Two Americans flee Somali militant group Shabab, but will they face justice in U.S.?
By surrendering to authorities, two Americans associated with Somali militant group the Shabab have turned a spotlight on a group weakened and deeply divided as it battles defections to its rival Islamic State.
Mohammed Abdullahi Hassan, a Minnesotan who left America in 2008 to join the Shabab as a teenager, is believed to have tweeted under the name Mujahid Miski, allegedly using social media to recruit jihadists and incite acts of terrorism. He has been accused of shifting allegiance from the Shabab to Islamic State before his surrender.
Hassan is in the hands of the Somali security intelligence agency in the capital, Mogadishu. In an interview Tuesday with Voice of America, he denied supporting Islamic State.
Another American fighting for the Shabab was arrested after surrendering Monday, with conflicting reports on his name and origin. Reuters cited Somali military officer Ali Dalel Hirsi, who said the American, Malik John, had surrendered near the port town of Barawe, 135 miles southwest of the capital, Mogadishu. Other reports named him as Abdimalik Jones.
Hassan surrendered in early November as Shabab leaders loyal to Al Qaeda threatened to kill fighters who swore allegiance to Islamic State. The Shabab has unleashed a series of ruthless attacks against pro-Islamic State factions in recent days.
Hassan admitted in the VOA interview that he had joined the Shabab, but claimed to have left the organization in 2013.
In addition to denying links with Islamic State, he rejected any connection with the husband-and wife-team who carried out last week’s San Bernardino attack. Tashfeen Malik and husband Syed Farook killed 14 people when they opened fire at the Inland Regional Center.
Photographs purporting to show Hassan on Twitter depict him with his face covered, only his eyes visible, and his gun balanced in front of him on a watermelon.
Hassan was reportedly in Twitter contact with Elton Simpson, one of two gunmen killed by police after he opened fire at an event featuring cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Garland, Texas, in May, according to the Counter Extremism Project, a U.S. group formed to combat extremist ideology. He exhorted followers to build an Islamic caliphate -- the goal of Islamic State -- and to leave their home countries to be jihadists, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The U.S. State Department said Monday it was in discussions with Somali authorities about Hassan, who has been indicted for offering material aid to a terrorist group, although the U.S. has no extradition treaty with Somalia. If transferred to the U.S., he may face charges relating to the Garland attack.
He reportedly had more than 30 active Twitter accounts and whenever an account was taken down, another would pop up.
On April 23, just over a week before the Garland event, Hassan purportedly tweeted praise of the January attack on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which left 12 dead.
“The brothers from the Charlie hebdo attack did their part. It’s time for brothers in the #US to do their part,” the tweet said. On April 25, he is said to have tweeted to Simpson: “One individual is able to put a whole nation onto it’s knees.”
According to the Counter Extremism Project, last year he tweeted, “If only every Muslims could kill 1 Jew, everything would change.”
The other American, Malik John, said in an interview that he decided to leave the Shabab two months ago, Reuters reported.
“I hated them because I found their ideology was totally wrong,” John said, adding he surrendered to take advantage of an amnesty offered by the Somali government to persuade Shabab fighters to surrender.
“If possible I would like to return [to] my home in Maryland,” he said.
The defections have come as the Shahab is under intense pressure.
On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed that a U.S. airstrike on Dec. 2 killed a top Shabab leader, Abdirahman Sandhere, also known as Ukash, and two associates in what it described as “a significant blow to the group.” It was the latest in a series of strikes that have killed top Shabab commanders. Sandhere was seen as a possible future leader of the group.
Before the rise of Islamic State, the Shabab was attracting hundreds of foreign recruits, mainly from Kenya but also dozens from the U.S., raising fears the fighters could return to America to carry out attacks, or could use social media to incite attacks.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, last year Islamic State surpassed the Shabab among militant groups as the foremost recruiter of Americans.
Among the U.S. recruits to the Shabab was Alabama-born Omar Hammami, who called himself Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki and rose swiftly through the ranks, recording social media recruitment videos for the group, including a rap. He fell out with the group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, and was killed in 2013 after tweeting that his life was in danger. Godane was killed in a U.S. airstrike last year.
The Shabab has seen months of internal bickering on whether to remain loyal to Al Qaeda, or to join Islamic State, which has attracted attention in the jihadi world with its slick social media, extreme violence and battlefield successes.
Another Somali fighter with the Shabab, Mohammed Makkawi Ibrahim, 31, was killed recently by the group after pledging loyalty to Islamic State, the Sudan Tribune reported. Ibrahim was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2008 killing of a USAID envoy, John Granville, in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. But he managed to escape from prison and fled to Somalia to join the Shabab.
Some jihadists on social media expressed disbelief that the Minnesotan, Hassan, could have surrendered to Somali authorities.
“As Far As i Had Known #MujahidMiski He Was Not From the Ones who Hand themselves over,” tweeted one figure with the handle @1LastTweep.
“Our brother #MujahidMiski got caught by the appostate government of Somalia near Barawe. HE DID NOT HAND HIMSELF OVER TO THEM,” tweeted another sympathizer, Abu Ramzi Ashami.
But in a sign of the conflict between opposing factions, another extremist, Ibnu Abu Zubayr, apparently an Al Qaeda sympathizer, responded: “This far from the reality on the ground. The man surrendered himself to the apostates.”
The tension between the Shabab and Islamic State deepened last month with the publication of an issue of Islamic State’s magazine, Dabiq, containing an interview with a Somali radical, Abu Muharib. In it, Muharib urged “true Muslims” and Somalis to join Islamic State, claiming the Shabab had lost legitimacy.
Shabab leaders responded by issuing threats to slit the throats of its fighters who declared loyalty to Islamic State and last month reportedly executed five pro-Islamic State members, according to Terror Monitor, a group that monitors terrorist organizations.
Recent days have seen a series of deadly attacks by Shabab fighters against pro-Islamic State members. One leader of a faction, Bashir Abu Numan, posted videos of himself swearing allegiance to Islamic State with several masked, armed men behind him; he was reportedly killed days later.
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