Moalin allegedly sent $1,650 to Somalia, which matches $1,650 sent on the same day by Yusuf’s San Diego friend. He used a hawala called Shidaal Express (Moalin’s co-conspirator Issa Doreh worked at Shidaal Express—as did I.D. in Yusuf’s indictment) and named the recipient as Omar Mataan (who was a member of al-Shabaab).
Late that fall, Ethiopia began to withdraw its troops from Somalia. By January 31, 2009, when moderate Islamist Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was sworn in as president, al-Shabaab controlled a large chunk of Somalia.
Ahmed called for a united front against al-Shabaab’s violent extremism. Al-Shabaab responded by exhorting fighters to intensify their holy war. On March 19, Osama bin Laden urged them to overthrow the new president.
On the morning of April 8, 2009, more than a dozen FBI agents banged through the double glass doors of the Village Market in Minneapolis. They found Abdirahman Omar, general manager of the Mustaqbal Express hawala, just opening for business. He peered at the warrant, authorized in St. Louis, and remembered a raid of North American Money Transfer’s St. Louis office the previous year.
Agents spent the next five hours combing through records and interviewing employees. Over at Karmel Square, Qaran Financial Express was also getting raided.
North American Money Transfer denied any wrongdoing and agreed to provide the names of individuals who sent hawala cash over an 18-month period.
In July 2010, the U.S. denied Yusuf citizenship.
The next month, the U.S. attorney general announced the results of an investigation into al-Shabaab supporters in the U.S. Fourteen individuals from Alabama, Minnesota, and California were charged with providing material support; 10 of the 14 were charged with leaving the U.S. to fight with al-Shabaab.
On October 21, Yusuf, Diriye, and Hussein were indicted. The following day, an indictment was handed up in San Diego for Basaaly Saeed Moalin, Issa Doreh, their imam, and another co-conspirator.
Ten days later, federal agents flanked Moalin just as he was about to board a flight to Kenya. He and his co-defendants maintain their innocence; their trial was scheduled to begin as we went to press.
Yusuf was arrested in St. Louis on November 1; Hussein in Minneapolis the following day. Diriye’s capture would take a little longer.
Somali in St. Louis, arrested for funding terrorists? Sheiknur Hassan went from person to person asking, “Who is that one? Can you picture him for me? Is this true? Is it true that he sent money?” His broad, smooth forehead furrows as he remembers the shock and confusion. “I ask it so many times, I get a headache. So much pressure, as an elder. You go to the grocery store and people say, ‘Sheiknur, do you have any information about this case?’ You can’t say, ‘I don’t know.’ So I tried to figure this thing through, to understand.”
Hassan was one of the first Somali refugees to arrive in St. Louis, given priority because his wife had cancer. Doctors here saved her life. He became a caseworker and interpreter, helping to hold the emerging community together. In the city, he knows every Somali’s name, family, background, clan. Years ago, when the FBI was worried about radical influence spreading from Minneapolis, Hassan assured them that our community was different—smaller, more tightly knit.
The cabdrivers out in the county, though, were different. They came from other cities; they had no families; they lived near the airport; they didn’t always plug in. “This guy, I don’t know his background,” Hassan says in pure frustration.
I ask him how Somalis reacted to the court proceedings—did they think Yusuf had been treated fairly? “It’s a good question,” he says, nodding judiciously. “I could not be in court that day, so I asked people who went. Some said, ‘He was cool’ or ‘He was polite,’ and some said, ‘His case is heavy.’ I said, ‘Why is it heavy?’ They said, ‘They have evidence. They record telephone—what is talking, who talked, and the one who sent the money.’ That’s why some of them are not worried. They were satisfied.”
Hassan is Bantu, a long-oppressed minority that doesn’t belong to either of Somalia’s two major clans, Hawiye (Yusuf’s clan, according to the Terror Free Somalia Foundation) and Darod, nor to any of the hundreds of smaller clans and subclans. At boarding school in Mogadishu, Hassan learned to differentiate the clans’ dialects, slang, histories, and traits. (“Hawiye, their face is big, not a small shape,” he says. “Darod, they look like black Arabians.”) But Hassan despises the way tribalism shredded his country. “Here, we start over together,” he says. “Darod, Hawiye, and Bantu, we all start at zero, the same place.
