Their Columbus community is being painted as a hotbed of terror. It’s the opposite.
We still don’t know exactly what motivated the Ohio State student who wounded 11 people with his car and a knife on Monday, before a campus police officer shot and killed him. We know that the student, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, was a Somali refugee, and that he felt Muslims were subject to unfair scrutiny in his community, and in the United States in general. We know that he posted a rant on Facebook just minutes before the attack, saying he was “willing to kill a billion infidels in retribution for a single DISABLED Muslim.”
Will Oremus is Slate’s senior technology writer. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.
We also know that ISIS claimed credit for the attack on Tuesday, but that doesn’t tell us much. One of the group’s shrewdest strategies has been to embrace violent acts by Muslims around the globe, whether or not it played a direct role in them. The tactic makes the group seem more potent and broad-based than it really is. President-elect Donald Trump readily accepted this claim, highlighting the ISIS link along with Artan’s Somali background in a tweet on Tuesday.
The tweet echoed Trump’s past warnings about the threat posed by Somali refugees in the United States, suggesting they will face increased scrutiny under his presidency. It’s also possible that he will follow through on his campaign proposal to ban refugees from the country, despite the ongoing violence there. Somalis in Columbus, and across the country, are on edge: Many have children and other close relatives in Somalia, or in Kenyan refugee camps, who are in the midst of the already arduous application process for a family reunification visa.
To blame Somalis and ISIS for acts of violence like Artan’s, and to respond with a crackdown on the group as a whole, may strike some as an understandable reaction. But in fact, it is a misdiagnosis of the problem—and a deeply misguided solution. That’s not only because it’s unfair to blame the group for the sins of a tiny number of individuals. It’s also because it’s counterproductive and misses the point.
The time I’ve spent with Columbus’ Somali community, working on a master’s thesis about young Somalis and the threat of radicalization in 2010 and 2011, revealed that its troubles stem not from a lack of scrutiny, but a surfeit of it. Many of its members escaped the armed conflict in Somalia only to face new obstacles in the U.S. heartland: poverty, alienation, and a wholly justified sense of persecution. The reaction from Columbus Somalis in the wake of Artan’s attack was one of horror—at the act itself, but also at the likely consequences for their community. This was Somali Americans’ worst nightmare, and something that many of them have been working for years to prevent.
To be clear, Artan’s Facebook posts are scary, and his act was brutal. There’s no excusing it. And he is not the first Somali refugee in the United States to wish or inflict violence on innocent neighbors. In recent years, a handful of Somali refugees in Columbus, Minneapolis, and other cities have been linked with similar attacks, including a 22-year-old man of Somali descent who stabbed eight people in a Minnesota mall in September. ISIS claimed responsibility in that case, as well. There have also been multiple reports by the FBI of foiled plots involving Somali Americans in recent years, although it’s unclear in many cases to what extent the plots were serious to begin with. And a handful of young Somali Americans have either traveled or allegedly planned to travel to Somalia or Syria to join terrorist or insurgent groups. (There was also a foiled plot earlier this year in which three white Americans allegedly planned to blow up a Kansas apartment complex that was home to more than 100 Somali immigrants.)
No doubt Somalia is a troubled country, scarred by religious violence. That’s why people are fleeing, and why the United States has taken in some 100,000 refugees from the nation in the past 15 years. But based on what we know about the perpetrators, the troubles that lead to these sorts of attacks don’t seem to originate in Somalia, nor with ISIS or any other international terror group.
According to the New York Times, Artan left Somalia at a young age, finding refuge with his family in Pakistan before entering the United States two years ago. Once here, he seemed to thrive at first, graduating with honors from Columbus State Community College before transferring to Ohio State. Sources told the Times there was no evidence he harbored any radical ideology, at least until the Facebook rant. Nor does he seem to have been active in the local Muslim community.
People can break in different ways. They can turn to drugs or gangs or weird cults. In Somali American communities, there’s a scarier alternative.
The St. Cloud mall stabber, Dahir Adan, was born in a refugee camp in Kenya and had lived in the United States since age 2, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2008. Again, he did not seem to be part of any religious extremist groups, and indications were that he acted alone in the stabbing. To whatever extent these young men became radicalized, then, it seems to have happened here in the United States—and without the knowledge of others in their Somali American communities.
When I grew up in Columbus in the 1980s and 1990s, the city’s Somali-born population was negligible. The influx of refugees began in the early 2000s, when Somalia spiraled into chaos following a failed U.S. intervention and an Ethiopian incursion. When I returned in 2010, its population had boomed past 20,000. Estimates now put it closer to 38,000, if not more.
