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Al-Shabab Attracts International Recruits


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.