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.
Al-Shabaab's ranks may also diminish now that an Islamist government has replaced a U.S.-backed Ethiopian occupation in Somalia. "It's very difficult to see how launching an attack using a sleeper cell in the United States would in any way serve their interests," said Kenneth J. Menkhaus, a political scientist at Davidson College who specializes in East Africa.
The FBI investigation of Ahmed's death may help determine how broad the problem is. The coordinated bombings in two cities about 500 miles north of Mogadishu represented "a qualitative leap" of terrorist capabilities and were probably the work of al-Shabaab, according to a United Nations monitoring group. In February 2008, the State Department designated al-Shabaab a terrorist group.
Little has been said publicly about Ahmed, a naturalized citizen who reportedly moved to Minneapolis in 1996 and graduated from high school there. As accounts of his death spread, distraught Somali American families came forward in Minneapolis, alleging that the first young man left a year ago, then eight more on Aug. 1, followed by seven on Election Day. Four families spoke out publicly, and U.S. authorities confirmed the names of Burhan Hassan, 17, and Mustafa Ali, 17, high school seniors who families said attended the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center mosque.
Relatives tell similar stories. Hassan was a bookworm who wanted to become a doctor or a lawyer and spent time after school and on weekends at the mosque, Minnesota's largest, which Ali also attended, said Osman Ahmed, 43, Hassan's cousin. Two 19-year-olds were studying medicine and engineering at the University of Minnesota, but they became antisocial, speaking and eating less as they grew more devout, Ahmed said.
Hassan had no job and no money, but when he did not come home Nov. 4, his family discovered that his passport, laptop computer and cellphone were gone, and they found paperwork for nearly $2,000 in airfare, Ahmed said. He said Universal Travel, a nearby travel agency, had said an adult claiming to be a parent paid for tickets for several youths.
"We believe a minority group are recruiting these kids and brainwashing them and financing and arranging the travel," Ahmed said. "Those who are recruiting kids here can harm us here."
He said the young men periodically call their relatives, who say they repeat terse, scripted statements that they are safe and in Somalia studying, but nothing more.
Somalis as a whole may be vulnerable to radical appeals because their home country has been torn by two decades of political strife and they are among the youngest, poorest and newest immigrants to the United States. According to a U.S. census report, nearly 60 percent of Somali immigrants arrived since 2000; their average age is 26.8 years; and 51 percent live in poverty, with a median household income of $21,461, compared with the national median of $61,173.
Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in Minnesota, said the group first alerted the local FBI a year ago, when family members believed Sakaria Sharif Macruf had left and been killed fighting in Somalia. He later turned up alive but with al-Shabaab in Kismaayo, a city in southern Somalia under the group's control, Ahmed said.
Jamal said U.S. government policies since 9/11 helped push alienated youths toward radicals.
"You have high rates of young guys unemployed. You have a high rate of dropouts. They're difficult to integrate and work into the mainstream." He said religious extremists worked with youths and "gave them hope in their lives -- then indoctrinated them into this violent, radical ideology."
Mahir Sherif, a lawyer for the mosque, said its imam, Abdirahman Ahmed, and a youth coordinator were barred from flying last winter by U.S. authorities in connection with the investigation. But Sherif said there is no evidence that mosque leaders recruited, financed or facilitated young men to go to Somalia and accused Jamal and his allies of acting out of hatred for the Muslim religious establishment.
The Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center "does not engage in political activities, has not and will not recruit for any political cause and never will be in support of terrorist philosophy or acts," Sherif said, adding: "The center unequivocally condemns suicide bombings and all acts of indiscriminate violence."
E.K. Wilson, a spokesman for the FBI in Minneapolis, declined to comment on the probe but said: "We're aware some of these young kids have traveled to the Horn of Africa to train, possibly to fight, with terrorist groups. We're trying to expand our outreach effort in the Somali American community here in Minneapolis to cover a broader base of the population here."
Earlier last year, Ruben Shumpert, an African American convert to Islam from Seattle, was killed in a U.S.-supported rocket attack near Mogadishu after he fled to Somalia in part to avoid prison after pleading guilty to gun and counterfeiting charges in the United States.
Another man, Boston native Daniel J. Maldonado, now 30, became in February 2007 the first American to be charged with a crime for joining Islamist extremist fighters in Somalia. Maldonado moved to Texas, changed his name to Daniel Aljughaifi and traveled to Africa in 2005, according to government court filings. He was captured by Kenyan soldiers in 2007 and returned to the United States, where he is serving a 10-year prison term.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.