September 29, 2013

The tweet that shook Portland’s Somalis

Stereotypes and fears are brought to the surface when Maine gets tied to a terrorist attack in Kenya.

By J. Craig Anderson
Staff Writer

and Eric Russell
Staff Writer

As claims of a Maine connection to last weekend's terrorist attack on a Kenyan shopping mall have become more dubious, voices within the state's Somali refugee community have grown louder and angrier.

click image to enlarge

Mohammed Dini, director of the African Diaspora Institute, says Somali-Americans feel a backlash from media reports about a possible connection with the Kenya mall attack.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

They want to know why newspapers, TV stations and politicians so quickly repeated allegations from an obscure Twitter account that Somali-Americans from Maine and other places in the U.S. had helped carry out the attack.

Although radical groups have used social media to get their message out, most major media outlets immediately questioned the story's legitimacy and did not name the alleged U.S. terrorists.

Critics, however, said the rush to report on the questionable tweets was still harmful to Somali-American communities.

"It was very irresponsible the way it played," said Mohammed Dini, executive director of the African Diaspora Institute and a former candidate for the Maine Legislature. "It played for five days everywhere, from CNN to the local paper."

Dini said he is not aware of any acts of violence perpetrated against members of Maine's Somali-American community since the story broke, but there has been an unmistakable backlash.

Somali-Americans have been berated on the street, blasted on TV and the Internet, and subjected to public insinuations by politicians, he said.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said there is no clear evidence of a connection between any Americans and the attack on Nairobi's upscale Westgate Mall by Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, which killed at least 67 people and wounded more than 200.

Even though the likelihood grows that the Twitter allegations are false, Dini said, that doesn't mean the negative treatment of local Somalis will cease.

"You already have three strikes against you because you're black, you're an immigrant and you're Muslim," he said.

Dini said young people are particularly sensitive to negative public attention because they have become deeply assimilated into the non-Somali culture in Maine.

"Those who grow up here or were born here are those directly affected," he said.

Twitter shut down an account linked to al-Shabab shortly after it claimed responsibility for the attack. The group created another account, which has also been suspended.

Twitter's policy states that content can be censored if it is used "for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities," or if users "publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others."

But Twitter staff does not monitor content unless the posts are unlawful or threatening. Those are suspended only after reports of violations.

By the time the accounts linked to al-Shabab were shut down, the information had spread, even given their questionable authenticity.

The fallout hurts peace-loving Somali-Americans who are often treated as being guilty by association, said Abdullahi Ahmed, a Somali-American science teacher at Deering High School.

"Anything that singles them out, it actually damages their morale," Ahmed said. "We are concerned that people are talking about Somalis and stereotyping."

Dini also was critical of the way politicians, including U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, responded in the immediate aftermath of the news.

Dini said politicians' vows to go after any wrongdoers from the U.S. read as though they assumed some Somali-Americans had participated in the attack.

King's communications director, Crystal Canney, issued a written statement Friday saying the senator did not make any assumptions about a possible Maine link to the attack.

"Our statement was intended to let the public know that the Senator was aware of the situation, that if there was a connection that it would be pursued, and to remind people to avoid assigning blame to members of the Somali refugee community," she wrote.


Two events coincided on Sept. 22 that appeared to lend credence to the idea of a Maine connection to the Westgate Mall attack.

(Continued on page 2)

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