Last week, al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabaab issued a new video aimed at regaining relevancy in a jihadi landscape currently dominated by its rival ISIS.
The video entitled The Westgate Siege: Retributive Justice documents the history of abuses on ethnic Somalis in the Horn of Africa, as well as the attempts by Somalia’s neighbors and international allies to expand their respective influence in the country through local proxies (aka “apostates.”)
Though these topics comprise a majority of the 76-minute video, Western media focused on a clip in which the group called for “lone wolf” attacks on the Mall of America in Minnesota and other locations in Canada and the UK.
On this matter, Davidson professor and Somalia scholar Ken Menkhaus made an essential point regarding the current disconnect between al-Shabaab and Somali-American communities:
“…The plea to individual ‘holy warriors’ to launch attacks is an implicit admission that al-Shabaab lacks the network of operatives to conduct a planned terrorist attack itself.”
With the Mall of America now performing “lock down” drills, it is also important to look at the trend in mass shootings the last twenty years in the United States.
What Does the Data Say on Those Behind Mass Shootings?
Data from the Stanford Geospatial Center on mass shootings in the U.S. from 1996 to the present shows that most of the assailants in these cases are not Muslims.
Rather, the attackers run the gamut from teenagers to White supremacists and military veterans.
This data is an indictment against the type of profiling against Muslims and people of particular communities that often accompanies misplaced perceptions about security threats, either in Kenya or the West.
It is commonly accepted that certain communities are exempt from such profiling — despite how the above data can be disaggregated.
Al-Shabaab is certainly hoping that security institutions indiscriminately profile Muslims or that individuals will commit acts of intolerance on Islamic institutions — which are 5x more common in the post-9/11 era — so that its narrative of victimhood can be justified.
Whether it is the case of the homeless Houston man who “accidentally” set an Islamic center on fire or a North Carolina man who shot three young Muslims “over a parking dispute,” there is a feeling among many people that intentional acts of hate and terror can only come from — not against — Muslims.
Many pundits are begging U.S. President Barack Obama to recite the phrase “Islamic extremism” daily as some kind of explanatory mantra. This kind of limited way of thinking about mass acts of violence will have to change if meaningful social discussions and practical policies are to be put in place.
“Counter-radicalization” in the Twin Cities and Beyond
There is a real debate going on about how authorities can work on radicalization issues in a way that partners with local communities rather than treating them as “potential threats” requiring surveillance.
To give an example of one cross-section of the debate, the French government released a chart indicating that those who stop listening to music or watching television may be showing signs of radicalization. In a similarly perplexing manner, CNN was lambasted in social media for displaying the fantastical headline that ISIS lures women with Nutella and kittens.
Though this by no means reflects the canonical theory behind countering violent extremism (CVE), there are still some major knowledge gaps in the field.
For example, which is more important: ensuring youth in particular have access to activities such as sports and the arts, or countering extremist recruiters in social media? Is the efficacy of CVE activities erased through acts of bullying or global events? What is the tipping point?
These questions have huge implications for whether CVE programs narrowly focused on so-called “at risk” youth, or instead, focus on broader efforts to increase tolerance and understanding in multi-cultural communities or changes in foreign policy.
Equally important, there will need to be assurance that counter-radicalization organizations — which may start to pop up as millions of dollars are for grabs — can actually deliver the outcomes that they offer.