“This al-Shabaab”—he writes the name on a piece of paper and draws lines branching from it. “Why would people join? There is famine. So, financial.” He labels the first line. “The family is suffering; they are dying; they don’t have anything. If you hire two young boys, and you say to the family, ‘I will give you $400 a month’…”
He scribbles out the second spoke—al-Shabaab has moved beyond its clan origins, attracting all clans and foreigners as well. He traces hard over the third: “Religion.” According to testimony from a Minneapolis recruit, al-Shabaab aims to conquer Somalia’s neighbors and keep going “all the way to Jerusalem.”
“But now I become very happy,” Hassan says. “The people get mature. They now understand that what the religion al-Shabaab is telling them, the propaganda, is not right.” Evidence mounts: the girl buried up to her neck and stoned to death for adultery in Somalia in 2008 (her aunt said she’d been raped); the bomb that killed 74 people as they watched the 2010 World Cup in Uganda; two teenage girls executed as government spies in Somalia later that year; the refusal of aid from the West during Somalia’s 2012 drought, the worst in six decades; the beheadings of traitors; the assassinations of international aid work-
ers and at least 10 journalists in 2012 alone.
“People understand that this is not their religion,” Hassan repeats. He taps the money spoke: “The second thing I am happy about: collapsing. No power. The young boys, they have not enough salary to give them, so they are coming out. The president and prime minister are saying, ‘We need to give them a job. Also, we give them forgiveness [amnesty].’ They are integrated into society. We start over now.”
Although the Somalis I spoke with in St. Louis were dismayed that someone would support al-Shabaab (“It’s our own people just killing each other for no reason!”), the phenomenon is familiar to them. But Larry Searcy, one of Yusuf’s American friends, still can’t get his mind around the indictment. “What they are portraying him to be, he wasn’t,” he says. “He was loving and kind, humble and respectful, concerned about everyone. I’d never seen him get angry about anything.” Searcy came to know Yusuf at Masjid Umar. “He took everything and tried to find peace within it. He tried to find solutions to every problem.”
What could have drawn him from peacefulness to war? Old wounds we can’t know, maybe—deaths or injuries to people he loved. Loyalty to friends or clan members who were part of al-Shabaab. Resentment of the invaders. In 2011, a Minneapolis man pleaded guilty to enlisting young men in the U.S. to fight with al-Shabaab; several of the men later admitted they knew nothing of the group, but simply wanted to fight the Ethiopian invaders, who they had heard were raping women and burning mosques.
Are grudges or loyalties enough to turn a peaceful man to war? They have for centuries. But Yusuf was a deeply religious man; somehow, the shift would have to mesh with his beliefs.
When I heard a rumor that at one point, a Salafi faction tried to influence Masjid Umar, it felt like a clue. Somalis used to lean toward the more moderate, nonjudgmental spiritual practices of Sufism, but after years of confusion and bloodshed, the Salafi movement has gained strength in Somalia. Members of al-Shabaab embrace Salafism. Omar Hammami, an American of Syrian descent, went to fight with al-Shabaab after connecting with a Salafi teacher.
I ask Jonathan Brown, a Muslim convert who is an associate professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, to explain Salafism. The word itself is useless, he warns: “It’s just a school of thought, a reform impulse that became prominent in the 18th century.” The goal was to strip away cultural elaborations and superstitions and return to the earliest teachings, from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, 632, to about 720. Most Salafi scholars today are politically quietist, discouraging rebellion because it brings chaos.
But the more literal and absolutist that Salafism is, the harder it becomes to find a place where its seventh-century views won’t be surrounded by threats and contradictions. The inflection point—the place where Salafism turns political and flips into jihad—is a practice called takfir: pronouncing a person or group of people non-Muslim because they are too deviant, too corrupted, to meet the standard. Once a country is pronounced non-Muslim, it becomes what’s called, in classical Islam, an abode of war—and Muslims are no longer obligated to be at peace with it.
In Somalia, when the Islamic Courts Union banished secular chaos with Shariah law, in their minds, “they were setting up a place where Muslims could live peacefully,” Brown says. “Then the Christian Ethiopians invade, supported by Christian America, which supports the Jewish occupation of the Holy Land. Put yourself in that position. And remember, in their view of the world, they don’t see anything after the time of the early Muslims as having any meaning.”
Concepts of liberal democracy, or of human rights as a global mandate, don’t fit into a seventh-century worldview.
While Diriye was still at large in Kenya, he told BBC Somali Service radio that he’d been a mere businessman, not a terrorist. Traveling to Mogadishu, he said, he was approached by armed guards who told him about the death of martyrs and their need for a $5,000 truck. He said Yusuf sent money to guarantee his old friend’s safety, and yes, of course they used code words—everyone did, to avoid being overheard.
