Shades of Sovereignty

Under the U.S.’s racialized, Islamophobic terrorist imaginary, Somali Americans’ travel to Somalia is seen as a criminal act


ZAKARIA Maruf, a Somali-American recruiter for al-Shabaab, is available for adoption. He migrated to Minneapolis as a teenager in 1993, graduated from Edison High School in 2000, and in 2010 he was placed on the FBI wanted list for supporting terrorist activity. A short biography containing this information is provided in the “Gallery of Terrorists” assembled by Adopt a Terrorist for Prayer (ATFP), a non-profit Christian organization based in Colorado. Founded with the mission of providing “a practical tool for…defeat[ing] the spiritual enemy who uses religion to inspire acts of terror,” the website allows users to browse the gallery, click between biographies, and download “Terrorist Adoption Papers,” which include a picture of the chosen adoptee, links to “relevant information” (newspaper articles, criminal records, FBI wanted posters, press releases), and suggested ways to pray.

Bubs, one of 11 users who has adopted Maruf, writes: “Lord, I ask your blessings on this young man. Lead Zakaria Maruf to the people and places where you and your will will be made known to him.” RS, another adoptive parent, echoes Bubs’s prayer for Maruf’s eventual deliverance: “Lord I ask that you will bring him to a place where he sees the need from a loving GOD.”

If Maruf is to find a willing and loving God, he must first be “led” or “brought” to a place of redemption. Zakaria Maruf’s exact whereabouts, however, are currently unknown. Although he left Minneapolis for Somalia in 2008 and is rumored to have died in a suicide bombing in 2009, the FBI has not yet confirmed his death. Potentially dead, Maruf moves unseen. If he is to be led, he must first be found. Bubs and RS pray for his return.

Maruf is one of 23 Somali-American men alleged to have left Minnesota to join al-Shabaab, a jihadist militant group fighting the invasion of Ethiopian troops along Somalia’s western border. The first recruits are suspected to have left in 2007; in 2010, the Department of Justice unsealed four separate indictments charging 14 of these men with terrorist violations for providing money, personnel, and services to al-Shabaab. After announcing the arrests and charges, Attorney General Eric Holder suggested that the indictments act not only as tools of retribution, but also as tools of clarification: “The indictments today shed further light on a deadly pipeline that has routed funding and fighters to the al-Shabaab terror organization from cities across the United States.”

The route from American cities to al-Shabaab is well traveled, suggests Holder, but still cast in shadow. By “shedding light,” these indictments begin a process of exposure, revealing the names of those who are presumed to have devolved into terrorism, revealing a new network of national security that counts naturalized citizens as potential threats. The imagined “homegrown” terrorist, and the networks of policing that seek to identify him, operate at a nexus of alienating tropes. The image of the terrorist, the image of the “unworthy” migrant, and the image of the black criminal converge into one, producing an anti-terror politics that is also anti-immigrant and anti-black. Perceived as always on the brink of criminalization, Somali-Americans are figured as roving targets within a racialized terrorist imaginary.

IF the indictments made by the Department of Justice shed light on a pipeline stretching from American cities to al-Shabaab, popular media condense and amplify this field of vision to illuminate key actors: the young Somali-American men who travel, deviantly, home.

In October and November 2011, both the New York Times and Minnesota Public Radio published timelines charting movement through the “Minnesota Pipeline to al-Shabaab.” Both publications divide this migration into four waves of recruitment, carefully schematizing probable causes for radicalization. According to the Times, most men arrived in the territorial U.S. as “young refugees” and left as “young recruits”; their transitions from productive suburbanites to potential terrorists are marked by gradual hardship and increasing militancy, climaxing at the point of return. These narratives double as obituaries: Memorializing men not yet confirmed dead, together they assuage the anxieties of an alienation pulsing within the nation.

