Like other young Westerners of Somali origin, Ibrahim decided to move to Somalia after watching Shabaab’s videos on the Internet and following the news of battles between Somali militants and the U.S.-backed African peacekeeping force, AMISOM. “At that time there was a lot of stuff going on and I felt like it was my religious duty to participate in the holy jihad that was going on in Somalia. And I felt that it was my responsibility as a Muslim youth to support my brothers and sisters in Somalia against the enemy,” he says. “I felt like the call of Somalia had to be answered.”

Ibrahim says he believed that Shabaab was fighting to establish a Shariah law system that would allow him to live according to his deeply held religious convictions. Joining the jihad, he believed, would help to make that a reality in Somalia. “It was at the beginning. At that time they were happy to see what you call foreign fighters — they welcomed them big time,” he says. “We took part in training, small training, basic training, small weapons and such. Everything was easy.” He adds: “According to the media, somehow they over-exaggerate about Shabaab training. The training is basically just simple, small arms and physical training and discipline.”

That period of relative harmony within the group would not last. And now Ibrahim wants to tell his story so that others will know not to follow in his path. For Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman who represents the largest Somali community in the United States, in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, Ibrahim’s cautionary tale is an example of the kind of story alienated members of Shabaab should be encouraged to tell, rather than simply locking them up or killing them, which is the current U.S. government approach. “I think somebody who has been inside Shabaab telling the truth about how Shabaab is really a criminal terrorist group and not about the liberation of Somalia is probably more likely to promote safety and security than just throwing that same kid in jail,” Ellison says. “We need to learn from these people and we need to use them to message to young people who might be lured by a message from al Shabaab.”

© 2020 The Intercept / First Look Media

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