The Somali community in Columbus is, by American standards, quite poor and socially isolated. Muslim, black, and culturally foreign, it’s hard to imagine a group of people more likely to be marginalized in a Midwestern U.S. city. Add to that the language barriers and personal traumas that many Somali refugees face, and you have what seems like the perfect recipe for poverty, alienation, and ultimately, radicalization. No one who understands the situation can be shocked that a few Somali Americans have turned to violence, or that this violence has taken a form that resembles Islamic terrorism.
What’s surprising, if anything, is just how rare these outbursts have been. For all the publicity around a handful of stabbings and FBI stings, fewer than a dozen of the more than 100,000 U.S. Somali refugees have ever attempted anything like Artan did. And while the country has seen a spike in mass killings over the past 10 years, including many by white Americans, not one has been perpetrated by a Somali refugee. In other words, these refugees, despite everything stacked against them, have overwhelmingly rejected violence and radicalization.
This is not a fluke or an accident. Spend any time in Columbus’ Somali American community and you’ll quickly see that it is not a hotbed of anger or radicalism. Rather, it is a hotbed of entrepreneurial spirit, economic optimism, religious piety, and conservative family values. It is, in these respects, stereotypically American. Somalis in Columbus, as in other U.S. cities, have reinvigorated flagging neighborhoods by opening markets, restaurants, and community centers in vacant storefronts and shopping malls. A former T.J. Maxx in Northwest Columbus has become the Global Mall, a vibrant warren of Somali-owned businesses including halal grocers, clothing boutiques, and barber shops.
But there is one respect in which Somalis’ lives differ markedly from those of other Americans—even from other groups of poor immigrants or ethnic or religious minorities. The shadow of suspicion hangs over their heads constantly. FBI agents hang around their mosques. Police check up on them regularly to ask if they’ve heard of anyone becoming radicalized. They realize they may never again see their loved ones who remain in Somalia or Kenyan refugee camps, and they know that the reason is because many Americans fear them. “I had a Somali woman in my office today who has a 7-year-old daughter with a family-reunification application that has been pending for years,” says Angela Plummer, executive director of CRIS, a Columbus nonprofit that helps refugees find homes and jobs. “They’ve followed all the rules. I’m extremely worried that they may never be reunited. It’s devastating.”
It’s a feeling that Somali Americans deal with on a daily basis—the feeling of being feared, of being watched, of the deck being stacked against them. And the vast majority of them deal with it incredibly well.
But in any community, refugee or otherwise, there are people who struggle to get along in society, who feel socially untethered, out of place, hopeless, desperate, or angry—or suffer from mental illness. Being poor and isolated certainly doesn’t help. Nor does it help when your paranoia has some basis in reality—that is, when you really are being watched everywhere you go. In Somali communities, as in others, a few people deal with this poorly. Instead of bearing up, they break.
People can break by turning to drugs or gangs or weird cults, depending on their experiences and the cultural context. In Somali American communities, there’s a scarier alternative. It’s the one offered by ISIS, and by other extremist groups, and by a relatively small number of radical imams around the world, some of whom have online platforms. That alternative is to channel one’s discontent into religious fervor, hatred of the West, or a personal jihad of some sort—and, eventually, into a public act of violence against strangers. There are even specific blueprints available for how to do it. According to the New Yorker, the ISIS magazine Rumiyah last month published a special issue on knife attacksthat included highly detailed advice on blades and killing techniques.
Again, it’s impossible to know exactly what was in Artan’s head when he drove a car into pedestrians and stabbed people with a butcher’s knife. But the act appears to have had less in common with coordinated strikes by international terrorist groups than with the actions of other young Americans—mostly white and male—who open fire in a school, an office building, or a church. Jared Lee Loughner, Dylann Roof—these are young people who snapped, perhaps saw themselves reflected in a hate-filled cause, and decided to take others down with them.
“I don’t think Somali American youth are different from any other youth in the sense that they’re adolescents going through adolescence,” says Mohammed Farah, a third-year student at Ohio State who is the son of Somali refugees. “I do think Somali American youth may or may not be going through a lot, but we’re not a monolith.”
To attribute an act of violence by a troubled individual to ISIS is to play into the group’s hands. Not only does it boost ISIS’s stature, it sows the very enmity against Muslims in Western societies that fuels extremism’s appeal to the disaffected. It leads to headlines like this one on Fox News: “Ohio State attack latest stain on Somali community in Columbus.” (It was filed in the “Terror” section.) And Farah told me he is worried it could lead to even wider suffering than that which Artan himself inflicted. “Abdul Razak Ali Artan had 11 victims, and that is a tragedy,” Farah said. “I would hate for all refugees in America to also become his victims, and Donald Trump’s victims.”
The real problems in Somali refugee communities are not religious or geopolitical, but economic and social. The way to solve them is to help create the conditions for Somali refugees and their children to thrive, so that fewer of them even consider the option that Artan chose. That’s not an easy fix, either. But at least we’d all be in it together.