updated 7:33 AM MST, Nov 17, 2017

Radicalization of Somali Youth in North America

  • Published in Articles

Remarks by David H. Shinn Somali Youth Radicalization: A View from South of the Border Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs George Washington University

The radicalization of Somali youth in North America has taken two principal forms—supporting extremist organizations in Somalia, especially al-Shabaab, and joining Somali gangs in the United States and Canada. These two phenomena are related to the  extent that social alienation experienced by persons living in a new and alien culture  contributed to their attraction to gangs and extremist organizations. There are also  several cases where Somali gang members joined al-Shabaab. As worrying as these two developments are, it is important to underscore that only a tiny minority of Somali youth has been drawn to these harmful and dangerous groups. It is estimated there are more than 100,000 Somalis in the United States and from  150,000 to 200,000 in Canada.  The overwhelming majority of these Somalis has become a good citizen and is only trying to escape violence in Somalia or find a better life in North America. At the same time, the small minority that joins a gang or supports an extremist organization in Somalia or elsewhere does incalculable damage to the image of the Somali community in North America.  Let me turn first to the problem of gangs.
Gang Culture in the United States

Youth street gangs have a long history in the United States.  In the 1820s, the Forty Thieves of New York were the first documented street gang.  Gangs subsequently became a significant part of American youth culture. They have become a mini-society within the larger American society and a separate subculture. Gangs are groups of people who often have an exclusive territory and exhibit a common culture. They provide an alternative set of values that replace those learned by mainstream society as a result of ties to family, religion, school and community. Each gang has a culture of its own, although it may be similar to the culture of other gangs. Most gangs even develop their own special language or argot. Gangs tend to be well organized and each member typically has a certain role to fill. The culture of the gang is often one of violence. Gang members are more likely to use violent tactics than non-gang members.

This willingness to turn to violence is often driven by frustration resulting from a lack of opportunity for meaningful employment, poor quality schools, failed public services, incompetent parents, inattentive churches and mosques and discrimination, real or perceived, from the wider community. Some gangs evolve into criminal networks. Their activities range from defending their own ethnic neighborhood to criminal activities such as gambling, prostitution, armed robbery, extortion, people smuggling and arms and drug trafficking. Ethnic gangs have a need for social interaction and have developed in communities as widely varied as immigrants from Albania, Russia, China, Serbia, Nigeria, South Africa, Ireland, Iran, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and, more recently, Somalia.
Somali Gangs in the United States

There is little statistical data on the number and size of Somali youth gangs in the United States, although the number of gangs and their membership appears still to be small. Most of the attention has been on the rise of Somali gangs in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, which also has the largest Somali population in the United States. Following a series of robberies in 2005 by Somali teenagers, the Department of Civil Rights of the city of Minneapolis commissioned a report on Somali youth issues. Somali community organizer Shukri Adan was the principal author of the report, which appeared early in 2007. She identified three Somali gangs operating at that time: Rough Tough Somalis, the Hot Boyz Gang and the Somali Mafia.

A gang strike force in the Minneapolis metropolitan area documented in 2006 only 52 Somalis connected to a gang. This constituted less than 1 percent of the total gang population in the state of Minnesota. However, on the Eid holiday in 2006 following the holy month of Ramadan, authorities had to shut down the Mall of America due to Somali gang fights with a non-Somali gang. Somali criminal gangs consisted of a small number of loosely connected members who adopted the gang culture, including signs and symbols to show their affiliation. Unlike common gang culture, however, the first Somali gangs tended not to have a particular leader and no established hierarchy, although older members were treated with more respect than younger ones. The report concluded that the refugee experience was partially responsible for the rise of gangs. Fractured family structures and post traumatic stress disorder followed many young Somalis from refugee camps to Minnesota.

Gang-related activities included robbery, assault, carrying and using illegal weapons and use of drugs. One Somali parent interviewed for the report complained that parents need to pay more attention. Too many parents do not support their teens, emphasizing that boys in particular receive little guidance and support. They need discipline and rules to follow. Another Somali commented that these boys did not grow up in Somalia like their parents; they are confused.  There is culture shock. Most of them are not doing well in school. Their parents have not adapted well and it will be many years before they adapt to American society. With the passage of time, the gang problem has worsened in the Twin Cities area. By mid-2009, 7 Somali men, including a promising college student serving as a youth volunteer, had been killed by fellow Somalis during a 10-month period. All of the deaths were apparently the result of gang activity.  By this time, Shukri Adan estimated that between 400 and 500 Somalis were active in gangs in the metropolitan area.

