Somali Americans Recruited by Extremists

By Spencer S. Hsu and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Senior U.S. counterterrorism officials are stepping up warnings that Islamist extremists in Somalia are radicalizing Americans to their cause, citing their recruitment of the first U.S. citizen suicide bomber and their potential role in the disappearance of more than a dozen Somali American youths.

In recent public statements, the director of national intelligence and the leaders of the FBI and CIA have cited the case of Shirwa Ahmed, a 27-year-old college student from Minneapolis who blew himself up in Somalia on Oct. 29 in one of five simultaneous bombings attributed to al-Shabaab, a group with close links to al-Qaeda.

Since November, the FBI has raced to uncover any ties to foreign extremist networks in the unexpected departures of numerous Somali American teenagers and young men, who family members believe are in Somalia. The investigation is active in Boston; San Diego; Seattle; Columbus, Ohio; and Portland, Maine, a U.S. law enforcement official said, and community members say federal grand juries have issued subpoenas in Minneapolis and elsewhere.

Officials are still trying to assess the scope of the problem but say reports so far do not warrant a major concern about a terrorist threat within the United States. But intelligence officials said the recruitment of U.S. citizens by terrorist groups is particularly worrisome because their American passports could make it easier for them to reenter the country.

Al-Shabaab -- meaning "the youth" or "young guys" in Arabic -- "presents U.S. authorities with the most serious evidence to date of a 'homegrown' terrorist recruitment problem right in the American heartland," Georgetown University professor Bruce R. Hoffman says in a forthcoming report by the SITE Intelligence Group, a private firm that monitors Islamist Web sites.

The extent of al-Shabaab's reach into the U.S. Somali community, estimated at up to 200,000 foreign-born residents and their relatives, will be the subject of a hearing today by the Senate homeland security committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.).

U.S. officials give varying assessments of the problem. On Feb. 25, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told reporters that the relationship between Somalis in the United States and in Somalia "raises real concerns about the potential for terrorist activity" and "constitutes a potential threat to the security of this country."

Two days later, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III appeared to play down the concern, calling Ahmed "just one manifestation of a problem" since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, of young men in the United States being recruited to fight with terrorists overseas. Federal authorities have investigated cases of U.S. fighters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.

Mueller added in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations: "We certainly believe that [Ahmed] was recruited here in the United States, and we do believe that there may have been others that have been radicalized as well."

Overall, U.S. intelligence officials assess that "homegrown" extremists are not as numerous, active or skilled here as they are in Europe, but authorities remain focused on what Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair called the "likelihood that a small but violent number of cells may develop here."

Domestic radicalization has been a greater concern in Europe than in the United States, whose economic mobility, assimilative culture and historic openness to immigrants have provided some insulation, U.S. officials suggest. In the year before the 2005 London transit attack, Britain in particular struggled with reports that al-Qaeda was secretly recruiting Muslims at British universities and that up to 3,000 Britons had returned over a decade from the terrorist group's camps.

U.S. authorities have been wary of stereotyping Somalis or overstating concerns, with Mueller recently comparing the situation to that in Ireland, another country with civil strife, terrorism and a large immigrant community in the United States but little violence here.

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