Shirwa Ahmed is among the first wave of Somali-American men suspected to have joined al-Shabaab. His biography, assembled by the Times, invokes an ornamental nostalgia, a longing for the texture of small familiarities:

Shirwa Ahmed, 26, had come to America as a young boy, surfacing first in Portland in 1994 and then Minneapolis, where he graduated from Roosevelt High School in 2000. For a time he worked pushing airline passengers in wheel chairs and took classes at several local community colleges. By 2003, he was becoming increasingly religious. He drove a beat-up Toyota, delivering packages for a medical supplies company, one friend recalled, and in his spare time offered food and counsel to drunken Somali boys near the Towers, a collection of apartment buildings in South Minneapolis where many Somalis live. “He wanted to bring them back to the culture,” one friend said. Mr. Ahmed left at the end of 2007 and never returned.

Shirwa Ahmed’s absence is materialized through a series of lists. Ahmed acted as an agent, and the direct objects of his actions are quintessentially American: “airline passengers in wheel chairs,” “a beat up Toyota,” “food and counsel.” His agential world, in other words, is populated by objects both tangible and familiar, small fetishes through which American readers might fashion a nostalgia for the ordinary. The loss lamented, in turn, becomes eerily material, as if Ahmed’s absence can be measured by the packages he accumulated, carried, and delivered.

Parallel to these roving objects is Ahmed’s own movement. His physical and ideological migration is described through a grammar of obfuscation: Ahmed “had come” to America, “surfacing” first in Portland; he “was becoming” increasingly religious. These moments of transition, in turn—moving to a new country after facing political persecution, seeking faith—remain in a state of perpetual continuity. Ahmed’s transformation—he “had come,” “was becoming”—is rendered peripheral, a narrative strain that heralds what readers are meant to consider the greater loss: the gradual demise of American boyhood.

Ahmed is gone, but neither he nor his traumas are mourned. This biography—performing the rites of death—recovers only the bits of him that are tangibly familiar and supposedly shared: growing up in the suburbs, giving back to the community. Ahmed’s final movement home is presumed to be without rhyme or reason, the unfortunate misstep of a Somali-American man tethered to his terroristic roots.

EDGED into the pipeline and memorialized upon their departure, these twenty three men are presented by the media as images of diasporic prosperity. Ahmed Ali Omar, also in the first wave, was an “emergency medical technician who worked for an ambulance service”; Abdisalan Ali “pursued a premed track at the University of Minnesota.” Working with the sick is taken to be a signifier of physical and emotional well-being. These short narratives of healthy integration, however, are countered by subsequent accounts of criminalization.

Pre-adoption, Zakaria Maruf joined a rhythm and blues band that performed at Somali weddings. Some years later, the group, Hot Boyz, transformed into a “violent street gang.” Mahamoud Hasan, in the second wave of recruits, was “one of the few Somali boys from his class to make it to college.” He later became known as Snake and joined a gang; in 2007 he witnessed the shooting of another young Somali man. Acts of aggression committed within the territorial U.S. are made available for public viewing (the Times published Maruf’s criminal record alongside his biography), and are presumed to indicate a movement toward deviance beyond discipline. Criminalization anticipates radicalization: Maruf’s “hot temper” and criminal charges (all non-violent driving offenses), are described by the Times as indicators of a propensity for terrorism.

U.S. law enforcement tracks and neutralizes threats within its jurisdiction, but that which extends beyond is unknown: Maruf left for Somalia in the spring of 2008, but officials “can’t understand half of the anger he had” because they “don’t understand his background…things he went through to make him the person he was. ”Although these young men are refugees and the sons of refugees, the stories of their migrations to the United States go untold. Displacement, in turn, is figured as that which happens after passing back across U.S. borders to a half-forgotten homeland. Returning to an origin causes perverse alienation. Reterritorialization away from the U.S.—a site of supposed refuge—marks an intensification of pathology through a redoubling of displacement. These young men travel home, call back to America and sound, paradoxically, “homesick.” They complain “about the food situation over there”: MPR reports that one man said “he’d do anything to get a fast-food restaurant, like a McDonald’s. Or a Frappuccino.” Another “was caffeine addicted… he just had headaches all the time and he wanted to get a Starbucks.”

