By Eric Sabo
For the past year and a half, Abdiraham Sheik Mohamud, a 23-year-old Columbus resident born in Somalia, was being watched by law enforcement. Reading through his emails, investigators learned that Mohamud planned to join the ranks of jihadists fighting in Syria. He updated his Facebook page around March 10, 2013, with a picture of armed men holding a black flag, often a symbol of terrorist organizations such as ISIS. One informant said Mohamud talked about killing U.S. allies in battle. Another said that Mohamud, after returning from Syria, wanted to execute three or four American soldiers at a Texas military base. In the end, on the same day that the Islamic militant group Al-Shabaab called for attacks on American malls, the F.B.I. arrested Mohamud without incident at his home on the city’s west side. He awaits trial on two counts of terrorism and lying to Federal agents.
According to the Department of Justice indictment, “Mohamud wanted to kill Americans, and specifically wanted to target armed forces, police officers, or any uniformed individuals.”
“We should not have our reputation tarnished because of one bad apple.”
The arrest has unnerved the Somali community in Columbus, one of the country’s largest. Out of the thousands of foreign fighters who have joined jihadist battles in Syria and Iraq, very few are from the U.S. But authorities have voiced alarm over a troubling number of Somali men who left Minnesota to train with terror groups. Now, those suspicions are drifting towards Columbus.
“We are no different from the rest of America, but Somalis are under fire,” says Omar Hassan of the Columbus-based Somali Community Association of Ohio. “We should not have our reputation tarnished because of one bad apple.”
At its heart, Columbus is a college football town dominated by prosperous, mostly white suburbs. Somalis began arriving in the Ohio capitol about 20 years ago, part of a secondary migration after initially fleeing to other cities because of the East African nation’s 1991 civil war. Drawn by cheap real estate and extended family ties, many have settled near my former neighborhood in Westerville, just north of Columbus.
The modest stretch crossed by Morse Road and Cleveland Avenue was never pretty, but there’s a disheveled look since the centerpiece Northland Mall closed in 2002. Once propped up by Frisch’s Big Boy and grocery chains, the adjoining strip of storefronts now includes Vietnamese restaurants, Mexican taquerias, and a Somali market that sells cell phone cards and bright traditional dresses. A new mosque, Columbus’s sixth, is planned to replace a boarded-up Value City Furniture, squeezed between the High Performance bowling alley and Saint Phillips Baptist Church.
Abdulkadir Aden runs the Somali American Chamber of Commerce from his back office in the African Food Marketplace on Cleveland Avenue. Dressed in an ankle-length sarong, Aden hears occasional shouts to “go home” in the decade he’s lived here. The second-generation teenage boys, sporting jeans, tend to fit in better, though the girls, wearing hijabs to cover their hair, still face annoying taunts. Many of the apartment buildings in the area are cramped with large families. There’s crime, and employers are not always understanding of the Muslim call to prayer five times a day.
But it’s the government, Aden says, that is the least welcoming. “They only come around when they think something bad has happened,” he says. Mohamud’s arrest in Columbus follows a broader federal crackdown on the $1.3 billion in remittances Somalis send home each year, based on concerns that some of the money is diverted to Al-Shabaab. In February, the Merchants Bank of California, one of the few financial institutions to deal with cash transfers to Somalia, closed down that side of its business, claiming laws to prevent terrorism funding “were too complex to detect violations,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
“In the eyes of the U.S. government, we’re all Al-Shabaab.”
Instead of banks, the financial lifeline to families back home may come from “informal business networks, supported by couriers carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars” that criminal networks could exploit, according to a 2015 report by Oxfam International. Given the risk of running afoul of the law, some wonder if it’s time to return to Somalia. “In the eyes of the U.S. government, we’re all Al-Shabaab,” Aden says.
An estimated 45,000 Somalis currently live in Columbus, a population second only to that in the greater Minneapolis area. On social media, Somalis say they enjoy the neighborly Midwest. Ifrah Jimale, who writes a blog called “Ask a Somali” at the Twin Cities Daily Planet, explained that Somalis are traditionally nomadic and after a few discovered Minnesota, they became “good advertisers” for the state. In Columbus, “the young vibe and energy of progress and growth are intoxicating,” notes “SomaliWarlord” on a Reddit thread about his life here. “Oh and The Bucks!” But researchers have also found a high risk of depression and stress among Somali immigrants, especially in adolescents who are trying to forge their identity amid two vastly different cultures.
A few blocks from where I grew up, Abdilahi Hassan is bridging some of that divide with a “fast casual” Somali restaurant called Hoyo’s Kitchen, modeled after Chipotle. The service is about 20 minutes slower than American chains (“It’s a bit of a oxymoron to call it fast,” Hassan says) and the menu lacks some traditional Somali dishes, such as camel meat (“There are places that sell it here, but it’s so expensive”). Hassan’s sisters, along with his mom and dad, help run the place, which has framed pictures of Paris street scenes on the wall from a previous owner. A day after Mohamud’s indictment topped the news in Columbus, about half of the lunchtime crowd was white. Business has grown after positive reviews, but Hassan says he no longer wires money to relatives in Somalia because of the tighter restrictions. “I don’t know how people will get money,” he says. “A silver lining might be that it motivates people to do something instead of relying on charity.”
