By Meira Svirsky
April 10, 2016
He had everything going for him – except
the will to resist a powerful and angry narrative that eventually pulled him
Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame
Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame, now 21, was on
the path to fulfilling the American dream.
And it wasn’t a just a materialist dream, the kind that leaves feelings
of emptiness upon achievement.
By the time he was a teenager, he was
expressing himself as a poet and actualizing talents in art and music. He was
active at a local neighbourhood centre and part of a local arts group. He began
talking to other young Somalis about following their dreams. In a video he made
as a teenager in 2011, Warsame says, “You guys are tomorrow. And all you have
to have, to get anywhere you want, is determination."
Warsame, a Somali American, came to America
when he was 10 months old. One of eight children, Warsane grew up in a
neighborhood called “Little Mogadishu.” His mother and cousin were prominent
voices in the movement to prevent the radicalization of the next generation of
Warsame himself is described as a person
who was successfully taking advantages of opportunities he was offered. Post
high school, he held down jobs, attended a community college and had support
from his family.
Still, Warsame gravitated to negative
influences, problematic friends that concerned his mother. In 2014, she sent
him away from Minneapolis to Chicago to live with his father. But it wasn’t
enough. Warsame began watching videos of lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, an
American Yemani imam described as the “Bin Laden of the internet.” Awlaki, a high-level Al Qaeda operative, was
killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, the first U.S. citizen to be so
From a young man who had spoken out against
violence, Warsame became enthralled with beheading videos. He came to conclude
that as a devout Muslim, he must join the fight against the infidels. In 2014,
Warsame, with a group of friends plotted to go to Syria to join the Islamic
State. According to his confession to authorities, Warsame was the ”emir,” the
leader of a group recruiting and encouraging other young Somalis to join the
He was arrested in December of 2015 and now
faces up to 15 years in prison.
Two months earlier, his mother had lectured
a group of Somali parents at a town hall meeting, "I need you guys to wake
up and to tell your child, 'Who's recruiting you?' Ask what happened. .... We
have to stop the denial thing that we have, and we have to talk to our kids and
work with the FBI."
Yet even she was unaware of her son’s
At his hearing he offered a in his defence
a seemingly incomprehensible explanation, “I was always listening to one side.
I didn't see the other side of it, that innocent people were being killed.”
The Minnesota Somali communities have been
the leading location in the U.S. for terror recruiting. Over the last number of
year, close to 40 young Somali men have left the U.S. to fight for Islamist
terror groups in Somalia and Syria.
Programs have sprung up to stem the flow,
most notably Ka Joog, a community group called whose name literally means
"stay away.” Ka Jooj works to build Somali youths into the next generation
of American leaders and steer them away from terror recruitment, drugs and gang
violence. The group was recently awarded $850,000 to establish a number of new
projects, including a new job centre in the Somali community where unemployment
is close 19 percent, three times worse than state average.
"He was one of those kids that
could've gone either way," said Bob Fletcher, a former county sheriff and
founder of the Center for Somalia History Studies. "To the gangs, to the
radicalization, or to succeed academically with the circle of Ka Joog kids who
he is close to."
While it may be hard to understand how
Warsame, with his unique background, “could have gone either way,” it is important
to put into the equation Islamist groups, including CAIR, that that have a
history of working against some of the counter-radicalization programs active
in the Somali community, giving these kids a different message.
Abdirizak Bihi, is a Somai American who
works with Ka Joog and is the director of the Somali Education and Social
Advocacy Centre. Bihi’s nephew was recruited by Al-Shabaab and died in Somalia,
where the terror group is based.
In 2011, CAIR-MN attacked Bihi and a Muslim
colleague of his, Omar Jamal, branding them as “anti-Muslim” when they
participated in a seminar run by Fletcher’s center that included teaching about
Al-Shabaab. CAIR-MN was upset that their session described Al-Shabaab as an
“Islamic extremist terrorist organization,” saying they did not “distinguish
between Islam and terrorism.”
Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim human rights
activist, writes, “Representatives of CAIR, like Dawud Walid from their
Michigan chapter are on record repeatedly when discussing al-Shabaab to
American Muslims telling American Muslim youth for example that “9 out of 10
times the person trying to influence you over the internet is not even
real…it’s someone with the government trying to set you up.
"[Walid] even casts doubt on whether
Al-Shabaab is a terrorist organization. Yet when courageous American Muslims do
speak out about radicalization in some mosques and among American Muslim
groups, CAIR calls them “anti-Muslim.”
Bihi says that CAIR-MN has impeded his
efforts to inform the U.S. government about Islamist radicalization for years
by saying that he’s bigoted and doesn’t represent the Somali community.
“They say that I am a bad person, that I am
anti-Muslim, and that I don’t represent a hundred percent the Somali community.
They lie about my life most of the time and try to destroy my character, my
capability and my trust in the community,” says Bihi.
As early as 2009, local Somali Muslims were
angered by a CAIR Minnesota campaign that urged Muslims only to talk to law
enforcement with a lawyer present, sowing distrust in the Muslim community
about law enforcement agencies. Local
Somali Muslims argued that CAIR’s campaign merely served to obstruct federal
investigations. At the time, Bihi organized a demonstration outside a CAIR-MN
event where protesters chanted, “CAIR out! Doublespeak out!”
Bihi expresses hope that Warsame can be
deprogrammed and return to being an asset to the community. At his hearing, the
presiding judge offered Warsame a spot in ta new program that assesses his
prospects for deradicalisation before sentencing.
"I can envision him going to schools,
talking to young people in the community, going to mosques, working with imams.
His message here could resonate in many communities," said Bihi.
Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org