Editor’s Note: I had originally wrote this in 2011 and it was published by HS Today. Its an interesting perspective considering the recent tragedy in Kenya.
Most Westerners linguistically construe the word “Somali” to mean a group of individuals from Somalia. While this is partially true, it is also inaccurate. A Somali is an individual stemming from a specific ethnic group comprised of multiple tribes and clans in the East African region. The Somali people come from numerous locations throughout East Africa such as the country of Somalia, eastern Ethiopia, southern Djibouti and northern Kenya. It is this specific region in Africa that possesses a great threat to the United States.
Like most of Africa, but specifically the eastern portion of the continent, the Somali region has been ravaged with great turmoil. Since the region lacks firm government, civil unrest, lack of infrastructure, lack of security or law enforcement and a grave terrorist presence, Somalia is not just a pawn on the global chessboard. Because of the loss of government, there are no current census services for the country.
The region is poor, stricken with a severe food and water crisis and lacks any specific abundance of natural resources. According to the CIA Fact Book, the region has been plagued with disease and wars leaving the Somali people a median life span of only eighteen years of age. Today, vulnerabilities in regions such as East Africa have opened the door to Islamic extremists.
The Somali region is dominated by Islam. While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact timeline for the introduction of Islam in the region, it is very clear when Islamic socialism conquered the region. According to Somali expert, Helen Chapin Metz, this specific region obtained a Sufi order of Islam in the early 1900’s. Needless to say, the people continued disorder throughout the region and a control mechanism was needed to retain some form of law and order. In the early 1960’s, during the height of the Cold War, radicalized Islamic Sunni dominance seized power of the region.
“Another response was to reform Islam by reinterpreting it. From this perspective, early Islam was seen as a protest against abuse, corruption and inequality; reformers therefore attempted to prove that Muslim scriptures contained all elements needed to deal with modernization,” Metz has noted. “To this school of thought belongs Islamic socialism, identified particularly with Egyptian nationalist Gamal Abdul Nasser (1918-70). His ideas appealed to a number of Somalis, especially those who had studied in Cairo in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Many Somali’s living in the region will claim a religious identity over their tribal identity. Interestingly, those who have fled the region to embrace a more peaceful abode remain true to their ethnic and tribal roots. Sadly, however, these individuals face a severe identity crisis that can eventually lead to a tipping point that can totally erase their tribal identity and replace it completely with Islam. In fact, today, that tipping point is in effect.
The Somali gang crisis in the United States
Between 1983 and 2004, 55,000 Somali’s have entered the United States. In 2004 alone approximately 13,000 Somali’s entered the United States. They have predominantly migrated to Minnesota, California, Washington D.C., Oklahoma and North Carolina. The majority of these persons came to the United States to seek a new life, and bringing with them their knowledge and will of survivability.
For most Somali’s, survivability comes from tribal livelihoods. Tribes are broken down into clans and these clans are predominantly used either as a source of solidarity or leverage to implement internal strife. As a society, Somalis are fundamentally democratic, although decisions that are traditionally made by counsel of man, and factors such as age, convenience, wealth and gender can influence decision making. This tribal concept has been engrained in today’s Somali youth residing in the US. They seek acceptance, protection and cultural unification.
The trouble faced by many Somali youth living in the US is that they have difficulty adjusting to American society. They often lack the necessary social skills due to social differences found among the Somali people and American society. These types of challenges attract them to one another for social acceptance – meaning they create their own tribes and clans even in the US. This has created social and cultural problems because often when they are seen in groups together, they are seen as loitering, a negative social activity, if not a crime. The cultural separations create tensions between acceptance into American society and holding onto Somali social traditions. Oftentimes, they inevitably turn to gang life.
Another factor that creates tension in Somali youth that leads them to gang life is the lack of parental influence. Somali parents neither understand American society, nor their children, leaving their youth to find understanding with people in similar situations. Related to this is the fact that most adults in Somali communities do not address the concerns their youth have pertaining to American culture. They often address their own issues and the issues concerning their Somalia motherland. Younger generations, though, are concerned about their future.
A multidimensional mechanism of social conditioning continues among Somali youth. Parents continuously condition their childrens’ minds about the turmoil and circumstances in East Africa, while traditional American youth residing in nearby epicenters induce mindsets that inevitably invoke illegal and illicit criminal activity. Somali American youth are often persecuted among traditional street gangs in a manner similar to how their parents were once persecuted among tribal militias. Out of survivability and kinship, Somali youth unify into their own gang enterprises in search of their own identity.
Today, the United States faces a detrimental domestic threat imposed by Somali American youth. Not only do Somali youth gangs engage in drug and human trafficking endeavors, they also commit fraud and a devastating series of inter-gang related violence. Simply put, Somali youth gang members have become ideal targets for Islamist recruitment. In fact, the United States has seen a serious rise in American Somalis’ return to their motherland or in assistance to those fighting among terrorist organizations like Al Shahaab deep inside East Africa.
Knowing such ethnic groups enter the United States, encounter difficulty transitioning into Western culture, then fall back onto their tribal endeavors, no security or intelligence professional will understand the magnitude of threat such groups present.
Until a greater appreciation of Sociocultural Intelligence (SOCINT) exists, not only will such entities pose grave danger to the society in which they reside, they also will cause international strife that hinders counterterrorism (CT) operations. Many CT and law enforcement professionals perceive that these groups have failed in making a new life for themselves. The real question to be answered though, is: “What have our own perceptions done to fix such problems?”