Could the funding have begun so innocently? “That would not be consistent with the evidence,” says Sean Cox, who until recently was deputized to lead the FBI’s St. Louis Division.
Diriye has been released pending extradition—which isn’t an easy process. “I understand it can take up to three years to extradite somebody from Canada,” groans Callahan. It’s not even clear yet whether Kenya has a supporting-terrorism statute that mirrors ours; if not, it won’t extradite. “It’s not,” Callahan says dryly, “an arrival that we expect anytime soon.”
Hussein initially pleaded not guilty, then changed his plea and admitted he’d sent $21,000 overseas for Yusuf, using false ID and small transactions. He was charged with illegally structuring financial transactions, not with terrorism-related crimes. Yet in the wiretapped conversations, Yusuf tells him to be in the state of highest alert, because someone will come to him with “two for the general purpose.” Yusuf says if anyone discovers their transactions, they can deny having seen or worked with each other. And Yusuf says that after their last transaction, Hussein will not see him again, and they can deny knowing each other.
“[Hussein] stated, and we believe, that while he was sending the money under fictitious names, he did not know, and it was not his intent, to be sending money over to al-Shabaab,” Callahan stresses. “False names are sometimes used for purposes that have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism, just a distrust
Last April, Hussein was sentenced to three years’ probation.
As for Yusuf, one year after his arrest, on November 3, 2011, he, too, changed his plea to “guilty” for four of the charges; the remaining two were dropped. Four times, as each felony charge was read in court, he repeated, “I did it.” In his plea agreement, he admitted to sending money to support al-Shabaab; raising money for a vehicle that would help al-Shabaab kill targets and flee; learning about video of civilians wounded by al-Shabaab; hearing about Ethiopians “laid to waste in the forest.” He’d also sent the $21,000 through Hussein, and if you connect a few dots, the lines lead to the San Diego indictment, possibly adding thousands more to the al-Shabaab funding stream.
Yusuf was sentenced to 140 months in federal prison, with a projected release date of December 2020—at which point he will be deported. Because he pleaded guilty, his attorney’s legal challenge to the secret surveillance is now moot.
With federal agencies’ newly networked information-gathering, the world has grown small. Now that we’ve given up our inviolable privacy, global terrorism is no longer remote, impenetrable, and anonymous.
Not when you can tear a few threads off the cloak and follow them back to a soft-spoken taxi driver in St. Louis.
In February 2012, after years of joint training and overlapping leadership, al-Shabaab announced its official merger with al-Qaida.
Osama bin Laden had counseled against making the alliance public: In a 2010 letter found after his death, he urged al-Shabaab’s leader to tell the people of Somalia that “the unity has taken place,” but “without any official declaration by any officers on our side or your side.” Members should acknowledge only “a brotherly Islamic connection,” he instructed; anything more explicit “would have the enemies escalate their anger and mobilize against you.”
Now bin Laden is dead, and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, doesn’t share his caution. This November, al-Zawahiri encouraged al-Shabaab to continue fighting, and to make foreign troops taste “the fire of jihad and its heat.”
The U.S. continues to fight terrorism in Somalia with unmanned drones and missile strikes. Ethiopia, the Somali government, and African Union troops have pressed hard in recent months, routing al-Shabaab from its strongholds. Somalis have marched in the streets to protest the group’s violence.
But other Somalis still respect the group for bringing in security and Shariah and resisting the customary governmental corruption.
After al-Shabaab announced its link to al-Qaeda, Jamal Osman, a reporter for Britain’s Channel 4 News, interviewed al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Dhere (see the video here). They spoke of the drones and missile strikes the West continues to use against terrorists in Somalia. “I would like to tell Europe and America that your peace depends on us being left alone,” Dhere began. Asked whether the West was right to be afraid that al-Qaeda would now use Somalia as a base, he said, “Those who commit injustice have a lot to be afraid of. The non-Muslim West has done many injustices to the Muslim people.”
Even while under heavy attack in recent months, al-Shabaab countered with more suicide bombings and attacks on the Somali ministers of defense, interior, and justice. And the flow of U.S. money—and lives—has not stopped.
Back in July 2011, the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on al-Shabaab’s amazing recruiting success: more than 40 young men, many Americans, “radicalized.”
“Not al-Qaida nor any of its affiliates have come close to drawing so many Muslim-Americans and Westerners to jihad,” noted Rep. Peter King, R–N.Y., chairman of the committee.
That’s what’s keeping al-Shabaab alive.
That, and money from abroad.