Al-Shabab Attracts International Recruits

The terror group has appealed to young Somali-Americans, and about 40 have joined their ranks, according to Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation. Host Rachel Martin talks to Bergen about the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the attack last week of a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

The massacre at Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall last week has put the Somali-based terrorist group al-Shabab under new international scrutiny. To understand more about this group's history, its motives and capabilities, we've reached out to Peter Bergen. He's a counterterrorism expert with the New America Foundation here in Washington.

Thanks so much for being with us.

PETER BERGEN: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's start with a big-picture historical question, where did al-Shabab come from?

BERGEN: It comes out of the morass of 30 years of war in Somalia, and particularly came to prominence after the Ethiopian army invaded Somalia in 2006, which al-Shabab was basically able to portray as crusaders, 'cause Ethiopia is a majority Christian country, attacking an Islamic state.

MARTIN: It is often referred to as an al-Qaida affiliate. What is the extent of al-Shabab's relationship with al-Qaida?

BERGEN: From a formal point of view, they merge with al-Qaida. In fact, one of the interesting things that was recovered in bin Laden's compound was a letter to al-Shabab saying, hey, don't call yourself al-Qaida, it's going to be bad for fundraising, you're going to draw a lot of negative attention to yourself. Just say you're kind of loosely aligned with us.

MARTIN: Although, Osama bin Laden had also warned the group not to be so indiscriminate in its attacks against unarmed civilians in Somalia, particularly the Muslim population, right?

BERGEN: That's right. When you've got Osama bin Laden saying be more discriminating about killing civilians, particularly Muslim civilians, that's quite a statement. So the fact that in this Kenya attack, it's been widely reported that they were not shooting, or trying not to shoot Muslim civilians, I think shows that, yeah, they may have heeded that advice to some degree.

MARTIN: You wrote in an article this past week that al-Shabab has recruited around 40 Americans, dozens of Europeans into their ranks. What is attracting these foreigners into this organization?

BERGEN: Al-Shabab's pitch to young Somali-American men has been, we're under attack by crusader forces that aren't Muslim or that are acting in a non-Muslim manner. And, you know, if you come to Somalia it's going to be fun - you're going to be able to shoot weapons and be a holy warrior. And if you're somebody from Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis, which is one of the poorest places in the United States, where a lot of the Somali-American population is concentrated in Minnesota, that's an appealing pitch.

And by the way, I think the important thing is here that this has really subsided. There's been a huge law enforcement effort to prevent or arrest people either trying to fight with Shabab or send money to Shabab. And also the Somali-American community has been pretty active. They don't want their sons to go over to Somalia and die fighting in some jihad, and they've been pushing back against this.

MARTIN: So it's not that they're stirring up some kind of anti-Americanism in these people. It's more a pro-Somalia agenda.

BERGEN: I think that's what it begins with. But as we've seen, you know, the reason they targeted Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya was it's frequented by a lot of Westerners. So it may start with a nationalist pitch, but I think it quickly devolves into we're at war with anybody we perceive to be an enemy of Islam.

MARTIN: Peter Bergen is a director at the New America Foundation. Thanks so much for talking with us, Peter.

BERGEN: Thank you, Rachel.

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