U.S.-Somali terror pipeline: The surveillance state doesn't work

Reports that Kenya attacks group has recruited from America give lie to idea we forgo civil liberties for safety

By Natasha Lennard
September 24, 2013 12:00AM (UTC)
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As the siege at Nairobi's Westgate Mall continues, with at least 68 reported dead, both the FBI and U.S. media are probing questions of U.S. connections to the terror group behind the attack.

Al-Qaida linked al-Shabaab ("The Youth") in Somalia has reportedly operated a recruitment pipeline, specifically from Minneapolis' Somali Muslim communities. Reports that two men from Minnesota may have been involved in the Kenya attacks remain unconfirmed at the time of writing. As BuzzFeed reported:


In the Twin Cities, reports of a connection to the Nairobi attack have been greeted with skepticism, though not surprise. Minnesota is home to at least 32,000 Somalians, a community that has been described as a “Jihadi pipeline.” Young men have disappeared from Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood by the handful to reemerge as Al-Shabaab members.

But a potential U.S. connection raises a number of questions about post-9/11 counter-terror efforts. As with any terror attack that garners international attention and involves the U.S. in any way, there's a risk of viewing the fact of the massacre as justification for the dramatic shift since 2001 toward preemptive policing and spycraft used against Muslim communities in the name of the War on Terror.

It's a dangerous and flawed conclusion to draw, however. Rather, the possibility of American citizens' involvement in the attack should prompt a healthy skepticism for the vast surveillance apparatus developed by U.S. law enforcement and spy agencies over the last decade. Blanket surveillance of Muslim communities -- the sort exemplified by the NYPD's covert intelligence division -- consistently flouts First and Fourth Amendment protections and provably does not make the U.S. or the world any safer. As the AP's Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo illustrate in their book "Enemies Within," entire intelligence units within the NYPD, dedicated to thwarting terror attacks by spying on Muslims, yielded few criminal cases in the years since their post-9/11 inception. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that U.S. preemptive policing of many thousands of innocent Muslims aids radicalization efforts.

Al-Shabaab claimed the mall attack was retaliation for the 2011 involvement of Kenyan forces in anti-terror operations in Somalia and, according to intelligence officials, tends to aim for Western targets in Africa instead of aiming for U.S. soil. However, Muslims in Minnesota are likely to face a new wave of interrogation in light of speculated connections to the latest al-Shabaab attacks. If it is indeed true that U.S. passport holders took part in the mall siege, it will be further evidence of the War on Terror's failure, but will likely (and sadly) be used as further fuel for its perpetuation.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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