By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009
The suspected involvement of a young Seattle man in a suicide bombing last month has refocused attention on the recruitment of Somali Americans by Islamist extremists in Somalia and the growing role of al-Qaeda, U.S. counterterrorism officials said.
The FBI is investigating whether the American took part in a Sept. 17 twin truck bombing in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, which killed 21 people at an African Union peacekeeping base, law enforcement officials said. If confirmed, he would be the second U.S. citizen in the past year to have become a suicide bomber and at least the seventh radicalized U.S. youth to die after joining al-Shabab, an insurgent group seeking to topple Somalia's weak government, U.S. relatives and Somali activists said.
Overall, Shabab has sent dozens of Somali Americans and Muslim American converts through training conducted by elements of al-Qaeda's Pakistan-based terrorist network, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael E. Leiter said last week.
Although al-Qaeda itself is under more pressure than at any time since 2001, the threat from affiliated groups such as Shabab is growing, said Leiter and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. In particular, such groups are providing al-Qaeda a pipeline of American and European fighters whose passports would make it easier for them to travel undetected and potentially attack Western targets, current and former U.S. officials said.
"The role of returning foreign fighters to the United States changes the nature of the threat to the homeland," Mueller said in written testimony last week to a Senate hearing into the evolving terrorist threat inside the United States.
Leiter's statement singled out Shabab and Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group accused in the commando-style attack on Mumbai in November that killed more than 170 people. The latter "could pose a direct threat" inside the United States, particularly in collusion with al-Qaeda, although its focus has been on India and Afghanistan, Leiter said in written testimony.
Although Shabab has not launched attacks outside Somalia, al-Qaeda operatives might "commission" a U.S. strike, American officials said. They note that people trained in Somalia have been traced to several international plots, including one that Australia's police in August said was aimed at an army base there.
In the most striking recent revelation, U.S. officials confirmed that they think a key trainer of Somali American youths was Saleh Ali Nabhan, 30, a wanted Shabab leader and liaison to al-Qaeda in Pakistan who was killed in a U.S. commando-style helicopter raid Sept. 14.
Nabhan was sought by the FBI in the bombing of an Israeli hotel in Kenya and the attempted downing of an Israeli airliner in 2002, as well as his role in the 1998 al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Shabab spokesmen said the A.U. bombing last month was in retaliation for Nabhan's killing. Shabab released a video Sept. 20 pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and featuring a new, young American spokesman, according to private firms that monitor Islamist Web sites. The 49-minute video, titled, "At Your Service, O Usama," contained footage of a Somali training camp and showcased Omar Hammami, 25, a former University of South Alabama student.
"Any connection you have between American recruits and al-Qaeda trainers -- real senior, accomplished people like Nabhan -- that raises a lot of concerns," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said last week.
"It's hard to tell where Shabab ends and al-Qaeda in East Africa begins. That's how closely the two are linked," another U.S. counterterrorism official said, adding that both "are intent on stepping up their terrorist activity in East Africa. . . . It's critical that we and our allies keep a close eye on them."
Abdirahman Warsame, a Bellevue, Wash., activist who runs the Terror Free Somalia Foundation, disclosed that he had spoken with the parents of an "Omar Mohamud" in Seattle whom federal agents are investigating on suspicion of involvement in the Mogadishu attack. FBI agents collected DNA samples from the parents, Warsame said. The bureau declined to comment about the investigation.
Several U.S. officials said it could take another week to confirm whether the man participated in the bombing. Witnesses said the bombers spoke English and drove two trucks with U.N. markings into the A.U. compound.
A nearly year-old FBI investigation into Somali American terrorism recruits is ongoing and "on track," said bureau spokesman E.K. Wilson. The investigation follows the departure of dozens of Somali American and other Muslim teenagers from Minneapolis, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio, as well as other areas, who law enforcement officials suspect were recruited to go to Somalia.
The FBI previously confirmed the death of Shirwa Ahmed, 27, a college student from Minneapolis, in a suicide bombing last October. Since then, U.S. relatives have reported the deaths of Burhan Hassan, 18; Jamal Bana, 20; Zakaria Maruf, 30; Mohamoud Hassan, 23; and Troy Kastigar, 28. Another man, Ruben Shumpert, an African American convert to Islam from Seattle, was killed in a U.S.-supported rocket attack.
The Justice Department disclosed this summer that three U.S. citizens -- Kamal Said Hassan and Salah Osman Ahmed of Minnesota and Abdifatah Yusuf Isse of Seattle -- have pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges and await sentencing in this country after cooperating with investigators regarding their training in Somalia and Yemen.
Overall, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said, "we've measured the numbers of Somali Americans that go back to Somalia to fight in the dozens."
By comparison, the number of Americans of Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi or other descent who have gone overseas for training with groups related to al-Qaeda is "an order of magnitude smaller . . . in the handfuls," the official said.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.