The Minneapolis Police Department reported that Somali gangs had also grown more active. The Somali gang situation in the Twin Cities became a major national news story in November 2010 when U.S. authorities arrested 29 individuals for their alleged involvement in recruiting and forcing into prostitution under age Somali and African-American girls. The 29 persons are reportedly connected to 3 gangs in the Twin Cities  area—the Somali Outlaws, the Somali Mafia and the Lady Outlaws. The prostitution ring began as long as 10 years ago and included widespread credit card and insurance fraud, car theft, safe cracking and burglary of telephone cards.  The gangs arranged to drive the girls to cities around the United States, including Nashville, Seattle, and Columbus, Ohio. The police in Columbus report there is growing evidence of Somali gang activity there too.

The Somali gangs now have a modus operandi that is different from most gangs. They do not “own” a territory as is the case for most gangs; they are highly mobile. One wonders if this reflects the pastoral background of Somalia. They have also become hard to identify because they don’t have gang tattoos or display signs or symbols. On the other hand, the Somali gangs have become well organized. This suggests that the gangs based in Minnesota are changing their tactics to elude the law and expand their activities.  Mohammad Zafar published a study in 2010 based on interviews with a small number of gang members in the Twin Cities. He concluded that Somali youth found themselves in a new environment in which they felt unwelcome on all sides.

Members reported they joined a gang to be part of something, to fit in and to get respect on the
street. Parents and children experienced role reversal after arrival in the United States  due to the increasingly heavy reliance of parents on their children. As a result, many young Somalis did not have anyone to identify with as they went through adolescence.At risk youth found comfort in each other and created a new social identity. This led to the formation of Somali gangs. Interestingly, many of the first, original gang members left the groups successfully. Those who joined later have had greater difficulty making the transition to mainstream society.  Some of those interviewed by Zafar regretted having joined a gang and described the choice as a waste of time but argued it was their only remaining option.

Lewiston is a small town in the state of Maine that had a large influx of Somalis. It experienced a different kind of Somali gang problem. Groups of young Somalis banded together to rob non-Somali members of the community.  Police concluded that in some cases the primary motivation of the Somali gang was to rob just for the thrill of it. Many of the gang members had dropped out of school. Their parents often had no idea they had become part of a roving gang.  All interested parties concluded that working with the Somali community was the best way to end the attacks.
Somali Gangs in Canada

Ground zero for Somali gangs in Canada seems to be Alberta Province, where at least 30 young Somali men have been killed in the past five years in violent battles surrounding the drug trade.  Most of those involved in the trade went to Edmonton, Calgary and Fort McMurray from the large Somali community in Toronto to work in the oil sands. They quickly found it was easier to make money selling drugs but immediately encountered opposition from more established non-Somali drug gangs such as Hells Angels and Asian triads. As new kids on the street, the Somalis often did not know the rules of the drug business and experienced a violent end.

Some of the non-Somali gangs recruited Somalis to work for them at the lowest levels of the operation. Somali community leaders in Alberta believe many victims were related to or knew each other before arriving in the province, suggesting they may have been lured by riends into the drug trade. The ability to make money quickly in the drug trade in an oil-rich economy almost certainly contributed to their decision to move there. Alberta is probably less tolerant of diversity than a large city like Toronto. The new arrivals likely faced social marginalization that contributed to their involvement in drug trafficking.

Cities like Ottawa appear so far to have largely avoided the creation of Somali gangs, but this could change quickly. Earlier this year, Ottawa’s police chief said minority youth are being targeted by gangs and urged that their ethnic communities take the potential problem more seriously. He explained that gang members seek followers in lower-income housing areas and look for people who don’t otherwise have strong support systems in their communities. One of the organizers of this conference, Farah Aw-Osman, warned recently that very few persons in the Somali or Muslim communities are taking this issue seriously. Aw-Osman also underscored the absence in the community of paternal guidance and lack of direction by many Somali fathers.  As a result, some young Somalis have slipped into the criminal justice system. Among other recommendations, he called on Somali parents to become more engaged in their children’s education and for Somali elders, community leaders, educators and parents to listen more to the concerns of Somali youth.
Somali-Americans and Extremist Organizations

Although fewer Somali-Americans have joined extremist organizations such as al-Shabaab than have joined domestic Somali gangs, those who have joined extremist organizations have received far more press coverage in the United States.  This is not surprising in view of the fact that both the United States and Canada have declared al-Shabaab a terrorist organization.  In addition, there is a fear that Somalis recruited into extremist organizations in Somalia might one day return to the United States to carry out attacks. While the number of Somalis who support or have joined these organizations is miniscule, there have been just enough of them from a variety of different cities to attract widespread, negative press attention that reflects badly on the responsible Somali community.

One of the most disturbing cases became public in November 2010 when the FBI announced that a Somali-American teenager, Mohamed Osman Mohamud from the state of Oregon, had been arrested for conspiring over six months to carry out a bombing at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland. The suspect had been in contact with a terrorist recruiter from the Middle East; there do not appear to be any connections with Somali organizations. Because of the massive number of casualties the plot would have caused, it became front page news in the New York Times and Washington Post and was the lead item on NBC national news.  This is not the kind of reputation and publicity that the Somali community wants to encourage.