Of all my experiences as a graduate student, none can match the time I spent as a teaching assistant for Said Samatar. A professor of African History at Rutgers University-Newark, Samatar is the kind of scholar every up-and-coming aspires, or at least should aspire, to emulate: Intelligent, accessible, puckishly funny (he liked to prepare students for tests by quoting Dante: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here"), and armed with a biography that makes one pause before whining about your own petty travails.
Samatar, you see, is Somali. Although he was born in Ethiopia, he spent a good part of his adult life teaching at Somali universities, at one point barely fleeing Mogadishu with his life after a warlord put a bounty on his head. While other people may wax poetic or indignant about abject poverty or the hardships of war, Samatar has first-hand familiarity with these heinous aspects of the human condition.
As such, I thought of him when I saw the following report in the Washington Post two weeks ago:
A former Army soldier has been indicted in Maryland on charges that he tried to join a terrorist organization in Somalia.
A federal grand jury indictment returned Wednesday charges Craig Benedict Baxam with attempting to provide material support to Al-Shabaab. He faces a maximum sentence of 15 years if convicted.
The 24-year-old Baxam, who is from Laurel, served in the Army from 2007 to 2011. He was arrested on a criminal complaint in January upon returning to Maryland from Africa.
Prosecutors say Baxam cashed out his retirement savings and bought a plane ticket to Kenya with plans of traveling to Somalia and joining Al-Shabaab. He was arrested in Kenya before reaching Somalia.
Baxam’s public defender has said Baxam was naïve, impulsive and simply exploring his religion.
This is not the first time an Islamofascist was discovered in our military. One recalls Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist whose shooting spree at Fort Hood left 13 people dead and 29 others wounded back in 2009. Although we are fortunate that Baxam's criminality had less bloody consequences, we are still left with a man who, while harboring terrorist sympathies, was able to not only join the Armed Forces but maintain a career there from 2007 to 2011. The same institution that until recently had no compunction about dishonorably discharging members based on their sexual orientation spent years training and employing a cryptology and intelligence expert whose private life (unlike that of the homosexuals they persecuted) actually did pose a risk to our national security.
In Hasan's case, grave suspicions had lingered for years without anyone acting upon them out of fear of being accused of religious discrimination. While we still don't know what the military knew about Baxam's dark side and how long they knew it, the Hasan incident certainly makes those subjects valid fields for inquiry. If they didn't know about Baxam's affiliations for the bulk of his service, how come they didn't detect them? If early signs did exist that Baxam wished to aid our nation's enemies, why did it take so long for them to be acted upon? Was the military again afraid of violating the tenets of political correctness (against Muslims, mind you, not homosexuals)? Were measures at least taken to minimize the damage he could do until he was discharged? Was his discharge even related to these issues? Most important of all, what preventive measures can the military take to avoid having this happen in the future?
These are questions that, alas, cannot be answered by anyone without direct access to Baxam's case. Upon further research, however, I learned that Al-Shabaab is actually a branch of Al-Qaeda (although many members are unhappy with that alliance), one that rigidly enforces Sharia law in those parts of Somalia (mainly in the south) where it has acquired control. As such, several questions occurred to me that seemed perfectly suited for Samatar's field of expertise. A brief interview transcript is posted below:
Rozsa: "What is the appeal of groups like Al-Shabaab to certain Muslims?"
Samatar: "The appeal of Al-Shabaab lies in its billed image as a Messianic Movement. When people suffer sustained trauma, as the Somalis have in 20 years of relentless anarchy, they are easily brained-washed into following a messia, a redeemer."
Rozsa: "What impact has it had on the political, social, and cultural life of that beleaguered country, as well as on the overall security of its citizens, both in the areas it controls and in the nation as a whole?"
Samatar: "A most destructive impact on Somalia - socially, culturally, and politically. They amputate limbs, take 13-year-old girls to the market place and have them publicly stoned to death for alleged sexual infractions. Somalis feel like the apocalypse has descended upon them."
Rozsa: "Is there a risk of Somalia (a) having its government toppled by Al-Shabab and/or (b) becoming a breeding ground for terrorists, akin to Yemen?"
Samatar: "No, Al-Shabaab is not strong enough to topple the TFG (Traditional Federal Government of Somalia), rickety though the TFG is. No, Somalia will never be a territory for Islamic terrorists. The clan structure trumps devotion to Islam in Somalia."
Rozsa: Finally, what if anything can America do to counter the draw of groups like Al-Shabab for Muslims?
Samatar: "America should proceed to engage with all the provinces of Somalia - Somaliland, Puntland, etc. - rather than being obsessed with the restoration of the central state. It should never put boots on the ground, but pluck out terrorists by commando raids."
No further comment requires, except perhaps a nugget of wisdom from Mark Twain, one we should all bear in mind when pontificating about such solemn foreign policy matters:
“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”