Meet the Canadian woman who runs a safe house for Al Qaeda suicide bombers

Michelle Shephard - Canadian woman at the centre of Somalia’s Al Qaeda is known among the intelligence agencies that track her and the foreign militants who praise her simply as “Mama Shabab.”
Article Keydmedia Online
Meet the Canadian woman who runs a safe house for Al Qaeda suicide bombers

It is an honorific title for former Toronto resident Fadumo Jama, who intelligence agencies allege is the den mother of al Shabab who runs a safe house for Western fighters recruited into the militant Islamic organization.

While she moves frequently, using forged passports from African countries, it is believed she has operated a home in the Somali town of Merca for at least four years and has supported American and European recruits in the weeks before their suicide bombing missions.

Jama is a well-known figure to intelligence agencies in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Somalia, yet her name does not appear in any public documents and she has not been charged.

But a Toronto Star investigation based on interviews with security, intelligence and law enforcement officials, in addition to leaders in the Somali diaspora here and abroad, reveal a portrait of a female leader vital to the organization.

Her role facilitating Western recruits exemplifies the increasing importance of women to the Shabab — although her position of authority is rare, as most females are recruited only as wives for the fighters or suicide bombers.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Richard Fadden told a Senate committee earlier this year that this was an emerging trend.

“(There is) increasing potential for more women in Canada to become radicalized as injunctions against female participation in violent jihad have begun to disappear from extremist websites,” he said.

Two young Toronto women raised in Canada after their parents fled Somalia when the government collapsed two decades ago were among those reportedly lured into the group last year, defying their families and flying to Kenya’s capital before crossing the border.

The whereabouts of one of the women is unknown although it is believed her relatives in Somalia managed to intercept her.

But relatives and friends of Asli Nur, a promising University of Toronto student in her early 20s who left in January 2011, are worried about reports that she has adopted the group’s hardline doctrine.

After leaving Canada, Nur, once an international relations student who aspired to work in the humanitarian sector, posted strident messages under the name Umm Mohammed on her Facebook page, which has since been deactivated.

According to one official with knowledge of the case, she taught English to Shabab members when she first arrived and married one of the foreign fighters who goes by the name Dawood al Marroci, David the Moroccan.

A few months ago, the pair was separated when Nur’s husband crossed the Gulf of Aden for Yemen — a popular route now as fleeing Shabab members leave strongholds in the port town of Kismayo or Puntland’s Galgala Mountains for Yemen’s Abyan province, to join forces with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Nur is believed to have suffered a miscarriage and is recuperating in Somalia. There is no evidence she has participated in any Shabab terrorist activities and is seen by many in the Somali community as a Shabab victim, rather than a member.

Her devastated family declined to be interviewed, as did friends reached by the Star.

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known by his nickname “Farmajo,” is Nur’s uncle by marriage and Somalia’s former prime minister.

“It was shocking. Nobody thought that something like that could happen,” he said during an interview in Nairobi. “She’s one of many children that has been lured.”

Farmajo was popular in Mogadishu for his efforts against the Shabab and his support for Somalia’s forces. When he was pushed out of power during a political dispute in June 2011, Somalis protested in the streets. He described watching one of his own relatives succumb to the group’s influence as “heartbreaking.”

It is not known whether Nur had any contact with Mama Shabab, and few in Toronto’s Somali community want to talk about the Canadian recruits.

As one Somali leader said, “The community feels victimized twice — first by the Shabab and then by the security services and journalists who come later.”

It is true that far more Somalia-born Canadians and their children — some of whom have never seen their parents’ homeland — are returning to help rebuild the country through business, politics or humanitarian aid, not to join the fledgling Shabab.

But with their valuable passports and their seeming willingness to die fighting, the Western recruits have intelligence agencies worried — and they keep Mama Shabab on the radar.

“She is very important, as everybody went to her safe house,” one security official, who has collected reports on Jama for years, told the Star on the condition he not be identified. “At least nine of the Americans, including Jehad Mostafa, went through there.”

Mostafa is the 6’1” California university student originally from Wisconsin, indicted in the U.S. for his involvement with the Shabab.

Another reported guest of Jama’s home was a 23-year-old recruit from Denmark, who blew himself up in 2009 at Mogadishu’s Shamo Hotel. The bombing was one of Somalia’s most devastating attacks, taking place during a graduation ceremony for medical students. Among the 25 dead and more than 60 injured were medical students, three government ministers, doctors and journalists.

Getting information on Jama’s life in Toronto is more difficult. The Star was unable to reach her ex-husband or her estranged sons. It is believed she left Canada years ago but has many relatives from her minority Shekal clan in Toronto.

While Western recruits continue to join the Shabab — most estimates claim 20 to 60 have gone from Canada, including some this year — the group is believed to be at its weakest now.

It has lost much of its popularity inside Somalia, blamed in part for last year’s famine and for suicide bombings with high civilian tolls.

A 10-month offensive by African Union forces from Kenya, Uganda and Burundi, along with Somali soldiers and forces from Ethiopia, has pushed the remaining Shabab members to only a few towns.

But that stark reality on the ground is not reflected online.

“A youth in Birmingham or Edmonton or Phoenix, whose only access is propaganda and Google, maybe he doesn’t even speak Somali, thinks Somalia’s war is Muslims fighting non-Muslims,” said International Crisis Group analyst Abdirashid Hashi, a Canadian who grew up in Toronto.

“But even the Shabab knows its 15 minutes of fame is over.”

The fear, however, is that the Shabab will manage to gain strength through the weakness of Somalia’s notoriously corrupt system. Simply put, many young Somalis have turned to the Shabab in the past for protection, or as an alternative to warlords or thieving politicians.

Which is why all eyes are on next month’s Somali election, which will end the unpopular UN-backed transitional government that has limped on since 2004.

“What feeds them is people,” Farmajo, who plans to run in the election, says about the Shabab. “If we win the hearts and the minds, they will be isolated.”

By Michelle Shephard - National Security Reporter

Article 21 May 2021 10:14

I read your article on Foreign Policy with keen eyes and interest. While whining from public officials does not deserve response from any sensible citizen of the Republic of Somalia, I felt compelled to counter false narrative with more objective analysis.