Traveling to Somalia is figured as a movement toward madness. The diasporic refuge, bounded by American borders, is the only safe space. But although “home” for refugees and political asylees often signifies trauma, so too is it a site of potent affiliation—a reminder of family and friends, a sense of belonging not altogether lost. When the FBI asked Samiya Ahmed, a Minneapolis resident and friend of Zakaria Maruf, if she was thinking of going back to Somalia, she “hesitated on that question like [she] was afraid, as if it was a crime on answering that question.” Somalia is “a shock to their systems”; it is considered to be the terror itself.

IN SEPTEMBER 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would be partnering with the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center to launch a series of counter-terrorism “pilot programs” in Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, slated to begin in early 2015. “Today, few threats are more urgent than the threat posed by violent extremism,” Holder stated in the FBI video-press release. “We have engaged in extensive outreach to communities here in the U.S. We can work with them to identify threats before they emerge, to disrupt homegrown terrorists, and to apprehend would-be violent extremists. But we can—and we must—do even more.”

According to Holder, these pilot programs are meant to rejuvenate systems of security that are not, currently, doing enough. But when the tools of “enforcement” are racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, “doing even more” sounds like a threat, the intensification of a destructive program already underway.

The agenda of these pilot programs is vague, depending on a tired logic of “community outreach” that law enforcement neglects to describe with any precision. “These programs will bring together community representatives, public safety officials, religious leaders, and United States Attorneys to improve local engagement,” announced Holder. “…We will work closely with community representatives to develop comprehensive local strategies [and] to share information on best practices.”

These “outreach” efforts glorify working “closely” and “shar[ing] information,” tactics of surveillance are usually coercive and often non-consensual. State sponsored “partnerships,” couched in neo-liberal ideals of peaceful cohabitation, do more to conceal networks of policing than they do to build resilient communities. Historically, such “partner-making” strains trust: security officials and prosecutors are often the only representatives the government sends to facilitate such “engagement,” creating confusion as to whether Somali-Americans are seen as partners or suspects.

It is difficult to discern what, exactly, is new or experimental about these pilot programs. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security announced an analogous “outreach” effort; they subsequently sent an envoy to Boston to teach Muslim community groups how to better recognize extremist behavior, as well as how to report such behavior to the police. Similarly, following the wave of al-Shabaab recruitment in 2009, FBI headquarters directed officials in five cites to launch a series of pseudo-ethnographic investigations into Somali-American communities. According to an internal document obtained by the Brennan Center through a Freedom of Information Act request, FBI officials were told to conduct investigative activities under the guise of “community outreach.” A 2008 FBI counterterrorism textbook instructs agents to “quantitively gauge” a Muslim’s proclivity for militancy by asking a series of questions about his or her political and religious beliefs.

According to U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, these new programs are not like the others, for they “have nothing to do with surveillance and investigations.” They are more about winning the trust of Somali-American kids while “play[ing] soccer and other sports.” Intelligence gathering is shifted away from government offices to be played out “on a soccer field, in a swimming pool, in a bowling alley.”

The language of “partnership” and the metaphor it immediately invokes—namely, that everyone is playing on the same team—obscure the surreptitious warning that lurks beneath: soccer fields and swimming pools are the new battlefields; the home front is also a theater of war. Earlier this year, the Brennan Center uncovered a grant proposal by the St. Paul Police Department to the Department of Justice, suggesting that an “outreach” team of officers assemble a list of “radicalized” individuals in the Somali-American community. St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith denies his staff ever submitted such proposal. “There wasn’t a database,” he said. “There isn’t a database.”