It’s hard to imagine when Somalia will recover. After the ouster of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, warlords largely ruled the country until a transitional government was established in 2004. Al Shabaab emerged from the chaos that same year to launch a decade-long series of gruesome attacks across the region, including gunning down hundreds of people at the Westgate mall in Kenya in 2013. Although weakened in recent years, the Al Qaeda-linked group still holds sway over parts of Somalia, where soccer, movies, and even woman’s bras are banned under its version of Sharia law. On March 13, a U.S. drone strike killed one of the planners of the Westgate mall attack. Al-Shabaab retaliated the next day by seizing a popular hotel in Mogadishu, killing 17.
“I feel way more American now than Somali. We’re living the American dream.”
At a meeting for Somali students attending Ohio State, opinions were mixed on whether to go back. Those who recently visited Somalia described it as more fifth-world than third. Still, several expressed a desire to use their medical or engineering degrees to help rebuild the country. Intesar Ismal, who works at Grant Medical Center, also wants to do her part, but from Columbus. “I feel way more American now than Somali,” she says. “We’re living the American dream.”
That cultural shift is the main source of tension for Somali families here. Young adults with busy jobs or exams say they have little time to socialize with relatives, who seem to endlessly sit around over tea. Parents, meanwhile, say it’s difficult to raise good Muslim children amid liberal influences.
“If someone was older than me, I would respect them and listen to their advice,” says Mustafan Hassan, a father of five who moved to the U.S. at age 17 and was back in Columbus after working as a U.S. Army contractor in Afghanistan. “Now the kids are not listening. In this country, you can do whatever you want to do after you’re 18.”
And then there’s the rare, but unsettling chance a child will take the wrong path. In 2007, a handful of Somali men left Minnesota to fight with Al-Shabaab in Somalia. That number would swell to at least 20 by 2009, prompting Congressional hearings on whether there was a pattern to the recruitment. Last year, authorities arrested two Minneapolis men for trying to fight with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Another six Somalis in Minnesota were detained on April 20 for a similar plot.
“A lot of kids come here and are out of place. The kid is confused and in the midst of all that, a recruiter can promise him a belonging.”
Khalid Moalim says he’s fortunate his mom pulled their family out of the city when she did. “People I knew would be on the news, there was no hope,” he says. “They come to America and think there’s this glorious life, but they end up in the projects.” After moving from Minneapolis to Beaverton, Oregon, Moalim made his way Columbus and is now studying communications at Ohio State. He plans to make a film on why an immigrant in the Midwest would go off to wage jihad. “A lot of kids come here and are out of place,” he says of the potential causes. “The kid is confused and in the midst of all that, a recruiter can promise him a belonging.”
For Mohamud, the connection appears to be his brother, Adbifatah Aden. According to court documents, Aden fought in Syria for almost a year before he was killed in battle. In emails, Mohamud wrote that he was proud of his brother and urged him to be a simple soldier. Before traveling to Syria, Mohamud asked Aden, “let me know how I can send you money plzzzzz.” He would quiz an informant about which terrorist organizations were most effective, and also taught Arabic. Mohumud settled on Al-Nusrah Front, an offshoot of Al Qaeda. “Amen, oh god,” wrote a person who helped Mohamud first travel to Turkey. “He wanted to go to ISIS.”
Last summer, Mohamud returned to Columbus to live with his family on a cul-de-sac of a dozen white split-level homes that all look the same. He would reveal to an informant that a Syrian cleric told him to use his weapons training to carry out terrorist acts in the U.S. At an April 17 court hearing, Mohamud pleaded innocent to the charges as his mother and sister looked on. Visiting Mohamud in jail two months ago, an acquaintance, Abdiqani Aden, cocked his hand like a gun and shouted in a foreign language at officers. He was arrested for aggravated menacing, a misdemeanor.
When approached by reporters, Mohamud’s family declined to be interviewed. His lawyer, Sam Shamansky, says Mohamud went to a local high school, held a job at a warehouse, and was in many ways a normal kid from Columbus. In a statement, the Department of Justice said that “neutralizing” foreign-trained terrorists who return to the U.S. is a top priority.
Omar Hassan of the Somali Community Association says he shares their concerns. “America is our home, our country,” he says, just before three high school-aged boys ramble into a waiting room by his office. “If I see anybody who is trying to break the law, it won’t take me a second to get law enforcement.”
Eric Sabo is a former Central America correspondent now based in Columbus, Ohio. Twitter: @esabo1
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