By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Federal authorities unsealed terrorism-related charges against eight men Monday, accusing them of recruiting at least 20 young Somali Americans from Minnesota to join an extremist Islamist insurgency in Somalia.
The newly named suspects make up one of the largest alleged terrorist networks in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, analysts said. Assistant Attorney General David S. Kris said the government continues to investigate the alleged recruitment, and sources indicated that FBI and grand jury inquiries are active in San Diego, Boston and Columbus, Ohio, into the disappearance abroad of dozens of Muslim Americans since 2007.
The charges cap a year-long FBI investigation into the departures, most of them among men of Somali descent in their teens and 20s, to join al-Shabab, an extremist group with ties to al-Qaeda.
Al-Shabab opposes Somalia's weak but internationally supported government and seeks instead a fundamentalist Islamic state under sharia law. It has attacked Ethiopian and African Union troops, targeted neighboring countries, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and used al-Qaeda operatives to train American recruits, U.S. officials said. The State Department listed al-Shabab as a terrorist group last year.
American officials said they worry that al-Qaeda operatives might "commission" a U.S. strike using al-Shabab's pipeline of American and European fighters, whose passports would make it easier for them to travel undetected, although officials have said they see no sign yet of such a threat.
Among those charged Monday was Mahamud Said Omar, a U.S. permanent resident arrested two weeks ago in the Netherlands. Omar paid for airfare and AK-47 assault rifles for several of the youths to join al-Shabab, officials said Monday at a news conference in Minneapolis. U.S. officials requested the arrest and seek his extradition.
Officials also announced charges against seven other men, all outside the United States and not in custody. They include Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax and Abdiweli Yassin Isse, who were formally charged Oct. 9, one day after they told a U.S. border agent that they were headed from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico.
According to an FBI affidavit, Faarax and Isse conspired to recruit and pay for six Somali American youths to go abroad in December 2007, including Shirwa Ahmed, 27, a college student from Minneapolis. He blew himself up in one of five simultaneous attacks that killed 22 U.N. aid workers and others in Somalia in October 2008, Special Agent Michael N. Cannizzaro wrote in the affidavit.
The group of six included three cooperating witnesses who pleaded guilty on related charges this year, according to court documents. They were among a separate group of six Somali Americans who were previously charged.
Faarax told the group of recruits "that he experienced true brotherhood while fighting in Somalia and that travel for jihad was the best thing that they could do," the agent wrote. Faarax told the young men that they would get to shoot guns and that "traveling to Somalia to fight jihad will be fun, and not to be afraid," Cannizzaro wrote.
Also charged with conspiracy to support terrorism and to kill outside the United States were Ahmed Ali Omar, Khalid Mohamud Abshir, Zakaria Maruf, Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan and Mustafa Ali Salat, according to grand jury indictments that were unsealed. The men -- all U.S. permanent residents who left for Somalia between December 2007 and August 2008 -- were also charged with firearms charges and solicitation to commit violent crime.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst at Georgetown University, noted that the charging documents mention only recruits from Minneapolis and refer only glancingly to al-Shabab's links to al-Qaeda.
Court documents unsealed Monday say the group that left Minnesota in December 2007 purportedly went to training camps in southern Somalia, where the young men met dozens of other Somali youths from the United States and other countries. They received military-style training in using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades from Somali, Arab and Western instructors, the documents state.
U.S. officials said this fall that one key trainer included Saleh Ali Nabhan, 30, a liaison to al-Qaeda in Pakistan who was wanted for his role in the 1998 attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa. He was killed in a U.S. helicopter raid Sept. 14. In documents released Monday, U.S. officials said recruits were purportedly "indoctrinated with anti-Ethiopian, anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Western beliefs."
One long-term concern will be what returning fighters do with their training, analysts said.
"We still don't know how deep this well is," Hoffman said. "Initially, it was described as people going over purely for patriotic motives, but now we're seeing there is much more of a core jihad curriculum."
Since the departures, U.S. officials have reached out to the Somali American community, estimated at up to 200,000 foreign-born residents and their relatives. Officials are concerned that decades of political strife in Somalia and a recent influx of younger, poorer immigrants could make them vulnerable to radical appeals.
Officials praised the cooperation they have received in their investigation of al-Shabab.
"The sole focus of our efforts in this matter has been the criminal conduct of a small number of mainly Somali American individuals and not the broader Somali American community itself, which has consistently expressed deep concern about this pattern of recruitment activity in support of al-Shabab," said Ralph S. Boelter, special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis field office.
"The sad reality is that the vibrant Somali community here in Minneapolis has lost many of its sons to fighting in Somalia," said U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones. "These young men have been recruited to fight in a foreign war by individuals and groups using violence against government troops and civilians."