PORTLAND, Maine — Members of Portland’s Somali community came out in force Tuesday to condemn the terrorist attack of an upscale shopping mall in Kenya, dismiss rumors that a local man was involved and reiterate their commitment to peace.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, met Tuesday afternoon with Portland’s Somali elders at the Islamic Society of Portland and joined several community members afterward to field questions from reporters.
“We tell our kids as parents, as community leaders and as religious leaders that what [terrorists] are doing is not representative of Islam,” said local Somali and Deering High School teacher Abdullahi Ahmed. “The newcomers here have come from fear and violence to find a peaceful place here in Portland, Maine.”
The meeting took place four days after armed terrorists stormed a Nairobi mall, reportedly killing at least 62 people, and two days after Portland’s Somali community was thrust into the national spotlight as a result of allegations that a person with Maine ties was among the attackers.
A since-deactivated Twitter account claiming to represent the Somali terrorist group al Shabab took responsibility for the mall attack and listed the names of those allegedly involved, a group that included one from Maine. Federal officials have maintained that the Twitter account and the information posted there, which were re-posted in multiple places on the Internet before the account was shut down, cannot be confirmed.
The militant group, often described as an offshoot of the better-known al Qaida, reportedly called the attack retaliation for Kenyan military forces’ participation in ongoing conflicts in nearby Somalia.
The unconfirmed Maine connection to the incident has whipped up a firestorm of speculation about the presence of terrorist recruiters in Maine’s largest city, where some analysts say international militant groups attempt to coerce immigrants into helping fund attacks or even returning to their home countries to carry out the violent plans.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House subcommittee on intelligence and counterterrorism, told CBS News “it’s important right now for the FBI to go to communities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, to Portland, Maine” to investigate the alleged recruitment activity.
NBC terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann told Portland NBC affiliate WCSH-TV 6 in the aftermath of the mall attack that Maine’s largest city is on a “very specific, short list of places” in America targeted by al Shabab recruiters.
But on Tuesday, Pingree and Ahmed told reporters that any purported ties between Portland and the terrorist group are just “rumors.”
“I don’t think there’s any real truth to the rumors that we’ve heard and some of the sources behind it have been discredited,” Pingree said.
“We are a peaceful community and we do not know anyone from Maine involved,” Ahmed said, adding that al Shabab recruitment in Maine is “something we are not aware of.”
Maine has approximately 6,000 residents of Somali descent.
“Al Shabab has inflicted more pain and more suffering on Somalis than any other community,” Ahmed continued. “Somalis need the help of the U.S. and the international community to get rid of Shabab.”
Osman Hersi, associate director of the Portland-based Somali Culture and Development Association, said Tuesday young Somali-Americans living in Portland have as distant an awareness of al Shabab as any of their school classmates.
“They’re Mainers and they act like Mainers,” Hersi said. “They’re texting, playing basketball and thinking about where they will go dancing on Saturday night.”
Jane Evans, who teaches English as a second language at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday that terrorist activity is “very opposite from any experience I’ve ever had with” Somali students.
“Many of them understand that they’re judged unfairly because they’re Muslim, and there are big stereotypes because of that,” she said. “But with all the teachings they follow, you don’t kill. It’s unfortunate when [rumors] like this get started and take on a life of their own.”
NBC News reported Monday that while al Shabab has the largest number of American members of any al Qaida affiliate, those numbers are dwindling, down to a current estimate of 20 U.S. passport holders in the group. That compares with highs of more than 50 just two years ago, NBC investigator Robert Windrem reported.
All three American al Shabab members to have carried out suicide bombings in recent years, from 2008 to 2011 in Somalia, were from Minnesota, Windrem wrote.
Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for Sen. Angus King’s office, told the Bangor Daily News on Monday night the senator and his staff have been in touch with U.S. counter-terrorism officials, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and the local Somali community.
After the news broke that one of the alleged terrorists may be from Maine, King on Sunday issued a forceful statement saying “justice should be swift and sure” for the attackers, “including anyone with connections to Maine.” But he added that “we must avoid assigning blame to members of our refugee community generally, the vast majority of whom came here specifically to avoid such violence.”