WHEN HE FIRST started to believe Shabaab was corrupting the cause that brought him to Somalia, Ibrahim says, “at that time I felt like in my heart I could just sense that something was wrong, but I wasn’t open about it. I didn’t want to talk about it. I was trying to keep it to myself and somehow overcome it.” But soon, he says, “These crimes just became open. We felt like the foreign fighters were no longer welcome and somehow we were not respected and we were categorized as second-class citizens.”
“If you look at it, the growth of al Shabaab and making it an international movement, the reality is the foreign fighters, they’re the ones who built this,” Ibrahim says. “At the beginning, Shabaab was basically a local-based organization. When the foreign fighters joined in with Shabaab, that’s when Shabaab started improving themselves. The media, the training camps, all these things, the international cause. They made it an international issue instead of a local issue.” That era, Ibrahim says, is over.
Ibrahim likened life in Shabaab territory to what he understands of North Korean society: secret trials, no appeals, public executions, torture. Only the group’s leadership is allowed access to the Internet or international news. Cell phone logs are monitored by Shabaab. Cameras and camera phones are forbidden.
Ibrahim says he wants to warn Somalis in the U.S., Britain, Canada and elsewhere. “I want my voice to be heard. I don’t want others to make the same mistake I did. Especially to the youth who are in the West, I just want to tell them, don’t come to Somalia. This is advice from the bottom of my heart. You will not improve yourself, first of all, and you will not improve the Muslim Ummah in general.”
When asked if he wants to return to his country of origin, Ibrahim answers no. “I’m not saying I miss where I came from. That’s not the point. I don’t regret choosing this path. The thing I don’t like is the people I’m working with. That’s the main point.”
Ibrahim predicts that years from now, Shabaab will be like the FARC in Colombia — a former political group that has transformed into a criminal enterprise.
Rep. Ellison compares the current U.S. government approach to radicalized Westerners like Ibrahim who join Shabaab to the U.S. war on drugs in its shortsightedness. “In the middle of the drug war, even people who questioned it knew that drugs hurt people, drugs are bad, drugs are not healthy. But do we really want to lock up people for it or do we want to introduce some treatment options here?” He adds, “Same thing now with this. There’s no doubt that all these groups, like al Shabaab, Boko Haram, ISIS and all the rest are horrible, malevolent groups, but how do we defeat them? Is just gunning them down and using military and prison against them going to ultimately defeat them? Or maybe we have to find a way to defeat and undermine the ideology itself.”
Toward this end, circulating stories like Ibrahim’s would be extremely useful, he believes. “The American people don’t know enough about the mindset of anybody who would be attracted to a terrorist reality. We just think that there are bad people and there are good people,” says Ellison. “The truth is there are kids that hate Gitmo, that hate drones, they don’t like our national foreign policy, that are highly critical of it, but that doesn’t make them a terrorist.”
Somalia’s minister for internal security says the government’s amnesty program has been a success. Abdirizak Omar Mohamed estimates that in the past month, a dozen Shabaab fighters have entered the program, joining a defector center for rehabilitation. And he said that one of the driving factors encouraging defectors are the kinds of experiences described by Ibrahim. “The people that have been attracted to Shabaab have realized that the kind of ideology that they have seen and the actions of the leadership of al Shabaab is contradictory to what they were expecting,” Omar told The Intercept. “These are young kids who have been brainwashed. I think if they come to their senses, I think people need to be given a second chance, amnesty.”
The U.S. government has taken a very different approach. Instead of offering amnesty, it has meted out long prison sentences to Somali-Americans and others who have traveled to Somalia, on charges of material support to a terror group. When asked whether the Somali government would hand over U.S. citizens wanted by the government if they asked for amnesty in Mogadishu, Omar said: “That’s a legal question, but we will not surrender them as long as they are here to cooperate with the government and provide information and give up the ideology. They do have rights to be protected.”
I asked Ibrahim what he thinks the U.S. should do. “America is the key player. I think the U.S. should revise their policy toward Somalia. Because I don’t think things are improving.”
While recognizing that Shabaab has conducted deadly attacks outside of Somalia’s borders — such as a 2010 bomb attack in Uganda during the World Cup and the 2013 siege on a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya that killed more than 65 people — Ibrahim believes the U.S. is overstating Shabaab’s global capabilities. He believes the U.S. has given too much credence to the claims made in Shabaab’s propaganda videos and by its media wing, al-Kataib. The U.S. response to Shabaab, he says, has elevated the group’s status in the global jihad movement, making the group more attractive to Westerners.
Ibrahim says he is still committed to the larger cause of establishing a Shariah state, but not through the methods employed by al Shabaab. “The only way I see to clear these issues is we have to practice the Shariah 100 percent,” Ibrahim says. “Al Shabaab, at the beginning, they took this kind of position, ‘If we change Somalia, we will be able to be under the Shariah.’ At the beginning it was beautiful, but somehow they messed it up.”
* “Ibrahim” is a pseudonym.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research to this report.