Two Somali-Canadian women who vanished from Toronto in early January travelled to Somalia and are believed to have joined Al Shabaab, say community members who fear the increasing appeal of this outlawed terrorist group among youth.
“No one knows what happened . . . how they were brainwashed,” said Mohamed Gilao of Dejinta Beesha, a Rexdale-based organization that helps Somali-Canadians.
“It’s very, very worrying.”
It is the first known case of women being recruited by Al Shabaab in North America, sending shock waves through Toronto’s Somali community.
Their disappearance is particularly troubling for those still reeling from news of the Tuesday night arrest of Mohamed Hersi, 25, at Pearson airport before boarding a flight for Cairo.
Police allege he planned to make his way to Somalia to join Shabaab. The Scarborough man, facing terror-related charges, is scheduled to appear in a Brampton court Friday to set a bail hearing.
It has long been believed that Shabaab was targeting only young men to take up arms with the Islamist youth militia.
In the United States, two Somali-born American women were indicted in 2010 for their alleged role in a fundraising scheme for the group. While fundraising efforts were focused in the U.S., they also allegedly solicited funds in Canada.
The Toronto women, believed to be good friends, are between the ages of 18 and 20. They disappeared from their west-end homes one morning in January, leaving behind unsuspecting families.
The two later emailed saying they were in Somalia, recalled a community member who knows both families and did not want his name disclosed. “They told their parents they were fine and not to look for them. Their parents are devastated. . . . They don’t know what to do.”
He said the two families had no indication their daughters were being radicalized. “They never saw it coming. Now they are very worried for the other kids, too.”
The women have since emailed their families a few times, but have never called, said another member of the Somali community.
Both women lived with their families and are believed to have been born in Canada. One was a student at the University of Toronto; it’s not clear where the other studied.
An uncle of one missing woman confirmed she was missing but did not want to talk about it.
Omar Jamal, who works with the UN’s Somali mission in New York and is well-known among the Somali diaspora in the U.S. and Canada, said women are more susceptible to indoctrination than men.
“We are slowly starting to realize that,” a shocked Jamal said in an interview. “I think the Shabaab is now targeting girls because they are believed to be more dedicated.”
In the U.S., women are still being used to collect funds from the Somali community, he added.
Back in Toronto, Canada’s spy agency has reportedly been questioning members of the community for the past couple of months about the missing women.
But the Canadian Security Intelligence Service would not comment on their disappearance or how many others they suspect have joined the ranks of the Shabaab.
“We are actively engaged in investigating security threats to Canada and Canadian interests, including the threat posed by radicalization and terrorism,” said agency spokesperson Tahera Mufti. “However, we will not publicly discuss specific operational activities or interests.”
The women are among the latest in a growing number of local youth suspected to have been recruited by the Al Qaeda-inspired movement.
Others from Toronto include a group of six young men who vanished in late 2009. Of the so-called Somali Six, Mohammed Elmi Ibrahim of Scarborough, died in battle about a year ago.
Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress, also says another man, who is about 20, fought with Shabaab between the ages of 16 to 18 but has since returned and is living in the Dixon Rd. neighbourhood known as Little Mogadishu.
Police allege Hersi, the University of Toronto science graduate arrested at the airport, also planned to take up arms.
In September, a tip about Hersi’s online activity reportedly came from his employer, a security company.
The tip was entered into the RCMP’s suspicious incident reporting system, a database which collects information on incidents involving critical infrastructure or national security.
Toronto police worked with the RCMP’s National Security Enforcement Team on Project Severe. Members of the Somali community “played a key role in providing intelligence” that helped with the case, said Hussen.
“It’s good the community is taking this very seriously and waking up to the danger of this kind of activity,” said Hussen, adding he was “deeply saddened but not surprised” by news of Hersi’s arrest.
“We’d been hearing about all these disappearances and investigations but no one had been arrested.”
The Shabaab, which is fighting the government, is often called Somalia’s Taliban. Its increasingly savvy online presence has been blamed as a possible reason for the disappearance of the young Canadians in 2009.
Somali community leaders fear other young people will be targeted as long as they feel alienated in this country, and embraced by another. Toronto star