LIKE Bubs and RS, Abdirahman Yusuf—director and founder of the Somali Development Center (SDC) in Boston—says a habitual prayer. From his office or from his home, he watches CBS or NBC nightly for local news. Each time the anchor announces a robbery or murder, Abdirahman “secretly” prays, whispering, “I hope the aggressor is white.” Abdirahman prays to evade discrimination: “We’re all targets,” he told me. “Whenever something gets blown up, it immediately affects us in a direct way.”

Despite the many “partnerships” forged between law enforcement and Somali-American communities, the organizing done through the Somali Development Center is continually surveilled. Abdirahman’s office phone is bugged, and his clients—mostly refugees, political asylees, and newly naturalized citizens—are regularly detained for questioning at ports of entry. Some have follow-up interviews at the SDC upon their release: “they tell the agencies—not just the FBI, [also] the joint terrorism task force, state police—that they would like to be at the Somali Development Center and for me to be present as they are asked these questions. Because they don’t want to make any mistakes.”

When a particularly large number of his clients were being interrogated by the FBI, Abdirahman took a few of these cases to his state representative in Congress to intervene. His congressional aide gave him some advice: “Tell your clients to give their children Somali names. That will make life easier. Because when you have a name like Mohammed, they become similar to the million in the database that are being looked at.”

Maintaining a diasporic home whose borders are traversed without interrogation requires passing. Disavowing inheritance—giving up one’s name, itself a kind of origin—is a personal choice congressionally advised and federally rewarded. Abdirahman’s formal complaint is met with casual advice: avoid networks of racism and Islamophobia by becoming unidirectionally diasporic; tether yourself to an origin that can be circumscribed, whose threads of affiliation loop seamlessly from Somalia to the U.S., and never become entangled with Islam.

The “database” mentioned by Abdirahman and denied by Police Chief Tom Smith is really a compound of databases: timelines, biographies, public records and criminal reports compiled by the FBI, the State Department, and DHS, selectively replicated and made public by popular media. The names to watch out for proliferate, but so too are they being refined and redefined—through their fetishes (a worn Toyota, a Big Mac forgone), and also, Abdirahman told me, through their taxonomic roots.

The FBI and security people are learning all about us and things they never knew. They know now that if you are finding a Somali person and you need to know who he is, you need to know his clan, sub-clan, and sub-sub-clan. Some of us tried to hide that but obviously you can’t hide anything. It’s our social security number. In our religion it says that we created these tribes to know each other.

Sources of mutual identification—being from one clan, meeting someone from another, finding a nexus of interconnection—in the hands of the state become determinants of absolute difference. Law enforcement now knows people by their tribe, by their village, but even so, “more” must be done: more envoys sent, more suspects named, more soccer fields swept for their radicalized players. The FBI’s theory, Abdirahman surmises, is that “no matter how well they know you, maybe there’s that one quote they missed.”

IN JUNE OF THIS YEAR, the U.S. State Department released the Executive Summary of the Country Reports on Terrorism. Produced annually, the report provides an overview of terrorist activity across global regions. According to the Report, 2014 marked an increase in both lone offender and violent extremism, a web of terror potentiated by permeable borders. In Niger, porous borders “make it easy for terrorists to transfer large sums of cash”; in Somalia, al-Shabaab members use porosity as a means of “conducting training and terrorist planning.”

The imagined danger of Somali refugees is that they are always becoming agents of terror, transforming as they cross the borders of the American nation-state. Donna Haraway writes that porous bodies are “always holding the potential of hybridizing across fantastical human/alien boundaries…the porous form is contrasted to the impenetrable culture of singularity and individualism typically found in the postwar West.” In the eyes of the state, Somali refugees—by virtue of their migratory positions—are capable of crossing not only the borders that divide a site of trauma from one of refuge, but also those that sequester the sane from the pathological, the natural from the alien.

“Unalienable rights,” the extension of sovereignty from state to individual, are the promise of independence. In order to attain such rights, refugees—technically “alien” by law—depend upon U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security whose primary responsibility is not to provide rights or refuge, but to protect the U.S. from potential terror attacks. The tenet of naturalization is access to an individualism afforded to all Americans, but the organizations meant to provide such access are also the ones who guard it.

