Alumni Profiles

Exploring Divided Loyalties

Joseph Weber
Photo by Greg Nathan

Joseph Weber has long wanted to know what draws people to be members of groups outside the mainstream, such as cults or extremist movements.

The veteran journalist, who now teaches journalism at University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL), wrote his first exploration of that idea in Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa. The book focuses on practitioners of a New Age movement that surged in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.

Now, in a new book, Weber RC’77 explores a deadly and disturbing phenomenon of the 21st century: young Americans seeking to join ISIS, the Islamic militant group infamous for its brutality.

“I was interested in why someone would join a group that most civilized people would see as a death cult,” Weber says. “I also thought it was one hell of a story.”

The book—Divided Loyalties: Young Somali Americans and the Lure of Extremism—shines a light on a group of men in Minneapolis who, in their late teens and early 20s, attempted to join ISIS in Syria. They were arrested while still in the United States; in 2016, nine were sentenced to federal prison in connection with the plot.

In seeking to understand their attraction to ISIS, Weber tells a larger story beyond the headlines of an immigrant community struggling to succeed in the American heartland but hampered by poverty, cultural barriers, and isolation and alienation among some of its youth.

“You have to have sympathy and admiration for what they are up against,” Weber says of the Somali-American community. “And when you look at the second generation, they don’t know who they are or where they fit. They feel marooned.”

That made them easy prey for ISIS recruiters, who used slick, well-produced videos to portray their group as righteous warriors fighting oppressive forces in the West and the Middle East.

Weber spent three years researching the story, attending the young men’s trials, interviewing community members, and traveling to Africa to understand the conflicts that have plagued Somalia.

In Weber’s book, the central figure is Abdirahman Abdirashid Bashir, who contemplated joining ISIS but ended up working as an informant for the FBI, testifying against his friends.

“His story was heartbreaking and compelling,” Weber says. “He betrayed his friends, but he probably saved their lives. If they had gone to Syria, they would surely be dead.”

Weber’s focus on young people and the directions they take in their lives extends to his teaching, which he came to after a career in news.

The New Jersey native was bitten by the journalism bug early, watching the old Superman TV show. He stepped up his game at Rutgers, where he majored in English and worked at The Home News. The literary scholar Paul Fussell was a major influence.

“Fussell taught 18th-century literature, which is about spareness of expression, simplicity, and clarity,” Weber says. “No paper could be longer than a single page. That forced you to write economically.”

Weber received his master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and was a journalist for more than three decades, including 22 years at BusinessWeek, where he became chief of correspondents. He is now the Jerry and Karla Huse Professor of News-Editorial and an associate professor of journalism at UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

“I like the idea of launching kids,” Weber says of his students. “I was very fortunate to have mentors at Rutgers and Columbia who made a big difference for me. If I could serve that purpose in a kid’s life, then I have done my job.”