THESTAR… She grew up on a quiet, tree-lined street near Martin Grove Rd. and Finch Ave. in northwest Toronto. She wore jeans, babysat her younger siblings, watched movies with friends and sometimes, though not often, played truant at school. About a year ago, the 19-year-old enrolled in university.
That was her life — until about a year and a half ago.
Then she started to change. She suddenly became religious, began to wear a headscarf and long skirt, the traditional Somali dress. Her views changed as radically as her clothing. She began to talk fervently about “injustice” in Somalia, her native country, and the foreign powers occupying it.
“Her behaviour was disruptive,” said a family friend, who did not want to be identified.
The teenager and her best friend, both of whom are believed to have gone to Somalia and joined Al-Shabaab, fit the pattern of young Somali-Canadians leaving their families to fight with the Islamist youth militia. At least 10 have left Canada to fight with the Shabaab since 2009, the majority from Toronto.
Most are first-generation Canadians, well-educated youngsters who seemed to have no difficulty fitting into Western culture before their abrupt turnaround.
The Shabaab has been branded a terrorist organization, and joining it can, quite literally, become a suicide mission. The Somali diaspora is desperately trying to find a way to stop young people from being drawn in.
“That’s the million-dollar question for us,” said Farah Aw-Osman, executive director of Ottawa-based Canadian Friends of Somalia. “The families, the community…we are all heartbroken. No one wants to lose their children, definitely not to terrorists.”
The Shabaab, which is fighting Somalia’s weak government, is often called Somalia’s Taliban. It has a savvy online presence, blamed as the lure for six young Canadians who disappeared in 2009, and now the two young women.
Aw-Osman and others in the community believe a sense of alienation in Canada is contributing to making some young people easy targets for Shabaab.
“There is a sense of hopelessness…they are well-educated but unemployed,” he said.
That’s coupled with the diaspora’s anger about the continuing conflict in Somalia, especially among the young.
“They want to do something for the country, but get talked into believing that becoming a terrorist will help Somalia,” he said. “I wonder how exactly these young women were enticed and who did it?”
Until recently , it was believed Shabaab was targeting only young men to take up arms. Young women were typically used as fundraisers for the cause. But over the past few years, women have been seen taking a more active role in the conflict.
The two Toronto women, who went missing in early January, have since emailed their families to explain where they are.
As word spread of their disappearance, Toronto’s Somali community grew more concerned, said Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress, citing it as “the first case where women in North America have been lured by the Shabaab.”
The families have been reluctant to speak to media about the young women.
Both lived with their families and are believed to have been born in Canada.
One is thought to be a student at York University. The other, the 19-year-old, was attending the University of Toronto. And in a strange twist, the U of T student also happens to be a niece of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, prime minister of Somalia.
Sources say she has told her family she is enrolled at a school near Mogadishu. (Shabaab runs Islamist schools around the capital city.) It is believed her family is working to get her out.
In an interview with the Star last weekend, Mohamed said he couldn’t comment on the specific case or what, if any, action his government is taking.
Mohamed was scheduled to have a news conference in Mogadishu this week but it was postponed. Sources say he has met with U.S. officials in Nairobi regarding his niece’s disappearance.
Families of both the missing women have maintained they didn’t know their daughters were being radicalized. “They never saw it coming. Now they are very worried for the other kids, too,” said a source close to the family.
RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) agents are investigating their disappearance, canvassing neighbourhoods in Little Mogadishu near Dixon Rd. and Kipling Ave., and Rexdale. Both agencies refused to comment.
“I think everyone is baffled about how it happened,” said Hussen.
Radicalization is not a new phenomenon for the Somali diaspora in North America or even Europe.
More than two dozen Somali-Americans have disappeared in the past few years and at least six are believed to have been killed in Somalia. Most were from Minneapolis, Minn., which has a large Somali community.
Certain mosques have been blamed for homegrown terrorism south of the border, but radicalization in this country appears to be spread mainly through the Internet. Chat rooms are peppered with hate messages and promises of “victory or martyrdom in the fight to defend Islam.”
Online propaganda — a mix of nationalist sentiment, religious ideology and tough talk — is enough to recruit young Somali-Canadians looking for a purpose and willing to take up arms in their homeland, say community leaders in Canada and the U.S.
Many “recruitment” videos are slick, in English, and directed toward English-speaking youth in North America.
“They are very persuasive,” said Yusuf Arshame, 26, whose friend from Scarborough, Mohamed Elmi Ibrahim, went missing in 2009 and was reportedly killed in combat in Somalia in 2010.
“Their arguments are forceful and it’s hard not to get swayed.”
The two best-known online recruiters for Shabaab are Anwar al-Awlaki and Abu Mansour al-Amriki, 27. Like their followers, they grew up under Western influence before turning to countering what they call a global war against Islam.
Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric believed to be hiding in Yemen, is described as the bin Laden of the Internet. He is also the first American citizen whose killing has been sanctioned by the U.S. government.
One of Awlaki’s videos is titled “Constants of Jihad,” in which he promotes fighting in the name of Islam. In a video posted online in late 2010, Awlaki called for Muslims around the world to kill Americans “without hesitation” and overthrow Arab leaders.
Amriki, a reported leader of the Shabaab, grew up as Omar Hammami in Mobile, Ala., and converted to Islam in high school. He was in Toronto some years ago and married a Somali-Canadian woman.
Amriki and Awlaki’s appeal is that they understand American culture and speak directly to young people, say community leaders.
Shabaab’s latest propaganda video was released in December and features two Somali expats, one from Sweden and another from England. Faces covered, they extol the virtues of violent jihad as sounds of gunfire rage in the background.
“Parents can’t monitor their children all the time,” said a frustrated Abdi Mohammed, who works at a grocery store in Rexdale. “I have two teenage sons and honestly, as much I try and know where they are and what they do, I really don’t.”
But Mohammed, like most Somali-Canadian parents, is no longer afraid to talk about radicalization and jihad with his sons.
“I’ll worry more if I don’t talk to them,” he said. “(I) tell them what I think is right and what is wrong.”
Aw-Osman, of the Canadian Friends of Somalia, wishes someone had talked with his nephew that way.
Shirwa Ahmed, 26, left Minneapolis in the fall of 2008 to fight with the Shabaab. On Oct. 29 of that year he drove a car loaded with explosives into a government compound in Puntland in northern Somalia, killing 30 people, including himself.
“It came as a complete shock …and there was disbelief,” acknowledged Aw-Osman, who came to Canada 22 years ago. “I don’t think our family will ever get over it.”
Much of the community is tight-lipped about the issue of radicalization, especially the families of the missing, who fear being stigmatized and worry for the safety of their younger children.
But Aw-Osman believes open dialogue helps.
In December, Canadian Friends of Somalia organized a conference in Ottawa, attended by members of the diaspora from around the world. Federal Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews, in addressing the delegates, acknowledged radicalization is a serious threat in Canada.
For Aw-Osman, the conference was a success because it opened the door to dialogue and brought the larger Somali diaspora together. It also led to forming a network to exchange information between Somalis in various countries.
“We want this to stop,” he said. “We don’t want to lose our children …anywhere in the world. We want to be proactive, not reactive.”
Omar Jamal, who works with the UN’s Somali mission in New York, said that until families start talking about the problem, it will continue to be a challenge.
“The fact is our community doesn’t want to talk …(but) the problem won’t go away that way.”
Toronto community leaders say they have tried to address the issue by engaging youth and encouraging families of the missing to speak out in hopes it will deter others.
“We are making progress — slowly, but we are,” said one youth leader in Toronto. “But the missing women’s case has thrown it all into a tizzy.”