Mechanisms of national security protect sovereignty, but so too do they do the work of selective disintegration, determining who is allowed to become “singular” or “individual” by accentuating the porosity of migratory bodies under surveillance. Policing, like networks of recruitment, relies on isolation, indoctrination, and control. Tapping into a phone line and compiling a covert database necessarily demand that borders be permeable when probed by the state apparatus. Abdirahman’s calls are no longer private; Zakaria Maruf belongs to Bubs and RS. Surveillance, in turn, reveals itself not only as a regulatory system that produces a set of subjects, but also as the process by which their subjectivity is rendered null. This is the very function of police and border regimes in a “democratic” state: to determine shades of sovereignty, protecting the unalienable humanity of some by authorizing the dehumanization of others. A “culture of singularity and individualism” is only impenetrable when viewed from the perspective of those it counts as natural subjects. For those whose naturalization is on the brink of being revoked, impenetrability is a myth of privacy long lost

In the Country Reports on Terrorism, the State Department describes porosity as that which breeds villainy. But the organizations it counts as partners—the FBI, White House, and Homeland Security, among others—demand that individuals who are black, Muslim, and Somali accept porosity in the name of American nationalism. “Partnerships”—the invasion of migratory black bodies, their workplaces, their homes—are forged to secure an image of nation and nationality that prides itself on sovereignty. This violence is neither silent nor surreptitious; it is an endemic terror, one that persists because it masquerades as safety for all.

IN FEBRUARY OF NEXT YEAR, nineteen year-old Hamza Ahmed is scheduled to stand trial for conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). On November 4, 2014, Ahmed was detained at John F. Kennedy Airport; FBI agents pulled him off his plane just minutes before it was scheduled to depart for Turkey. He was interrogated along with three other men, all Somali-American, refugees and the sons of refugees. FBI officials suspect the group took a bus from Minnesota to New York, where they were to depart for Europe, and arrive, eventually, in Syria. Ahmed told the FBI that he didn’t know these three other men—that he hadn’t traveled with them on the bus, that he had no ties to them back in Minnesota. On February 4, 2015, Ahmed was arrested for making false statements.

Law enforcement warns that Ahmed’s case reveals a troubling interconnection between terrorism abroad and recruitment efforts at home. Since June 2014, fifteen Somali-American men are suspected to have left Minnesota to join ISIL in Syria, reopening a gauge that was presumed closed. Upon announcing Ahmed’s indictment, U.S. Attorney Luger recalled that “Since 2007, dozens of people from the Twin Cities have traveled or attempted to travel overseas in support of terror. While my office will continue to prosecute those who attempt to provide material support to ISIL or any other terrorist organization, we remain committed to working with dedicated community members to bring this cycle to an end.”

As Hamza Ahmed awaits trial, the F.B.I. continues to investigate just how he and his six acquaintances linked up with ISIL. According to Luger, recruitment was a “peer-to-peer operation.” The Times reports that discussions of the Islamic State “took place during pickup basketball games and visits to the mall.”

When “investigation” and “outreach” happen on the same basketball courts and soccer fields, it’s difficult to imagine that the two don’t intersect. “Winning the trust of Somali-American kids” and quantifying their potential for terrorism cannot happen simultaneously. ISIL is reportedly “taking a page from al-Shabaab’s playbook,” and in order to curb further movement through the pipeline, the FBI is adopting predictive policing tactics reliant on racial profiling. These potential terrorists, after all, are created in the image of the black criminal: according to the Times, “like gang members or corner drug dealers, the recruiting largely relied on friendship networks and the thrill of a dangerous mission.”

The policing of black Americans—and the gang members, drug dealers, and terrorists they are presumed to become—relies upon the assumption that violence originates in a particular race, religion, or nationality. Joining a politics of security with one of transnational black solidarity, we might begin to resist not only the violence wreaked by “terror,” but also by the racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia that have been magnified in its name.