WASHINGTON // Top counterterrorism officials are investigating several cases of young Somali-Americans apparently recruited from the United States to join an Islamist group in Somalia that has links to al Qa'eda. At a hearing on Capitol Hill this week, Philip Mudd, associate director of the FBI's national security branch, said he believed the recruitment of young men - many from the state of Minnesota - to the radical al Shabaab militant group has involved "tens" of people.
The number "sounds small but it's significant," he told the Senate homeland security committee. "Every terrorist is someone who can potentially throw a grenade into a shopping mall." But Mr Mudd stressed it is unclear what kind of threat the US recruits may pose to the United States or whether they intend to return to carry out a terror attack. Among the men believed to have been recruited from the Minneapolis area is Shirwa Ahmed, a 27-year-old college student who killed himself and over 30 other people in a suicide blast in Somalia last year, counterterrorism officials said. Since then, several other young Minnesotans have suddenly disappeared and resurfaced in Somalia, often to the shock of their immigrant families.
Another is Burhan Hassan, 17, an "A" high school student who was taking college-level classes and had ambitions of going to Harvard University, according to Burhan's uncle, Osman Ahmed, who testified at the hearing on Wednesday. "The Somali-American kids were not troubled kids or gangs. They were the hope of the Somali-American community," Mr Ahmed said, adding that his family was "stunned" when Burhan disappeared last November.
"That, to us, sounded strange," he said. The FBI is investigating similar cases in San Diego, Boston, Seattle, Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Maine. Al Shabaab has been listed by the United States as a terrorist organisation since last year. The group, which controls parts of Somalia from the Kenyan border to the outskirts of Mogadishu, rose to prominence fighting Ethiopian forces that invaded Somalia in 2006. It has since been involved in attacks on African Union peacekeepers and foreign aid workers, experts said, though some speculate its power may diminish following the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops in January.
Terrorism experts said al Shabaab has proven ties with al Qa'eda, including sheltering those responsible for the attacks on US embassies, and many believe the Somali group will eventually merge with the worldwide terrorism network. Last month, Ayman al Zawahiri, second in command of al Qa'eda, said the gains made by al Shabaab were a "step on the path of victory of Islam". Still, whatever links exists between al Shabaab and al Qa'eda to this point are for propaganda purposes, experts at the Senate hearing said. The groups do not share operational ties and may not even have the same goals. Al Shabaab's is seen as having primarily nationalistic aims that are much narrower than Osama bin Laden's "global jihad".
Officials said it is not clear why well-educated Somali-Americans would suddenly head to the Horn of Africa to join al Shabaab. Andrew Liepman, deputy director of Intelligence at the National Counterterrorism Center, cited a particularly tough road for young Somali-Americans adapting to life in the United States, where they face "linguistic isolation" and are often forced into low-paying and unfulfilling jobs.
"Among Somali-Americans, the refugee experience of fleeing a war-torn country combined with isolation, perceived discrimination, marginalisation and frustrated expectations, as well local criminal familial and clan dynamics, make some men from this community more susceptible to this sort of extremist influence," he said. Mr Liepman and Mr Mudd agreed that some sort of role model or "spiritual sanctioner" played a part in radicalising these young men, though no one has been identified and it is unclear where such an influence came from. Authorities have questioned the leaders of some mosques in the Somali community of Minneapolis. The two experts said looking at extremist websites could play a part, but this alone would not turn a normal citizen into a jihadist. "It is the result of a number of factors that come together when a dynamic, influential, extremist leader gains access to a despondent disenfranchised group of young men," Mr Liepman said.
There have been only a few known cases of American civilians turning up on foreign battlefields. John Walker Lindh, a 20-year old from California, was discovered in 2001 among ranks of the Taliban. Three Ohio men were convicted last year for plotting to kill US soldiers in Iraq, though they never made it there. Experts said the conditions for home-grown terrorism are far worse in Europe, where millions of young and disenfranchised immigrants live on the fringes of society.
Still, the recent alleged recruitments by al Shabaab has caught the attention of several US senators. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut and chair of the homeland security committee, said it is "the most significant case of home-grown terrorism recruiting, based on violent Islamist ideology". "The problem, though it may be less severe here in America, is here, and that is what I think is jarring," Mr Lieberman said.
Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, said foreign-trained extremists holding US passports "clearly pose a threat to the security of our country". Shirwa Ahmed, the suicide bomber, was a naturalised US citizen who moved to Minneapolis in 1996. When news spread that he was involved in co-ordinated blasts about 800km north of Mogadishu, people who knew him were "shocked and angry", said Abdirahman Mukhtar, a former classmate of Ahmed's and a youth programme manager in Minneapolis.
"It goes against Somali culture and it is also inherently anti-Islamic," Mr Mukhtar said in his testimony, adding that he has not met any recruiters in his Minneapolis community. "Somalis are not convinced that it happened because the idea seems too far out of people's comprehension." email@example.com